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Video Nasties, Draconian Days and censorship’s living history

First published by Film Divider

“How little historical memory we have! The next time there’s a panic, we won’t remember how stupid the last one was, and how people got away with things. Critical voices have to care about history.”

The speaker is Martin Barker, an academic who, in the midst of the moral panic over so-called ‘video nasties’ in the 1980s, became a lone voice of reason, moderation and common sense, and was publicly vilified for it at the time by pundits and politicians alike.

Now, though, in Jake West‘s documentary diptych Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape (2010) and Video Nasties: Draconian Days (2014), Barker is celebrated as a hero and, more importantly, allowed to state his case without being constantly interrupted. The words cited above form a bridge between the two films, appearing at the end of the first and requoted at the beginning of the second – and while West’s focus is the period from the introduction of home video in 1979 to the end of James Ferman’s directorship of the British Board of Film Censorship Classification in 1999, these films contain valuable lessons for all times, including our own.

The BBFC has come a long way in the new millennium, releasing uncut for the first time (and mere months after Ferman’s resignation) long-banned titles like The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and generally preferring to impose age ratings than outright vetos. Yet even when Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape had its world premiere at FrightFest 2010, the same festival had to withdraw from its programme Srdjan Spasojevic‘s shocking state-of-the-nation allegory A Serbian Film (2010) after the BBFC refused to pass it in anything but a heavily mutilated form.

And now, in the year that the second Video Nasties documentary is released, the BBFC has – without rhyme, reason or even a hint of consistency – miraculously agreed to pass Jörg Buttgereit‘s notoriously strong (and blackly funny) Nekromantik (1988) with not a single cut to all the (fake) corpse fucking and (real) animal killing, while bizarrely insisting that a suicide scene from the beginning of Axelle Carolyn‘s sensitive supernatural romance Soulmate be removed for its DVD release.

When it comes to censorship, there are always new battle lines being drawn – and of course the general public is inevitably kept from its duty of vigilance when it is forbidden to watch the evidence in question.

West’s first documentary goes back to the wild-west days when VHS and Betamax players first entered Britain, and all manner of films were suddenly available, unexpurgated and unregulated, to be viewed in the home, even when they might never have been permitted to be seen in British cinemas, which were then the sole purview of the BBFC’s activities. Video proved a very popular medium, and in a nascent industry of small, fly-by-night distributors, the most sensational, lurid titles (and sleeve art) tended to win the most customers – and so, for a brief period in this country’s history, horror and extreme cinema were able to flourish.

This is until a panic ensued, fuelled by sensation-seeking tabloids, god-bothering moralists, overzealous coppers and pig-ignorant politicians. Working with the police, the Director of Public Prosecutions made up an ever-changing list of ‘nasty’ video titles deemed prosecutable, or at least potentially prosecutable, under the Obscene Publications Act 1964. Suddenly anything that might be judged as ‘tending to corrupt or deprave persons’ – a notoriously tricky and subjective criterion – was fair game for banning.

Raids began, tapes were seized, distributors were fined, even jailed, and as ‘video nasties’ became a convenient scapegoat for every social and moral ill that the nation was facing in the divisive Thatcher years, Conservative MP Graham Bright, armed with trumped-up research on the supposedly deleterious effect of video nasties on young viewers, introduced a private member’s bill which, with cross-party support, would lead to the Video Recordings Act 1984, requiring the classification of all videos. As contributor Stephen Thrower puts it, politicians who “had no cineliteracy at all, no feeling for genre, and certainly no feeling for civil liberties, were suddenly in a position to march into your life and spoil something that you’d only just started to enjoy.”

Video Nasties: Draconian Days picks up the story in 1995, when the VRA came into force. By focusing on the complex, contradictory character of Ferman himself, all at once a filmmaker manqué, a control freak, a genuine cinephile, a keen censor and an outrageous snob, this documentary serves as an exemplary parable of what happens when important decisions about what the public can and cannot view are placed in the hands of individual arbiters with idiosyncrasies, flaws and blind spots of their own.

Ferman’s blind spots included nunchakus, throwing stars, chainsaws and ‘Rambo knives’, all of which he ritualistically eradicated from films, as well as any on-screen merger of sex with violence. But he was also prey to external pressures from the red-top press which, contrary to all evidence, blamed the Hungerford massacre and the Bulger killing on video titles, including the anodyne Child’s Play 3, that Ferman’s organisation had previously passed.

In the ensuing backlash, the hands-on BBFC chief found himself backed defensively into a corner, uncharacteristically presenting the liberal case to media and MPs alike, even as he presided personally – indeed, very personally – over one of the most censorious periods that the country has ever seen.

Fans of horror, starved of genre material that had not been cut to ribbons, were driven underground for their allegedly harmful thrills, creating a criminalised community of like-minded gorehounds, many of whom have since become this nation’s best known genre filmmakers, writers and distributors, including West himself and his producer Marc Morris.

No matter what one’s views on the need or otherwise of a regulatory system for home releases, what these two documentaries demonstrate with jaw-dropping clarity is the catalogue of misconceptions, misrepresentations, malice and muddled thinking that went into creating and enforcing this era of censorship.

Bright, who to this day believes that the ‘video nasties’ are ‘evil’, is seen in library footage expressing his conviction that the films affect not just younger viewers but “dogs as well.” Self-appointed voice of the Christian moral majority, and friend of Thatcher, Mary Whitehouse is shown declaring that she has never in fact seen any of the films that she so forcefully condemns. “I actually don’t need to see, visually, what I know is in this film,” she maintains.

We meet Sir James Anderton, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester and scourge of illegal video traders, and a man who also believed, and stated, that God spoke to him directly. We hear of the notorious speech given by Ferman after a special screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at the London Film Festival, in which, in openly classist terms, he justified his ban on the film by saying it was perfectly fine for festival-going ‘middle-class cinéastes’ to witness its depravities, “but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?” What, indeed? Best of all, we learn of the discovery in 2009 that the Video Recording Act of 1984 had not, as the law required, been lodged with the European Commission, meaning that every single instance of its enforcement in the intervening decades had in fact been illegal.

West deftly juxtaposes unbelievable archive material with dry commentary from a range of commentators, including academics, BBFC examiners past and present, prominent genre figures, and a game Bright and Peter Kruger, former head of the police’s Obscene Publication Squad.

The VHS ‘tracking distortion’ that both these documentaries at times imitate may be designed to take viewers back to the domestic visual experience of the Eighties, but you do not need nostalgia to know what those cowboy days of unregulated video were like. For that, just look at the world wide web, whose content the state would no doubt also like to control and classify, if only it could afford to employ another billion or so examiners, or get away with China-style access filtering. So note well the history lesson that West’s films offer, and we might just avoid a resurgence of Draco.

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape is available now as part of Nucleus Films’ three-disc set Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide 1.

Video Nasties: Draconian Days is available from 14 July, 2014 as part of another three-disc set, Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide 2.

Anton Bitel

2 comments on “Video Nasties, Draconian Days and censorship’s living history

  1. Pingback: Season of the Banned – RantBit

  2. Pingback: FrightFest 2010 Diary: Day 5 – RantBit

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