A Penny For Guy’s Thoughts… The GUY PHELPS (BBFC) Interview

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Alongside the splat pack luminaries on the star-studded guest list for The Scala’s Splatter Fest (24.02.90) and among its rabidly anti-censorship attendees, BBFC examiner Guy Phelps might understandably have felt like Daniel entering The Lion’s Den. But he was cool in every sense of the word and happy to discuss the censors’ doings with us. There was a sense even then (still under the purview of James Ferman) that the Board and social mores were gradually loosening up… though we could scarcely have foreseen then that the likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, Straw Dogs, Death Wish, Salo, Last House On The Left, et al (not to mention such Johnny-come-latelies as Baise Moi, Hostel and the Saw series) would be freely available in the UK in the 21st Century.

Guy, you’re aware of the strong passions aroused on each side of the censorship debate. How do you feel for example, when the BBFC certificate comes up at an event like this and the audience starts booing?

Well, you’re talking about very different situations with film and video. Most of the kind of stuff you’re interested in comes to us on video because so few horror and low-budget films get a cinema release these days. I think at the cinema a very specialised audience come to see this particular sort of film in a very particular way, whereas the same images released on video are going to have a different life in front of a different sort of audience. The whole way they are going to be seen will be totally different.

When an ‘18’ tape is taken home, anyone can see it, because the Video Recordings Act only operates at the point of supply. They also see it within their own home and the interpretation seems to be that seeing it at home gives a very different meaning to something. It’s one thing to go to the cinema – partly it’s a matter that you’ve gone out and chosen, made a very deliberate choice to see a film – whereas getting a video is nearer to broadcast TV, where it just comes straight into the home and there is less deliberate choice. Also, you’re seeing it in a situation at home where things look different to how they do in the cinema, or even in the office, in our case. We often find that if we take a tape home and watch it, it looks different than when watching it in the clinical surroundings of an office. So it’s very difficult to go from the position of a film screened at the cinema to a video released widely through the rest of the country, I don’t think one can draw any conclusions from one event to the other.

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Weren’t there particular problems with one of the films being screened here today… Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer?

A few. But I felt it was a very good film, and it would have been even better had it continued to investigate the more interesting psychology it discusses earlier on. On the whole, I think it’s an interesting account of a bizarre case. I didn’t find it exploitative, I think it was interested in the psychology of the character and the extremely depressing life-style he was leading. Some of the scenes were problematical but I don’t think the film as a whole was exploiting its material in a way that one could find unacceptable, in the same way as we didn’t think Cold Light of Day was doing that. (*)

This ‘tone’ thing is reminiscent of the BBFC’s feelings about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre…

I would have thought that Henry and Texas Chainsaw Massacre were very different cases, personally. Henry has more of a documentary style, though it isn’t an actual documentary, as the film-maker very clearly says in person and on film, whereas Chainsaw Massacre is very much a “chasing around and screaming” film, though with Chainsaw Massacre you never get quite what you think you’re going to get, curiously. But Henry is a kind of cold, beady stare at a curious individual, it doesn’t have any of the chasing around, menacing scenes. The scenes of violence, on the whole, are fairly brief and they vary in a way that they are presented, but a lot of them are not particularly visual at all.

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Still on the subject of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, can you give us a definitive answer as to what happened to the sequels? Because everyone’s got a different version of the story…

The second one came to us on film from the distribution company and as far as we were concerned, we were looking for a “soft” version that we could consider passing. Then the whole distribution network collapsed, for various reasons, the departments fell out. The company appeared to lose interest in it at that point. It was a film that didn’t do very well in America, and the third one didn’t do well either. Most of the films that don’t do well in America never reach this country.

Are you under instruction not to talk about specific cases you’ve worked on? An ex-member of the Board gave me that impression.

It’s difficult to talk about specific cases because we’re a monopoly. The companies have to come to us and we deal with their material… it’s not necessarily anyone else’s business what goes on between us. It doesn’t mean I can’t talk about individual cases at all, but there is a slight constraint, especially with something that one has worked on very recently. I can’t really go into too much detail about business relations between us and a company.

