This holiday season, spare a thought for the British Board of Film Classification

Did you rush to the advent calendar as soon as you woke up today? The British Board of Film Classification advent calendar, that is, which has been running on Twitter throughout this month. We’ve already learned so much. There was the revelation that past examiners considered Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas to be “educational” (always a big deal for the BBFC, which values few things more highly than a teachable moment) and believed the star of Rumble Fish and Angel Heart to be one “M O’Rourke”. It was no surprise to discover that a scene of Santa Claus wielding candy-striped chain-sticks was originally snipped from the 1996 comedy Jingle All the Way. The martial arts weapon, also known as nunchaku, was the special bugbear of James Ferman, the board’s director at the time, who seemed convinced that it posed a threat to the country’s wellbeing. How quaint.

The scene was restored when the film was submitted again four years later. Times and tastes change, after all. That happens to be the BBFC’s justification for recent adjustments made to the ratings of a crop of blockbusters. A certificate is fixed at the time of a movie’s release, and is only amended when that title is resubmitted. One festive example: the 1988 Bill Murray comedy Scrooged earned a 12-certificate (for “moderate language and soft drug use”) when it was last submitted for home entertainment purposes in 2012, whereas its cinema rating remains PG, since it hasn’t been reassessed since its original release.

Recent rereleases of films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Jaws have led the board to reconsider those titles in the light of what they vaguely call “changing attitudes”. In most cases, there has been a tightening of restrictions, though any parents who would have let their child watch The Empire Strikes Back when it was a U-certificate but draw the line now that it has been upgraded to a PG could be said to have too much time on their hands.

Talking of hands, it is the loss of Luke Skywalker’s right one, severed by Darth Vader’s lightsaber, that earned that movie its PG rating. Raiders of the Lost Ark has its previous A-rating (the pre-1982 equivalent of the PG) swapped for a 12, not on account of abundant racial stereotyping but rather its gleeful violence: melty-faced Nazis are now a no-no.

Sexual content is another concern. A BBFC examiner who passed the original Ghostbusters as a PG back in 1984 wrote at the time that “a lot of kids are going to be scared out of their pants, but they will love it”. Today it is a different sort of scare involving pants – namely a scene which suggests Dan Aykroyd’s character is receiving oral sex from a ghost – which has prompted examiners to raise the rating to a 12. There was always a risque edge to that film’s humour, but what plays weirdly now is the schoolboy tittering (menstruation – tee-hee!) or the demonising of the Environmental Protection Agency (those rotters!)

The BBFC has explained that its adjustments are the result of consultation and outreach work, and it is an organisation keen to “hear from” and “listen to” audiences. This latest endeavour, though, serves as a reminder that an antiquated classification board desperate to prove its relevance in the age of streaming, social media and parental locks is likely to crave being heard as much as anyone else. Perhaps the feelings of its staff were hurt this year by the British horror movie Censor, set in the 1980s in the claustrophobic offices of a BBFC-esque classification body, where a prim examiner sanctimoniously insists that she does her job “to protect people”. With every new tweet, amendment and press release (such as last month’s announcement about new rules surrounding material that involves racist language), the BBFC is reminding us that it is still out there: “Yoo-hoo! Don’t forget about us! We still matter!”

The public is always encouraged during the festive period to spare a thought for those who might be feeling isolated or overlooked, and the BBFC is no exception. Please do keep them in mind during the excitement of opening your new chain-sticks on Christmas Day, or when you’re rallying the family, young and old, to watch Robert Shaw get chomped in half by a shark.

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