Season Of The Banned - Interview With Craig Lapper A Senior Examiner At The BBFC
By James Whittington, Sunday 13th November 2011

BBFC LogoThe British Board of Film Classification was established in 1912 and at that time it was known as the British Board of Film Censors. Their role – as their mission statement says - is it classify and empower the public into making informed viewing choice and protect the public and especially children from content which might raise harm risks. As we're having a season which contains some movies that were originally banned we thought we should chat to Craig Lapper, a Senior Examiner at the BBFC about his role and the BBFC as a whole.

HC: What sort of background do you need to become an Examiner for the BBFC?

CL: There is no specific background or set of qualifications required in order to be an examiner and we have examiners from a wide range of backgrounds. However experience of a working environment and a broad knowledge of film is required, as is as an ability to analyse the various issues and to set those down clearly in detailed and well-argued reports. It helps if you have some experience in areas that are relevant to our work, such as the law, child development, or other forms of media regulation, although this is not essential. What is certainly essential is the patience to sit through hours and hours of film and video material every week.

HC: How did you decide that you wanted to have a career at the BBFC?

CL: I don't think you can decide to have a career at the BBFC. It's a very small and specialist organisation. I was interested in cinema and in censorship and simply responded to an advertisement in a paper when I saw it.

HC: You're a Senior Examiner, how does that distinguish you from other Examiners?

CL: Examiners spend the majority of their week viewing film and DVD material and writing reports about what they see. Their viewing takes in a wide variety of material, including trailers and adverts, children's programmes, TV series, straight-to-video features, pornography, mainstream cinema films, and unsubtitled cinema films (viewed with a translator). By contrast, Senior Examiners are responsible for reading the reports submitted by examiners, viewing any borderline or contentious material, and deciding whether works needs further consideration, for example by the Head of Policy or the Director. We also undertake advice viewings of unfinished films, so we can give companies an early steer on any changes they need to make to achieve their preferred category. Sometimes we undertake readings of scripts, more normally for adverts but sometimes for proposed features. We also spend time liaising with distributors, either when they have queries about what they can and cannot do, or when we have queries about issues that have arisen in their films, such as the way animals have been treated or the age of performers.

HC: Have you ever started examining a film that, over its duration you've found so objectionable that you've refused to view the rest of it?

CL: I've certainly found some submissions more difficult to view than others, although what one person finds difficult can be very subjective. However, I've never found anything so objectionable I couldn't watch it, after all, it's my job to watch what's submitted. Having said that, we have developed an internal policy on hardcore pornography which states that if a porn film features more than 10 minutes of sustained abusive material, we can abort the viewing and return it to the company. It's partly a matter of protecting our examiners but it's also about giving up when something is so clearly and obviously unacceptable and putting the ball back into the distributor's court.

HC: How important do you think the BBFC is in a world where uncut versions of movies can be downloaded or imported?

CL: It's always been possible for people to see 'uncut' films if they are intent on doing so. Before the advent of the internet, people managed to obtain uncensored VHS tapes, whether from a boot fair or from 'the man down the pub', or from overseas. Even before the dawn of VHS, cinema goers could go and see 'uncensored' films at certain venues, such as cinema clubs, or in parts of the country where local councils were more likely to license films than the BBFC. However, the fact that something can be obtained by the determined doesn't mean there is no point in having restrictions at all. By and large, the role of the BBFC is to reflect the mainstream of public opinion and the fact that something can be seen, if you really want to, doesn't automatically mean the BBFC should give approval to it. There are various laws to consider, as well as public opinion, and it's our role to reflect that. Having said all that, the BBFC is very conscious of the public's general feeling that adults should be free to chose their own viewing, provided the material is neither illegal nor harmful, and we no longer place restrictions at the adult level on the grounds that something’s simply shocking, disgusting or offensive. Our role has certainly shifted away from attempting to arbitrate on matters of taste, towards an emphasis on providing information through consumer advice, extended classification information, and our various websites, so that people can make an informed choice. We’re now extending our work into the online world as well. A lot of people, parents especially, find information on media content useful and recognise, understand, and trust BBFC classifications.