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The same ex-member told me an interesting anecdote about Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper being kicked out by the Board because its distributors submitted it without any cuts at all, hinting that if they had taken the trouble to approach you with, as you say, a ‘soft’ version, the Board would have considered passing it, possibly subject to further cuts.

I’m not sure. There were a lot of problems running through that film. (GP had opined in a previous interview that “…with people like Fulci, certainly, when the movie comes up one gulps slightly and reaches for the sick bag” – Bob.) Violence towards women is something that we’re increasingly worried about. It’s an area where there’s a great deal of research which suggests that the media really do have an input on the way that men think and behave towards women.

But isn’t there also the experience of Japan which has little regulation of horror movies, nor indeed of ultra-violent pornography, and yet has a negligible incidence of sex offences.

I think it’s very difficult to make comparisons across different cultures. Japan is a shame culture whereas ours is a guilt culture. Their whole attitude towards things like that is quite different, so I think one’s got to get into quite profound cultural studies before one can start wondering why certain things are more worrying to us than to the Japanese. We were very worried about violence against women in a way that the Board wasn’t twenty years ago So we continually find that when we’re were watching material on video, certain stuff that was cut back in the ’60s for instance doesn’t worry us at all now, whereas scenes of violence towards women which worried nobody back in the ’60s, apparently, we are now concerned about. That’s something about censorship generally, that it changes all the time, and I think one’s always going to look foolish in twenty years time, whatever one’s stance.

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Yeah … Mondo Cane was considered absolutely mortifying in its day, but now it looks ridiculously tame.

I can’t say I’ve seen it.

It contains stuff like Rossanno Brazzi having his shirt ripped off by frenzied female fans…

(Laughs) Well, that sounds absolutely disgusting to me!

No cheap thrills at all , there…

I’m sorry to hear it. But going back to The New York Ripper, it contained a scene where a broken bottle was used as a weapon, and there is a tendency to find something like that a bit more worrying in that in a moment of anger one’s unlikely to lay one’s hands on an axe, but one could pick up something like a bottle.

Does the Board have a list of unallowable “trigger images”, or is that just a myth?

Nothing’s ever as simple as that, no. It’s always context, treatment, why it’s being done… Film cutting is a delicate job!

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Jose Mojica Marins cocks the trigger in Embodiment Of Evil (2008)

Blood on breasts has often been cited as precisely such  a ‘trigger image’.

That’s certainly something that we would tend to worry about, but once again it would depend on whose blood and why it’s there. We would have to look at it from the point of view of what the director was trying to say with that image, which is as important as the image itself. One of the reasons that we have no book of rules is because there’s no reason why one particular shot shouldn’t be used. It’s how and why it’s used, the purpose to which that shot is put, that’s so important. For example, a shot in a horror film will have a quite different function and appearance to the same shot used in a documentary about a horror film, so it’s really the how and why that counts as much as the content.

How can you possibly justify passing some of the extreme stuff that was in Peter Greenaway’s Art-house movie The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, including cannibalism and the protracted torture of a child? Scenes like that just wouldn’t be allowed in a horror film. Doesn’t this reflect the elitist, class-bound attitude that is at the heart of the British censorship system?

Well again, I think that was more to do with the power of the film-making. Good, clever film-makers can get away with more because they know how to do it. In the Greenaway film you didn’t actually see very much and I gather he shot more – which is always the case – but what was actually shown on the screen was a lot less than the impact it had. That’s the way that a clever director can create an enormous impact without showing very much, that’s the important thing. Inferior film-makers, in my view, have to show the blood and guts because that’s all they can do. They don’t know about structuring a scene and creating an impact without all the splatter. I think that is one of the problems with the modern horror film, there are too many directors reduced to that kind of level because their imaginations don’t allow them to get any further. This is very much my personal view.

To paraphrase a notorious observation by one of your predecessors at the Board, there is a class judgment, isn’t there, in saying that a factory worker in Manchester, for instance, would be depraved and corrupted by seeing Andy Warhol’s Trash but a sophisticated, middle-class Londoner like yourself could handle it with ease?

