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Suitable for All?

Robert Weedon | Film | Saturday 22nd August 2009

The British Board of Film Classification must have quite a difficult job. On one hand, it has to give consumers legally binding advice on what films audiences should be allowed to see or purchase. On the other, it has to balance the wishes of filmmakers who want the biggest and most appropriate audience to see their picture, coupled with all the kneejerk press reaction if they make a poor decision.

Film ratings have always been a compromise, but in the United Kingdom cinema ratings are currently standardised into U, PG, 12a, 15, 18 and R18. You probably don't see the last one very much, as these are available only in specially licensed cinemas or sex shops (or maybe you do?). The basic classifications of these came in to force in 1982, just as the home video was taking off.

U, PG

These two ratings are often used for what can broadly be defined as 'Universal' films (nothing to do with the film studio), with 'Parental Guidance' meaning the film is probably not suitable for children under eight years old, although this is only a guidance, and not enforced by law. At some point, most people are going to end up with a family of bouncing infants to attempt to keep entertained. However, until that point, say the words 'Universal' to most cinema-goers, and a large proportion of adults will automatically assume this means a family film.

There is, incidentally, for the home video market a Uc marking, which denotes a video so toddler-friendly, you can happily leave the room to get on with your life. Don't forget to actually turn the tape on first though.

Animated films are something slightly different, but on a 'live action' film, itself quite an odd phrase for a "film with actors", a U certificate, or even a PG certificate somehow implies a film designed for parents to take their children to see, often entailing a feast of irritating children being stupid, comedies full of lame, stupid jokes, or stupid overt sentimentality. In short, these films are often stupid, and part of the curse of the U certificate.

This is a shame, as many films featuring lower ratings are often great viewing for adults, it's just that the implication of these certificates suggests otherwise. There are many films rated with these certificates that certainly aren't children's films - The Remains of the Day, for example, is in many ways a film only an adult can truly understand. However, it doesn't have any sex, bad language or violence and is therefore graded as a U. Yet, it's such a subtle film, in which nothing much happens, it would probably bore a 10 year old silly.

The curse of a live action film receiving a U or even a PG certificate has become so bad that film makers often feature a solitary, sometimes quite strangely placed swearwords or instances of sex in them simply to avoid these classifications. Robert Altman freely admits on his DVD commentary for Gosford Park (arguably a slightly less subtle take on the themes explored in The Remains of the Day) that he purposely included a few expletives simply to avoid a U or PG certificate, therefore allowing the film to be shown to an adult-only audience. I suspect Richard Curtis of using the same tactic.

12a

This trend of avoidance of the Universal categories has become worse in the last few years with the BBFC's alteration of the middle-ground 12 certificate to 12A, which means that an under-12 can get in to see a 12 rated film when accompanied by a parent. As far as I can see, this was a fairly poor decision meaning that filmmakers now have to purposely "sex their film up" to gain a higher rating - the 12 was a relative latecomer to the current rating system dating from 1989, and only on video in 1994. Ironically, it was Tim Burton's Batman that was the catalyst for this certificate, and it was The Dark Knight that recently gained the BBFC a sack full of complaints for being rated 12A. Indeed, superhero-type characters seem to be to blame for quite a large proportion of re-ratings, with Spiderman, Hulk, X-Men 2 and later Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire being notable beneficiaries of the 12A re-rating in 2002.

15, 18

These are the two certificates that are usually classified as adult films, although the 15 does appear fairly arbitary - is a 14 year really any less mature than a 15 year old? At this level of rating, the categorisation seem to blur into insignificance anyway, and it's quite common to see another film board make a differnt decision - for example, the Irish Film Classification Office's classification of The Matrix was 18, whereas the BBFC's was 15.

The primary reasons for 18 certificates seem to be 'explicit' sex and 'explicit' violence or horror, although not to the extent of the R18. Even the difference between the 18 and the R18 has blurred in recent years, with films such as Michael Winterbottom's Nine Songs featuring scenes of uncensored sexual intercourse. However, to me, there seems to be a strange gap between a 15 such as Notting Hill (a fairly inexplicable piece of rating) and a 12A film like The Dark Knight. Whereas the former featured a few swear words, the latter featured genuine unpleasant violence. For some reason sex and bad language, which for most people are much more common parts of everyday life, seem to lead to a higher classification than violence, which hopefully isn't.

Strangely, the justification in the case of The Dark Knight was that it was within a fantasy framework, for example towards the end, a main character gets his face burnt off and ends up walking around with a mechanical eye and a CGI hole in his face. For me, though, this is worse than if it was real violence. At least in a film such as This is England, a film rated 18, the consequences of the violence are seen for what they are, and not glorified. Indeed, I highlight this film, as several councils overturned the BBFC's decision, acknowledging that it was important that the film's anti-racism, anti-violence standpoint reached the audience it was ultimately about. However, I can't say the same for films such as Saw, which blatantly go out to titilate via extreme horror.

What I would recommend, then, is that there should be a slightly more useful classification system for films based on intended audiences rather than simply whether it has any 'adult' themes. Oddly enough, the BBFC's ratings system from the 1970s appears to follow this concept. It was divided into U, A, AA and X. U was suitable for all. A meant 'adult', not excluding children, but suggesting it was not children's film (and presumably not ending up with the problem we have today). AA meant 14 and above, a more sensible cut off point - after all, it's a myth to pretend that 13 and 14 years olds don't know about half of the themes in a 15 film. X was reserved for 18+ only, but also has the added bonus of having a slightly edgy-sounding ring to it.

RW



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