HC: The recent decisions on A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede 2 have made international headlines, how much time and effort were put into making decisions on these films?

CL: Films of that nature are seen by Senior Examiners, the Director and the Presidents. Of course, a lot of thought and debate goes into such decisions, and it's useful to have a range of views expressed within the BBFC so we can test out the range of opinions that are likely to arise outside our offices. Of course, we never make decisions lightly when it comes to censoring material for adults. Not only because the public generally expect to make their own viewing decisions, provided the material doesn't breach the law or raise harm risks, but because the Human Rights Act imposes a duty on the BBFC to be proportionate in any restrictions we place on freedom of expression. So both of those cases involved a lot of viewing and discussion. What's interesting about both of the films you mention is that controversy and concerns have not been limited to the UK, with cuts and bans occurring in a number of other countries.

HC: You've been with the BBFC since 1997, what changes have you seen not only at the board but the public's response to your classifications?

CL: When I joined the BBFC, it was still a pretty secretive organisation with a fairly opaque decision making process. We weren't very good at explaining the decisions we made and we often took far too long in reaching a final decision. The introduction of published Classification Guidelines, themselves the result of major public consultation exercises repeated every few years, have made it far clearer (to the public and to the industry) what standards we apply and why. The introduction of a dedicated Press Office, and the introduction of various websites (and now our iPhone and Android apps) has also made the Board feel more open and less remote. I think our increased transparency and our increased willingness to respond to and engage with the public, have made our role less mysterious and better understood. That's not to say that members of the public don't disagree with us anymore. Of course, they always have and they always will. But at least now they know what standards we're applying and why and they know those standards derive from what the public tell us.

HC: What's your personal opinion of the Video Nasties era of home video?

CL: The concern that developed over the unregulated nature of the video market in the early 1980s was perfectly understandable. After all, there was nothing to stop irresponsible retailers supplying some quite extreme horror titles, or even pornography, to children. Furthermore, because video was a fairly new and unknown technology, a lot of parents weren't fully aware of the nature of what their kids were watching, because there was no effective system of guidance in place. Of course, the video industry had attempted to set up a voluntary classification scheme, which the BBFC was part of, but there was no real means of controlling those distributors who insisted on working outside of any system that was put in place. The initial response to the problem, by prosecuting a wide range of disparate titles for obscenity, brought about mixed results. This was probably because the titles listed by the DPP ranged from the seriously nasty to some rather silly gore titles, some dating back as far as the 1960s, that juries might well think were unsuitable for children but which they weren't convinced were actually corrupting for adults. By contrast, the system introduced by the Video Recordings Act simplified matters considerably by ensuring that titles would be dealt with consistently by a central body, that they would be correctly labelled with relevant age restrictions, and that no material would be released without vetting. That might have been unwelcome news to some of the smaller independent labels who used the lack of censorship as a selling point, but the mainstream industry was generally pleased to see things being cleaned up, and the public were reassured that they knew what they'd be getting in future. Of course, it's undeniable that not all 'nasties' were equally nasty, and it's also true that attitudes (and special effects) have changed over the years, which has allowed us to permit a number of formerly listed titles as acceptable for adult viewing. However, even now there's still a hard core of 'video nasties' that continue to cause concern for the BBFC, especially those that deal with sexual violence rather than straightforward gore or horror, and some of those were the same titles that raised the initial concerns in 1982.

HC: How do you relax, do you enjoy going to the movies or is that a bit of a bus man's holiday?

CL: I'm probably less inclined to go to the cinema immediately after work than I might once have been, but I do still go to the cinema and watch DVDs at the weekend. It's nice to be able to choose what to watch! Other than that, I enjoy reading, listening to the radio, going to the theatre, and going to the pub!

HC: Craig Lapper, thank you very much.

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