Patrick Swaffer has been President of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) since 2012, and it’s not a position short of responsibility; you’ll notice his signature before every film on British cinema screens, and nothing in the UK is released on physical media without first being studied by the watchful eyes of the BBFC. Whilst visiting Exeter to talk about his work and experiences, Patrick found time to speak to me about the BBFC and the changing face of film classification. “What is the definition of boredom?” he asks, before answering himself, “I’ve decided the definition of boredom is an older white man talking about his career.”
Despite his apparent reluctance, Patrick clearly cares and knows a great deal about what he does. I began by asking him about the basic process behind a film’s classification, and his answer was forthcoming in detail. “Well, we have our guidelines,” he starts. “Obviously it’s a case by case basis, because we look at particular films and particular parts of films, in the context of the guidelines, and reach a classification on the merits of each individual film.”
And how are these guidelines produced? “Our guidelines are developed using a very large public consultation. So every four years we go out to the public, we consult the public about what they think would be suitable for their children to view at 12, or 15, or U, or PG. We also have a consultative committee of child experts, so we take expert advice as well.”
“The protection of children is a point on which Patrick repeatedly returns”
Considering these evidently exhaustive guidelines, I asked Patrick if there were clear instructions about what sort of material fits into each age bracket. “Context is nearly everything, but not completely everything.” He smiles, then suggests a few choice words that may not be appropriate within a U or PG rated film, and states that parents “are not keen that explicit sex is seen at U or PG.”
The protection of children is a point on which Patrick repeatedly returns – he stresses that the classification job is often one of “protecting people from harm”. He elaborates, “it may be harmful for children of a certain age to see certain activities of a violent or sexual nature, because that may predispose them or may influence their view of what appropriate relationships are, or how it is appropriate to behave.”
Of course, the BBFC’s role in protecting children is relatively uncontroversial. Where they attract criticism, however, is in their regulation of adult material. In 1984, the organisation changed its name from the British Board of Film Censors, hoping to better reflect its function in classification rather than censorship, but the BBFC has since struggled to shake it’s old, authoritarian image. Indeed, it remains within their power to refuse any film a certificate, thus prohibiting its exhibition in the UK. Does Patrick think it is right for an organisation to hold this power over an adult’s choice?
“It’s not like we’re an organisation who set ourselves up to say ‘oh you can’t watch that’”
“First of all, we do the job we’re asked to do. So when it comes to videos we’re asked by the government to do this job, so there’s a piece of legislation called the Video Recordings Act, where the Secretary of State has to nominate somebody who’s job it is to classify DVDs.”
Patrick’s defence of the BBFC’s work is unsurprisingly impassioned, but he is also keen to stress that their authority was by no means total. “It’s not like we’re an organisation who set ourselves up to say ‘oh you can’t watch that’, and it’s the same with films; we’re asked, effectively by local authorities, to do the job. And in relation to both, there’s an appeals process. So for a video there’s an independent body called the Video Appeals Committee – if people don’t like our decisions, they’re entitled to go to the Video Appeals Committee, which as I say is entirely independent.”
He continued, “in relation to films, the local authority can overrule our decisions. If in the Exeter region, you think The Human Centipede should be shown, in it’s full, unedited version, you go to the local authority and say ‘these stupid people at the BBFC have refused to give it a classification certificate, I want to show it in our local cinema, will you please allow us to do so?’
“So I think it’s important to understand, we’re not unaccountable, we’re entirely accountable, there are routes out from our decisions.”
“the classification job is about protecting people from harm”
As Patrick mentions the infamous The Human Centipede, it must be remembered that the long history of the BBFC, which was founded in 1912, is littered with contentious and provocative pictures. Had any of titles had forced the BBFC to change the way it approached classification? The answer comes bluntly: “no.”
“Not at all?”
“No, because it doesn’t work that way. Individual films are challenging,” he lists a few recent examples, including the infamously grotesque A Serbian Film and Lars Von Trier’s sexually explicit Nymphomaniac. “All of them are challenging films, but they haven’t influenced or affected the way we approach the classification job, because the classification job is about protecting people from harm, illegal material, and suitability if it’s below 18.”
For an organisation with such historic roots, the BBFC has had to deal with immense changes in consumer habits. In recent years, digital distribution has exploded with streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. As more and more media circumvents a traditional release in cinemas and on home video, I wonder if this material is subject to the same scrutiny as conventional entertainment.
“No, it’s not at all,” Patrick replies. “All the legislation which has been passed is pre digital. So you’ve got the Video Recordings Act, which is 1984, and you’ve got the Licencing Act. But if you deliver material digitally, then there are no controls about classification.”
“NETFLIX… think it’s a valuable marketing tool for them to say to parents ‘our material has been classified by the BBFC’”
Patrick is quick to ask the next question himself, “So we recognise, ‘what is the point of the BBFC?’ It’s an entirely fair question.” Although facing a potentially an essentially existential conundrum, Patrick is clear and pragmatic about the BBFC’s future, “So what we’ve done is begin to provide services for digital platforms.
“For example Netflix, even though they have no obligation, came to us with House of Cards and other material, which they’d made just for digital distribution, because they think, putting it crudely, they think it’s a valuable marketing tool for them to say to parents ‘our material has been classified by the BBFC’”.
Should the BBFC’s legal be expanded to include this new tide of digital content? He gives a slight laugh before answering. “I think that’s very difficult to envisage that happening. I mean, first of all we’re not a lobbying organisation, so it’s not our job to go to the government and point a finger at particular groups and say ‘you must regulate that group’. Our job is to help the government, is to help organisations like Netflix and others classify their material.”
With our time together coming to a close, I ask Patrick about career opportunities at the BBFC, and how an Exeter graduate would go about getting involved. “Well, to be honest, the only option, unless you’re further through your career, if you’re just a graduate, is to apply to the organisation when we advertise for examiners or compliance officers. They are the people who are viewing the material and helping us make judgements about suitability.
“Perhaps the power of film classification may be waning against the democratising force of the internet”
“If people are interested in that the only way I can advise them to do it is keep an eye on our website, because we advertise on our website when vacancies come up”
Manifestly, the Presidency of the BBFC is a complex and important commitment, not without its own moral and professional dilemmas. For all Patrick’s certainty about the permanency of the “classification job”, the BBFC is clearly a very different beast from the ominous body of censors that was founded over a hundred years ago, and this process of change, or reaction to change, is ongoing. Nevertheless, as he faces the new challenges of the digital age, Patrick appears ready to adapt. Perhaps the power of film classification may be waning against the democratising force of the internet, but there’s still a place for the BBFC as a source of expertise and guidance. As Patrick Swaffer puts it himself, “that is how we regard our function, as being helpful, rather than lobbying or determining.”