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1971: A difficult year for the film censors… (RIP Ken Russell)

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I started this post a couple of weeks ago after watching a programme on BBC Four, all about the British Board of Film Classification (bbfc), and now with the news this morning that Ken Russell has passed away, I think I should try and finish it…

I seem to be drawn to the year 1971 ... a year in which as a young boy, I wouldn’t have known anything about the things that now interest me…

One aspect that the programme highlighted, and that hadn’t occurred to me before, was how many, not only brilliant, but also highly controversial films were released in this year: A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubric), The Devils (Ken Russell), Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah), Deathwish (Michael Winner), French Connection (William Freidkin), Dirty Harry (Don Seigel), and Get Carter (Mike Hodges) to name just a few.

All of these films caused problems for the censors in some way, whether it be because of violence (or ultra violence in the case of A Clockwork Orange), rape, ruthless gangsters, graphic drug use or in Ken Russell’s film The Devils (which still shocks 40 years later and whose first official DVD release has only recently been announced) just about everything you could think of that might upset the moral majority, including sex with a christ figure, masturbating Nuns, lesbian orgies in a Nunnery, torture and execution.

So what was it that encouraged these excellent and highly respected directors (Michael Winner excepted, obviously) to so push the boundaries in this particular year, doing almost anything they could it would seem to shock and offend…

One person that undoubtably had a key role was John Trevelyan, whose tenure as Chief Censor at the bbfc ended in 1971 (just in time to hand the thankless task of certifying Straw Dogs, The Devils and A Clockwork Orange to his successor Stephen Murphy). During his 13 years in charge, Trevelyan had encouraged a more liberal approach to classification that he argued better reflected changing public attitudes. An admirer of adventurous European “Art House” film makers, he passed films that would previously have been severely cut, on the basis of both context and artistic reputation, allowing many films through that would previously have been refused.

Another important factor was the raising in 1970 of the age limit for an X Certificate film to 18, meaning that a difficult film, could be more easily given a certificate if it was thought that only adults would be able to see it.

I think there is also some truth in the argument that by the end of the 1960’s the whole free spirit, peace and love thing was starting to turn sour, taking on a much darker and more confrontational edge due in no small part to the almost overwhelming TV news coverage of conflicts raging throughout the world especially of course Vietnam.

All of which resulted in a startling outpouring of imagery and ideas, that changed forever how films were made, perceived and understood…

On a lighter note I guess I could finish by remminding you all that another film released in 1971, neither shocked nor gave the bbfc much worry. I refer of course to Gene Wilder’s finest moment.. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory… see it wasn’t all grim in the 1970’s…

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