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Trevelyan, John (1903-1986)


Main image of Trevelyan, John (1903-1986)

During his tenure as Secretary of the British Board of Film Censors (1958-1971), John Trevelyan (1903-1986) was responsible for the most extensive liberalisation in its history. Drawing on policies introduced by Arthur Watkins, his predecessor-but-one, in which context and artistic merit were key factors when assessing a film, Trevelyan developed them to keep the BBFC abreast of unprecedentedly rapid social changes

A former teacher, Trevelyan spent twenty years working in local government as an educational administrator. He joined the BBFC in 1951 as a part-time examiner, and was promoted following the sudden departure of John Nicholls.

Although his initial decisions were conservative, his time at the BBFC was marked by a far greater willingness to reflect changing public attitudes. An admirer of adventurous European film-makers such as Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel, he was able to use their artistic reputations as justification for passing films that would have been severely cut or even banned under previous regimes, and this in turn allowed him to liberalise BBFC censorship across the board.

To help this process of testing the water, even when Trevelyan felt unable to pass a particular film that he otherwise admired, he would encourage its exhibition by private cinema clubs. Famously, he publicly defended the Open Space Theatre's screening of Flesh (US, 1968, d. Paul Morrissey) after a police raid, even though the BBFC was not involved.

By the late 1960s, extreme violence, explicit drug use, swearing, frontal nudity and even relatively graphic sex scenes had all featured in BBFC-approved films, with Trevelyan's PR skills enabling many potentially controversial decisions to slip by practically unnoticed.

Trevelyan retired in 1971 and was succeeded by Stephen Murphy. His fascinating memoirs, What the Censor Saw (Michael Joseph, 1973), are mandatory reading for anyone interested in both British film censorship and indeed British social history.

Michael Brooke

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