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1909 Cinematograph Act

A law designed to make cinemas safer which also introduced film censorship

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Just over a decade after the first film screenings in Britain, the Government introduced the first legislation specifically covering cinemas. The 1909 Cinematograph Act brought cinemas under local authority control and required them to be licensed.

The Act was designed to regulate public screenings of films and to ensure that cinemas were in a suitable physical state to screen films safely. The Act was created in the first place because highly unstable nitrate film stock had caused several serious fires.

However, the Act had unforeseen consequences in that many local authorities stretched the definition of "inflammable films" to cover not just their physical nature but also the images they contained.

Although there is nothing in the Act that specifically mentions the content of films, local authorities seized on the suitably vague phrase "such persons as they think fit" to launch a crackdown on controversial films by threatening cinema owners with the loss of their licenses even if they had otherwise fully complied with the Act's requirements.

To make matters more complicated, because the Act did not mention the content of films, local authorities took it upon themselves to establish individual guidelines - with the result that material permissible in one region might well be censored in another.

Unsurprisingly, this posed a major dilemma for the still relatively new film industry, which led to a joint committee of the Kinematograph Manufacturers Association and the Cinematograph Exhibitors Association founding the British Board of Film Censors in 1912 to act as a bridge between their interests and local government, and to establish a nationwide set of standards.

Although local authorities still technically had the final say, in the vast majority of cases they were happy to accept the BBFC's verdict - and this arrangement remains essentially the same nearly a century later.

Michael Brooke

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