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The R18 Certificate

BBFC classification designed to cover pornography

Main image of The R18 Certificate

Much like its long-defunct predecessor, the H certificate (1932-51), the British Board of Film Classification's R18 certificate was designed to cover a specific type of film - in this case, consensual adult pornography.

The BBFC defines it as follows:

To be supplied only in licensed sex shops to adults of not less than 18 years. The 'R18' category is a special and legally restricted classification primarily for explicit videos of consenting sex between adults. Such videos may be supplied to adults only in licensed sex shops, of which there are currently about 90 in the UK. 'R18' videos may not be supplied by mail order.

The R18 certificate arose from the 1979 Williams Committee report's recommendations that a new category be created to cover non-violent consensual pornography, to distinguish it from the more obviously criminal and coercive kind. This had been inspired by a 1975 French initiative, whereby pornography was shown in specially licensed cinemas that were subject to severe advertising and subsidy restrictions.

BBFC Secretary James Ferman supported the proposals, not least because he thought this would be a very effective way of increasing income at a time when cinema releases were dwindling and video did not yet come under the Board's remit.

However, the introduction of the R18 classification in 1982 coincided with a major crackdown on the sex cinema trade by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. As a result, the number of possible outlets for R18 films shrunk dramatically, to the extent that few distributors bothered submitting their product, preferring either to pre-cut it for an 18 certificate or not release it at all.

Only a handful of films (or rather videos, since sex cinemas had become virtually obsolete) were granted R18 certificates between 1982 and 1997, and in general these were heavily cut, to remove any material clearly showing unsimulated sexual arousal or contact.

But following the election of Tony Blair's New Labour government, Ferman experimentally passed some rather more explicit films, clearly featuring unsimulated sexual activity in long and medium shot. But because he took this decision without consulting the police and Customs, the Home Office strongly objected.

Ironically enough, though Ferman's successor Robin Duval reverted to the pre-1997 guidelines, by 2000 the BBFC would be forced to liberalise to a degree that effectively legalised hardcore pornography in Britain for the first time. In 1999, the Video Appeals Committee ruled that the BBFC should not have refused an R18 certificate to seven pornographic videos. The BBFC's response was to seek a judicial review, which upheld the VAC's ruling.

As a result, in late 2000 the BBFC issued radically revised guidelines for the R18 classification - and clarified matters by stating for the first time what was not permissible within the category, something distributors had been requesting for some time.

Michael Brooke

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