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Last Tango in Paris

The private prosecution of Bernardo Bertolucci's notorious sex shocker

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Following the controversy that engulfed the British Board of Film Censors in 1971 and early 1972, it was predicted some months before it opened that its next major headache would be Last Tango in Paris (France/Italy, 1972, d. Bernardo Bertolucci), a film whose sexual frankness broke new barriers for mainstream cinema.

Given the lurid descriptions of the film that appeared regularly in the British press from late 1972 onwards, it seemed somewhat surprising that the BBFC was prepared to pass it with just one small cut (which was quietly restored a few years later), and between that decision and the film's release the Board was attacked on all sides for its leniency.

The Festival of Light, a pro-censorship pressure group, started a concerted campaign to prevent the film reaching British cinema screens, circulating copies of the script to MPs and writing to local authorities - with considerable success, since several dozen banned it.

But the Greater London Council was not among them, which made the campaign much less effective than it might otherwise have been, and the generally good reviews that greeted the film when it opened gave the film's supporters plenty of ammunition.

However, the Festival of Light hadn't given up. In January 1974, a member of its executive committee, Edward Shackleton, took out a private prosecution against United Artists, the film's distributor. This was a major milestone in British film censorship, since it was the first time that a film with a BBFC certificate had been prosecuted, and had the case been successful it would have had far-reaching implications for the Board's authority.

Although the case was taken seriously enough to get as far as the Old Bailey and be heard by the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, it ultimately failed because the Obscene Publications Act did not then apply to film.

Michael Brooke

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