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The Reservoir Dogs Row

How a low-budget cult thriller reignited the screen violence debate

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Cited by veteran critic Alexander Walker as the most influential film of the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino's incendiary thriller Reservoir Dogs (US, 1992) opened in British cinemas in January 1993, quickly becoming a huge critical and commercial success.

But the following month, the murder of toddler James Bulger sparked off intense debate about screen violence. Although there was no possible connection with Tarantino's film, its status as a high-profile current cinema release with a reputation for extreme violence put it in the firing line.

Shortly afterwards, the film's video distributors (PolyGram) applied for a video classification certificate from the British Board of Film Classification - an entirely routine request if it had been made only a few weeks earlier.

But instead, BBFC Director James Ferman delayed passing the film for video until he was sure that it wouldn't have repercussions for PolyGram, the BBFC or the film industry as a whole. He felt the film (which he admired) was impossible to cut - despite its reputation, virtually all the violence is implied rather than shown. To PolyGram's frustration (the 1984 Video Recordings Act prevented them releasing the video unclassified), the long-awaited certificate did not materialise until 4 May 1995.

Delaying the release of controversial films until the furore had passed was a favourite Ferman technique (other titles delayed at the same time included rape-revenge thriller Dirty Weekend (d. Michael Winner, 1992) and The Good Son (d. Joseph Ruben, 1993), with Macaulay Culkin as a disturbed, possibly homicidal child), but the publicity made it counter-productive, and distributors were increasingly unhappy. Because they usually leased films for a fixed period, classification delays affected their revenue.

As a result, Ferman's successor Robin Duval announced in 1998 that classification decisions would be reached as promptly as possible, and would no longer be delayed for political reasons.

Michael Brooke

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