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Murphy, Stephen


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Stephen Murphy was Secretary of the British Board of Film Censors between 1971 and 1975, having previously worked for the BBC and the Independent Television Authority. He would preside over one of the most turbulent periods in the Board's history, having to deal not only with far more graphically explicit films but also the increasing public and media backlash that accompanied their release.

The Devils (d. Ken Russell, 1971) was banned by many local authorities, thirteen film critics wrote to The Times to criticise Murphy for passing Straw Dogs (d. Sam Peckinpah, 1971), and the then Home Secretary Reginald Maudling requested a private screening of A Clockwork Orange (d. Stanley Kubrick, 1971). At the same time, the Greater London Council announced proposals to examine controversial films even if they possessed BBFC certificates.

Although things calmed down shortly afterwards, largely thanks to BBFC President Lord Harlech's diplomatic skills, the fact that the Board had been criticised by both local and national government was immensely damaging to its authority and public image.

Furthermore, Murphy's decision to pass Last Tango in Paris (France/Italy, d. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972) led to an attempted private prosecution by Edward Shackleton, a leader of pro-censorship pressure group the Festival of Light. Although unsuccessful, it was the first time a BBFC decision had been legally challenged.

Overall, Murphy was extremely unlucky - his predecessor John Trevelyan would undoubtedly have reached the same verdicts in most cases, but he was far better at presenting them to the media and dealing with subsequent fallout. Murphy deserves credit for taking some very difficult decisions and standing by them in the face of unprecedented public criticism, though it came as no surprise that he left the Board in 1975 after a relatively brief four-year tenure. He was replaced by James Ferman.

Michael Brooke

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