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Local Government and Film Censorship

How local authorities control what we see in cinemas

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Although the British Board of Film Classification has complete control over video censorship, it has far fewer powers with regard to theatrical releases.

Here, the Board's status is that of an expert witness, whereby it recommends classifications (and, if necessary, cuts) to local authorities, who are ultimately responsible for what gets shown in their cinemas.

Although local authorities are usually happy to accept the BBFC's verdict, it has occasionally been overruled. Most commonly, this takes the form of local reclassifications: Mrs Doubtfire (US, 1994, d. Chris Columbus) and Spider-Man (US, 2002, d. Sam Raimi) had their 12 certificates downgraded to PG, while Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979, d. Terry Jones) had its AA certificate upgraded to an adults-only X in certain areas.

Some films have even been banned by local authorities despite BBFC approval - titles include The Devils (1971, d. Ken Russell), A Clockwork Orange (1971, d. Stanley Kubrick), Life of Brian, The Last Temptation of Christ (US, 1988, d. Martin Scorsese and, most notoriously, Crash (Canada, 1996, d. David Cronenberg). But because these decisions are taken at a local level, such bans are rarely effective - Westminster's ban on Crash was undermined by cinemas in neighbouring Camden being free to show it.

Local authorities can also permit screenings of uncertificated films. This is vital in the case of film festivals, which usually screen titles that have not received British distribution and which have therefore not been examined by the BBFC.

It is also possible for films cut or even rejected by the BBFC to be shown uncut with the relevant local authority's permission. It may seem surprising that former BBFC Secretary John Trevelyan encouraged this practice, but he wanted to stimulate debate at a time of rapidly social change by letting the public see what the fuss was about.

Michael Brooke

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