There's a reason that the story of King Canute is so familiar. The image of a monarch vainly trying to hold back the inflowing sea resonates strongly because that is the way in which authorities in this country have always behaved. Nowhere is this clearer than in the history of official attempts to to stem the tide of (usually foreign) erotic literature and film.
In the legend, Canute was trying to make the point that, king though he was, he remained a mortal. He was demonstrating the folly of his courtiers' flattery. His successors, though, have rarely demonstrated such wisdom. No doubt because Great Britain is an island, the authorities -- politicians, police, customs officials, film censors -- have tended to behave as though it is possible to preseve the country inviolate: a censored isle set in a sinful sea. They may only have been delaying the inevitable, but it was at times a very long delay.
In the repressive 1950s, works by such authors as Henry Miller had to be printed abroad and smuggled into Brtain, where they were liable to be seized by the police. Copies of Madame Bovary and even Moll Flanders were burned on the orders of overzealous local magistrates, along with more than 30,000 "saucy" seaside postcards in 1953 alone. A new Obscene Publications Act in 1959 introduced a defence of artistic merit, famously tested the following year with the prosecution of Lady Chatterley's Lover, DH Lawrence's novel first published (in Italy) in 1928. That case is remembered as a great watershed in the history of British censorship, the moment when a new age of permissiveness dawned, or else when the floodgates opened to an unstoppable tide of pornography and moral degeneration. But it can equally be seen as one stage in a much longer struggle for control over what people in the UK were allowed to read, see and even think.
Looking back, the forces of liberalisation might seem to have prevailed. One wonders what Mervyn Griffith-Jones QC, who asked the Lady Chatterley jury whether they would want their wives or servants to read the book, would have made of Fifty Shades of Grey, to say nothing of the hardcore material that can be accessed in almost every modern home with a couple of clicks of a mouse. But the censors did not simply give up in 1960. They merely turned their attention to other things.
Offical censorship was always imposed in the name of public standards of decency, yet the British public has often been more liberal than their rulers. One of the striking features of prosecutions under the Obscene Publications Act, which are now extremely rare, has been a repeated reluctance by juries to convict. The Lady Chatterley case was thrown out. So, at the start of this year, was the attempt to convict Michael Peacock for distributing videos featuring anal fisting. It was because it became almost impossible to secure convictions, rather than any official permissiveness, that OPA prosecutions of the written word died out. (One problem, according to the late John Mortimer, who acted as defence barrister in OPA cases, is that it was difficult to find anyone who would admit to having been "depraved and corrupted" by reading a book.) As for the moving image, the British Board of Film Classification conducts regular surveys to check that its guidelines bear at least an approximate relationship to popular taste, and usually discovers that adults are less horrified by depictions of sex and nudity than they expected.
The BBFC held the line against explicit sexual imagery until the late 1990s. Thirty years after hardcore pornography became widely available in Europe it was still officially banned in Britain, even from sale in sex shops. An experiment in liberalisation was eventually given the green light by Michael Howard as Home Secretary. The theory, as the former BBFC director James Ferman told a 1998 edition of Panorama, was to "draw the line between sexual portrayals which are simply within the range of normal sexual practice and sexual portrayals which are degrading particularly bestiality or lavatorial practices or force, or violence or restraint". But, in a foretaste of the moralism that was to come, the incoming Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw called a halt, describing Ferman's attempt to distinguish standard porn fare from the extreme variety as "circular and risible".
Ironically, that is precisely what his government went on to do in its 2008 legislation against "extreme pornography", defined as anything involving animals, dead bodies or threat of "serious injury to a person's anus, breasts or genitals". The BBFC, for its part, now allows sex to be shown in "sex works" (and arthouse movies, preferably in French, intended for viewing by an elite audience of middle class film buffs) but continues to cut scenes of sexual violence and other material that it considers obscene, including fisting and urination. (In one typical case, a distributor was offered a choice between keeping the sex and removing the urination, and keeping the urination but removing the sex. They couldn't have both.)
That the forces of official censorship have moved from banning works of literature featuring rude words (or even seaside postcards) to cutting out scenes of erotic strangulation from porn videos may suggest that there has been a headlong retreat from the overt moralism of the 1950s. Now censors and proponents of censorship cite potential harm to viewers, rather than public morality, as justification for banning things. Harm, though, remains ill-defined, and British censorship remains by modern Western standards fairly strict. Last year it banned outright a US horror film The Bunny Game, citing its "strict policy on sexual violence and rape". The DVD is now on sale in the USA and in continental Europe, with "Banned in Britain" featuring strongly in the publicity material. Are British people uniquely vulnerable to such harm?
It seems that someone thinks so. The view from the Daily Mail has always been of a conspiracy by liberal elites to unleash a tide of depravity on an innocent and unwilling British populace -- with only themselves, or eccentric campaigners such as the late Mary Whitehouse, standing between ordinary people and the deluge of filth. Yet official censoriousness and desire for control has been remarkably consistent. Regulated sectors such as broadcasting and adversing still enforce standards of "decency" that are, by international standards, remarkably strict. The interent might, as yet, be beyond the censors' control. That's what makes it so frightening, and so tempting for lawmakers. But the Canutes haven't given up just yet.