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The Crash Controversy

How the authorities tried (and failed) to ban a notorious Canadian film

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Between 1996 and 1997, Crash (Canada, 1996, d. David Cronenberg), based on J.G.Ballard's celebrated novel, became the focal point of one of the most hysterical furores that British film censorship had seen to date.

Although it had generated some controversy when premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1996, it was not until the first British screening at the London Film Festival in November that the film became a tabloid cause celebre, with the Daily Mail and Evening Standard in particular attacking it on a regular basis, often on the front page.

The row would become a political issue when National Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley urged local authorities to refuse to screen the film, and Westminster Council took the unprecedented step of threatening to ban it unless specific cuts were made, notably a sex scene involving a disabled woman.

This, coupled with Daily Mail critic Christopher Tookey's injudicious use of the phrase "sex with cripples", drew the disabled lobby into the fray, though they seemed more offended by comments by the council and the newspaper than by anything in the film.

The BBFC, after a long delay, passed it uncut in March 1997, after which Westminster duly banned the film, with other local authorities following suit. However, Camden and Kensington & Chelsea were happy to accept the BBFC's decision, enabling distributors Columbia TriStar to open the film in the West End. It was subsequently passed uncut for video and DVD release and screened on Channel Four in 2002.

The Crash controversy was significant for the way it publicly revealed the often conflicting structures of British film regulation, and the supremacy of local government over the BBFC and national government, neither of whom had any real powers when it came to preventing the release of a film.

Michael Brooke

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