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Not necessarily, no. We watch the films in a certain way. We distance ourselves from them through the way we watch them, to some extent. One watches them in a sort of academic manner, looking to see what the film is doing, how people are going to see it and deal with it. So one is, all the time, debriefing oneself from the experience. At the same time one is trying to see it in the way that other people will see it when they watch it – it’s a hopeless exercise if, through the debriefing, you don’t get the experience at all. So it’s actually a very difficult matter of trying to do two totally different things at the same time. But I think the fact that one is sitting at a desk, writing away, makes quite a difference, obviously, to the way you see it and one sees a lot of films. We will have a particular expertise brought from other experiences which gives us different ways of looking at the films. So we would hope that there is enough between us and the material we see, which is occasionally very unpleasant, to make sure that we’re not depraved and corrupted too quickly (Laughs).

What do you think about the whole “video nasties” hysteria in retrospect? Wasn’t the whole thing blown out of all proportion?

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1984-5 was obviously a very difficult period. There were a small number of video nasties, not many, and in the years before there was any regulation at all there was genuine concern that young people in particular were seeing material that they were probably not able to cope with. Whatever one might think of “video nasties”, so called, or other horror films, the thought of young children watching them in particular is, I think, fairly horrifying. It’s easy enough to make the case that there was a certain media and public panic that got slightly out of proportion to what was actually happening, but since regulation, to which there was so little public opposition – perhaps surprisingly – at the time, I think that the situation has sorted itself out, on the whole, to the satisfaction of most people. I think the government is more concerned with the look and presentation in video stores now than with what is being released and certainly the video industry is much happier – in this country it’s grown very much faster since regulation, whereas in many other countries where there is no regulation, there has been much less growth. This may or may not be a good thing, whether the industry grows or not may not be relevant, but certainly the industry is happy with regulation and I think there are plenty of sound reasons for supporting some form of it.

There was a perception at one point, not so long back, that perhaps the Board was loosening up a bit, with the likes of Society and Bad Taste being passed un-cut…

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We try and draw a line between horror that is fantastical and horror that’s inciting the audience to take pleasure in the spectacle of pain and enjoy the pain of the person who is suffering on screen. Films like the ones you mentioned, those are good examples of films that are pure fantasy. I don’t think anyone could extrapolate from them to real situations. That’s the main plank of our policy really. But there are particular problems with horror due to its history during the period of un-regulated video and the fact that the Video Recordings Act was brought in specifically to control horror films. As you know, before the VRA a lot of horror films were convicted under the obscenity legislation. This is something we can’t ignore – were not above the law and if the courts have judged that certain material is legally obscene, we can’t say: “We’re going to disregard this, we know better than the law”. We’re not allowed to know better than the law. We have to take account of these decisions.

In fact, we don’t see that many horror films at the moment. The genre seems to be in a bit of a trough, I would say. Not so many horror film are being made. We don’t actually see that much obscene material, most countries have some kind of idea of the standards we apply – presumably if there is that much material we don’t get to see it, or too much of it anyway.

There’s been a feeling for a while in America, which has been going through its own censorship travails, that the BBFC is now in some ways more liberal than its own MPAA.

I hope that’s right – the MPAA has a problem in that their cinema categories are entirely voluntary. Over there, apart from the ‘X’ and ‘NC-17’, their normal cinema categories exclude nobody. One of the advantages of our system of legal regulation by age is that we have a pretty firm idea of what the audience is, whereas they don’t – they can pass something ‘R’ and anyone can go in, as long as they’re accompanied by an adult, so that gives us a lot more flexibility – although ours seems a more rigid system, the end result is in fact greater flexibility, in that respect.

We sometimes hear about left-wing journalists who are supposedly working at such right-wing rags as “The Daily Mail”… is there any sort of contingent acting as anti-censorship “moles” within the BBFC?

Well, there’s no one consensus of opinion within any body, or even between any two people. Virtually everyone has a bottom line of what they would allow or not allow, so to that extent everyone is pro-censorship. Everyone would draw the line somewhere, and above that there’s a great level of disagreement over where the line should be drawn. The strength of our organisation has been employing a number of very different people who have different ideas and one argues constantly as a result, but I think that’s a positive rather than a negative thing.

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(*) When Henry was finally released in the UK shortly after this interview, it was only because its distributors had agreed to a version that had been personally re-edited by James Ferman, himself a failed film maker, to get certification…. out-fucking-rageous!

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