Tuesday, February 12, 2008
It was the fire regulations that did it originally. A wonderful example of ‘government by creep’ and a warning on the need for watchfulness in the defence of liberties.
And also a reminder that ‘making things local’ can have odd consequences sometimes.
When the cinema came to Britain in the early 1900’s nobody quite knew how to react to it officially. At the time stage plays had to be pre-approved by a government official, the Lord Chamberlain, but the spread of the new media outran the legislation. Of course there were quick public reactions to Unsuitable or Outrageous content in this or that film, but nobody had the power to stop or censure them.
However films needed a publicly accessible hall for a performance. These halls of course had safety requirements, including fire regulations. Now, early film stock was on celluloid, which is rather flammable (it is actually chemically related to guncotton). On the early projectors, with their big open reels and hot lamps, fire was a distinct and realistic worry. So, quite rightly, regulations came in requiring safe practices for handling film projectors. The administration of this regulation was in the hands of local authorities.
It soon occurred to the more creative spirits amongst concerned local politicos that if a hall was refused a fire certificate, the film could not be shown. So the councils began issuing short term certificates, refusing them for the showing of films the contents of which they disapproved. De Facto censorship. Film distributors faced mounting chaos and expense, having to make different cuts in different areas in order to get their films shown.
The industry responded by setting up the British Board of Film Censorship (as the BBFC was first called), an industry-maintained body which reached agreements with local Authorities. Basically the authorities agreed normally to accept films for showing in their areas without demanding pre-viewing or local cuts; but with the right to opt out for a particular film. This meant that most films could be shown nationally without expensive trimmings. Very quickly this deal established a kind of common law right for local authorities to censor films, and when Local Government was comprehensively reformed in 1974 the power to censor films was one of the rights solemnly listed and apropportioned amongst the various tiers of the new authorities.
Government at the Parliamentary level very sensibly kept its head down and as far as possible avoided direct involvement in individual controversies.
Why mention all this now? Well, the BBFC ‘Accountability to Parliament and Appeals’ Bill comes before Parliament on 29th February, and amongst other things seeks to establish that the Government make the appointments of members of the British Board of Film Classification (as it is now called). It also establishes that parliament be able to force a re-appraisal of a film after it has been certifeid by the BBFC. I understand that LibDem Parliamentarians are -thankfully- minded to oppose this.
There is however one interesting sidebar to this history, which we may want to think about as we press for more and more radical devolution of real power out of Whitehall.
So strong was the culture of local power in the mid-years of the last century that councils thought nothing of defying the national government in time of war where it felt they were acting within their own powers. In about 1943 (I believe) the Soviet Union sent over to Britain a graphic documentary shot in the front line in battle, showing what really can happen to real people at the sharp end of war. A number of local councils banned it for showing to people under 18 as likely to cause public distress because of the graphic nature of the images. This ban included British soldiers under 18 who could be sent into battle, but weren’t allowed to see what they might have to face. There were cases of Colonels marching their troops up to cinemas specifically to give their young troops a sober look at what they would face, and being turned away at the doors.
The Soviet Union protested to the UK Government about the restrictions on viewing the film but the Government felt unable to over-rule the local councils on this.
The Soviet Union somehow failed to grasp the notion of idea of a Central Government powerless to over-rule a local authority, and though it was all part of a plot to delay the establishment of the Second Front against Nazi Germany. They protested accordingly. The international crisis was real and serious but this didn’t move the relevant Mayors, Alderman or whatever.
Wonder what would happen today?