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Ferman, James (1930-2002)

Censor, Director

Main image of Ferman, James (1930-2002)

Probably the most controversial Director of the British Board of Film Classification, a post he held from 1975 to 1999, James Ferman was a complex, contradictory figure, both liberal and reactionary, open and secretive, who at times seemed to run the BBFC (which expanded massively in size, scope and remit during his tenure) as a private fiefdom with him assuming the unelected role of national arbiter of film taste.

Although in appearance and manner he came across as an urbane British civil servant, Ferman was in fact a native New Yorker, born on 11 April 1930, who first came to Britain when doing national service in the US Air Force. A Cambridge degree followed, and he spent the mid-1950s writing and acting before training as a television director on ATV's Armchair Theatre under the influential Sydney Newman. He would spend the next decade as a freelance television director of both drama and documentary, at one point experiencing censorship at the sharp end when a programme about religious tolerance, The Freedom to Worship (1961), was initially banned and then heavily cut by the Northern Ireland branch of the Independent Television Authority.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, his films would show an increasing interest in social concerns, particularly the five-part series Drugs and Schoolchildren, aimed at teachers and social workers. Invited by the Polytechnic of Central London to teach a course on the subject, he became a part-time community studies lecturer, and an education adviser to the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse.

All of which made Ferman arguably the best-qualified Secretary (as the job was then titled) that the British Board of Film Censors (as it was then known) had seen up to then. He succeeded Stephen Murphy, whose four-year tenure had been an exceptionally uncomfortable one thanks to it coinciding with a dramatic increase in films exploiting the extremes of sex and violence. It was widely recognised that Murphy's relative lack of PR skills were part of the problem, which created the impression that the Board was out of control, too concerned with protecting the film industry (its sole source of income) to take any heed of public concerns.

Ferman saw his primary role as mediator between the interests of the film industry, the government and the public. One of his first acts was to issue a monthly bulletin to local authorities, detailing exactly what was being cut or passed in films. Interest in the bulletin was initially high, and the industry was nervous that it would make local authorities pay closer attention to what their cinemas were screening, but Ferman had calculated that by making the BBFC's job seem tedious and bureaucratic, they would rapidly lose interest. When subscriptions to the bulletin fell sharply, Ferman quietly discontinued it in 1978.

His second important decision was to lobby the government to bring film within the remit of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, correctly surmising that this would make it much harder to bring about a successful obscenity prosecution of a film with genuine artistic merit. This was a subject of considerable concern to Ferman, especially following the conviction of the distributors of More About the Language of Love for indecency. Although this film had not been passed by the BBFC, it had been granted an X certificate by the Greater London Council, and Ferman believed that without the legal protection of the OPA the next such conviction might involve a BBFC-approved film, which would have a cataclysmic impact on the Board's authority. While the OPA was indeed extended to cover film in 1977, the next piece of content-related legislation, the 1978 Protection of Children Act, posed difficulties for the BBFC in that it explicitly ruled out context providing a legal defence, forcing a reluctant Ferman to cut distinguished films such as Pretty Baby (US, d. Louis Malle, 1978) and The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel, West Germany, d. Volker Schlöndorff, 1979).

Ferman's biggest headache at the time would eventually become his greatest opportunity. Throughout the mid-to-late 1970s, an increasing number of films were made which featured extreme sexual violence, usually aimed against women. Ferman had particularly strong views on this, even to the extent of recalling and cutting earlier BBFC-approved films such as Emmanuelle (France, d. Just Jaeckin, 1974), and he made a point of hiring examiners who approached film from a distinctly feminist viewpoint.

Virtually all these films were either cut or refused a BBFC certificate altogether, but many would quickly reappear in Britain thanks to independent distributors' discovery that video was not then subject to censorship. Because major film distributors had been slow to embrace the then-new medium, a disproportionate number of early releases were of titles that had either been banned outright by the BBFC or which had never been submitted to the Board in the first place, almost certainly because their distributors thought it pointless.

By 1982, concern over the ease of access to these titles, especially by children, had made the national press, which coined the term "video nasty". Conservative MP Graham Bright campaigned for a government crackdown, and was rewarded with the 1984 Video Recordings Act, keenly supported by the recently re-elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The Act not only required virtually all video releases to be examined before release, but specifically charged the BBFC with that responsibility. Although it would retain its independence, the BBFC had become an official state-approved censorship body for the first time since its foundation in 1912.

This came at a perfect time for the BBFC, which had been finding itself in increasing financial difficulties due to the dwindling number of theatrical releases. The year of the Video Recordings Act also marked an all-time low for domestic cinema admissions. But by extending the BBFC's remit to cover video, a vast amount of extra work was generated, not least to clear a backlog of years of unclassified video releases. The BBFC staff expanded tenfold, and Ferman underlined the changes by altering the last word of the Board's name from Censors to Classification.

This did not mean that films were no longer cut. On the contrary, videos were often cut more severely, taking into account the increased possibility of them being viewed by children, and many films were refused video certificates altogether, even if they had been passed for cinema release. Since the VRA made it a criminal offence to supply unclassified material that wasn't specifically exempt, this gave Ferman the ability to ban films outright from British video release, or at the very least delay their release significantly while various psychological, sociological and criminal authorities were consulted.

Reservoir Dogs (US, d. Quentin Tarantino, 1992) took two years to get a video certificate, while The Exorcist (US, d. William Friedkin, 1973) was not released as a BBFC-approved video throughout the whole of Ferman's tenure, even though he was the only BBFC staff member opposed to it. He had a similar personal antipathy towards nunchaka, or martial arts chainsticks, a policy that led to the mutilation of Bruce Lee's output as well as the severe cutting of otherwise innocuous comedies like A Very Brady Sequel (US, 1996).

But Ferman also took far more liberal decisions. He was keen to establish a distinction between consensual pornography and the more violent, coercive kind, and to this end tested the water by passing several sex education videos in the early 1990s for sale in the high street, as well as awarding a normal 18 certificate to In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida, Japan/France, d. Nagisa Oshima, 1976), a film whose sexual explicitness was, crucially, matched by overwhelming artistic merit.

Films by renowned directors were rarely cut - when they were, it was usually for unavoidable legal reasons. He expressed concern over The Last Temptation of Christ (US, d. Martin Scorsese, 1988) as the scandal it had provoked in America suggested that it might fall foul of British blasphemy laws, but these fears proved groundless.

Far more controversially, and in the wake of a notably aggressive tabloid campaign against the film, Ferman passed the sadomasochistic allegory Crash (UK/Canada, d. David Cronenberg, 1996) without requesting cuts. Ferman's methods were as controversial as his decision, announced the day after the government called a general election, thus ensuring that one of his potential tormentors would be otherwise distracted. But Crash's original January 1997 launch had to be scrapped, and Ferman's delaying tactics were becoming increasingly frustrating to his film industry paymasters, who often only held UK distribution rights for a fixed time period.

In 1997, shortly after the election of Tony Blair's first New Labour government, Ferman experimentally granted R18 certificates to a number of hardcore pornographic films without consulting the police, Customs or the Home Office. After receiving strong criticism from Home Secretary Jack Straw, Ferman retired the following year. His successor Robin Duval pledged far greater openness, accountability and transparency on the part of the BBFC, a promise he generally kept.

James Ferman died suddenly from pneumonia on 24 December 2002 at the age of 72.

Michael Brooke

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