Rating algorithms, horse falls and cartoon penises: the BBFC in 2015

Over a century on from its birth, the British Board of Film Classification is struggling to make its way in the digital world. 

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“The penis cartoons weren't the problem,” the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) director David Cooke tells me across a conference table in a large, wood-panelled room overlooking Soho Square. "We'd have given a 15 rating if it were just for the penis drawings."

We're here at BBFC HQ to discuss several recent events which have pushed the century-old classification board – formerly known as the British Board of Film Censors – into the news. First on the agenda is Diary of a Teenage Girl, a coming-of-age sexual memoir told from the point of view of a 15-year-old girl. The film was given an 18 certificate by the BBFC, and the film's director, Marielle Heller, plus an array of cultural commentators, slammed the decision – and criticised the (as it turns out, erroneous) fact that the film was rated by an all-male board.

For Cooke, who saw the film twice, it was a clear-cut case: aforementioned penis cartoons aside, "it wasn't borderline". "Consequence-free" drug use, plus eight sex scenes, most between protagonist Minnie and her mother's much older boyfriend, pushed it beyond the accepted content for a 15 film. 

But as Cooke tells me, the board is used to "coming under fire from both sides": those who say it is too strict, and those who accuse it of ushering Sodom and Gomorrah into the nation's playrooms. The BBFC was formed in 1912, when the burgeoning film industry decided to set up their own, independent censor before government could get there first, and since then it has delineated what children (and the public at large) should be able to see.

Censor sensibility: David Cooke, BBFC director

The board's legal jurisdiction, meanwhile is a result of a strange quirk in film history: in 1909, the government passed the Cinematograph Act, which required cinemas to have licences, in order to crack down on fires caused by overheating nitrate film in crowded, unsuitable venues. While a film must have a BBFC rating to be screened, the board is a non-governmental and non-profit body. It covers its costs by charging filmmakers a small fee to rate their films.

Current BBFC guidelines are clear-cut, and formed through a rigorous process. Since 2007, these have been set by extensive consultation with 10,000 members of the public, which Cooke describes as “a big dataset, even by OFCOM standards”. These consultations help the board know where the British public stand on sex, violence, drugs and swearing. In Diary, Cooke explains, “there are 40 ‘fucks’ – you’d get more than that in lots of 15s".

Determining the public's attitudes is a key part of the censors' job, and it’s one reason why there is, thus far, no international agreement on ratings systems. BBFC representatives meet other international censors every year, and, Cooke says, it’s always striking to notice the differences. In the sex-shy, pro-gun US, an action film may receive a more lenient rating than in the UK. France, meanwhile, is “off the charts in terms of leniency”. Germany has perhaps the most in common with British audiences, bar the occasional sense of humour failure: “They gave an episode of Little Britain a very high rating, simply because they didn’t get the joke.” 

The BBFC’s newest effort is an online ratings system, which will let creators or users of user-created content – videos uploaded to video sites like YouTube or Vimeo by amateurs – to generate a rating for their video. They, or their viewers, would be able to fill out a series of tickboxes which would then be interpreted by an algorithm to spit out one of three ratings: "teens and older", "suitable for everyone", or "adults only". The algorithm would also interpret the content in different ways, depending on your jurisdiction.

This attempt at modernisation reflects the fact that the BBFC's fortunes have risen and fallen with the status of different formats. When DVD sales began to fall in 2006, the organisation was forced to cut staff, and is now much smaller than it was ten years ago. For a while, Cooke says he felt very “gloomy” about the future. But the rise of legitimate digital services like Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Prime could hold potential for the censors. While online-first content producers aren't legally obliged to seek classification, Netflix brings its Netflix Originals content to the BBFC anyway. 

These attempts to fit ratings into a digital world come out of necessity – “we were worried about our future” –  but are also inspired by a hunch, which Cooke says will be confirmed by a study to be released this autumn, that parents trust BBFC ratings and want to see them on digital content. “In a multichannel world, the public is more keen, not less, for trusted guidance”. 

Yet as content moves online, legislators aren’t quite sure how to limit or rate it. As it stands, the UK government is leaning towards an opt-in system for online content. The recent government decision to make permanent a pilot music video ratings system came under fire as it would only cover UK-made videos from participating record labels. But in fact, this fits in with the BBFC’s stance on digital material: they’re happy to advise, but want to steer clear of enforcement. Ratings online will be intended as a guide for parents, rather than a lock-out mechanism. 

The stance of the board has changed over time, via a period of intense script-vetting and censoring during World War II, and its name change in 1984 from a board of "censorship" to one of “classification”. Now, it views itself as relatively hands-off and flexible. On Diary of a Teenage Girl, Cooke pushes back against the accusation that the 18 certificate implied a misunderstanding of the film’s empowering message about female sexuality. “The last thing we’d do is claim to offer a definitive interpretation of a film.”

Meanwhile, the board is happy to cooperate with the film industry on ratings. If Marielle Heller, director of the film, had come to the BBFC with a first cut of the film, the board would have been able to tell her what to do to earn the film a 15 rating. Some directors, of course, are more interested in this than others: "Some filmmakers come to us and say 'Just tell us what it takes to get it to 12A, and we'll do it'.”

Some films must be edited to earn any rating (and therefore any chance of sales or screening) at all. Cooke tells me of one case where a young man (played by an underage actor) is seen having sex with a much older woman in a film. Cooke took legal advice, which concluded that he could not allow the film to be released. “Directors have various ways to make films acceptable – now, there’s all sorts of CGI wizardry they can use. But the director, who was a bit eccentric, just took to the film with a coin and scratched enough away to make the scene acceptable.” 

The same is true of films featuring animal cruelty. Various old Hollywood Westerns, for example, have to be cut to earn an updated classification (also an important part of the BBFC's business), as they feature “horse falls” that have not been filmed humanely. Interestingly, the Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar gets away with cockfights in his films as he uses “found footage” from older films, which is not classified in the same way by the BBFC.

Cooke is due to stand down in March after 11 years at the BBFC, but claims this is because the job is “too much fun” – without a deadline, he could be tempted to stay forever. Will retirement come as a welcome respite from endless film viewings? “Not at all. I go to the cinema most weekends. I can imagine that being a chef could put you off food for life, but this job could never put me off watching films.”

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.