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The Flesh Raid

Why the censors defended a film that they hadn't even passed

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On 3 February 1970, following a complaint from a member of the public, thirty-two policemen led by a chief inspector raided the tiny Open Space Theatre in London's Tottenham Court Road and seized a copy of Andy Warhol's film Flesh (US, d. Paul Morrissey, 1968), together with parts of the projector and screen, the membership register and the names and addresses of everyone in the audience.

Distributor Jimmy Vaughan responded by contacting John Trevelyan at the British Board of Film Censors. This may seem surprising, given that the film did not possess a BBFC certificate, but Trevelyan had privately recommended it to Vaughan for club screenings.

After visiting the theatre, Trevelyan decided to make a public protest. This escalated into a full-scale row that caused questions to be asked in the House of Commons by MPs David Kerr and Michael Foot and in the House of Lords by Lord Norwich. In New York, people who produced British passports were admitted to screenings free of charge.

On 27 February it was confirmed that there would be no prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. Trevelyan had predicted this, since he knew that the Act did not then cover films, and in any case Flesh had received such good reviews from respected critics that it would easily pass its "artistic merit" test. The theatre was, however, successfully prosecuted for selling tickets to non-members, an action that Trevelyan called "anomalous and vindictive".

The Flesh raid marked an important milestone in British film censorship in that it was the first time a British film censor had publicly taken the side of those opposed to censorship, and had done so entirely of his own free will to help establish a point of principle.

On 27 October 1970 the BBFC passed Flesh uncut with an X certificate.

Michael Brooke

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Thumbnail image of Trevelyan, John (1903-1986)Trevelyan, John (1903-1986)