British Film Review – Video Nasties: Draconian Days
Directed by Jake West
This is the sequel to Jake West and Marc Morris‘s wonderful 2012 documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape. Where their first outing reminded us of how the Wild West days of home video entertainment were tamed by the Video Recording Act 1984, the follow up is the tale of how the West was won – by one man – James Ferman, Director of theBritish Board of Film Classification. He’d already been in post since 1975, but the documentary takes us on a fantastical journey of one man’s ego and the impact it had on films you could legally watch in the UK from 1985 to 1999.
For horror fans of certain vintage – 40 and above – Draconian Days is a magnifying glass on a time you may have tried to forget. Foreigners to these shores will be amazed how much the people of this country tolerated subjective interference in the creation of cinema.
The first thing the documentary makes clear is that the moral panic of video nasties never really ended. It was the gift that just kept on giving as far as the tabloid press was concerned. Two key incidents were exploited to fuel pro-censorship needs: Michael Ryan’s Hungerford Massacre in 1987 and the tragic child killing of Jamie Bulger in 1993. The former, as is seen here, in the infamous clip of Mary Whitehouse surrounded by muscle bound men dressed up as Stallone’s character, was ridiculously linked to Rambo: First Blood. Whereas the latter, via Child’s Play 3, made the anti-hero, Chuckie, the poster boy of all that’s depraved in UK society. Anyone who had seen the movie knew how preposterous it was to even consider that film a remote threat, but as the documentary shows, Tory MP after Tory MP were quite prepared to go on radio and TV to talk in pejorative terms about a film they’d never seen to gain some political capital and lend support to the notion that violent films leads to violent people. Or was it to keep the working classes in their place? West is certainly suspicious and flashes up on screen the infamous Ferman quote from the London Film Festival after a screening of Texas Chain Saw Massacre: “It’s alright for middle class cineastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?”
Early on in the film we see the charismatic James Ferman on the eve of the name change in 1985 from British Board of Film Censors to the British Board of Film Classification appearing on Wogan. It’s bizarre to think the Director of the BBFC would need to appear on prime TV to explain what he was doing, but this was part of James Ferman’s modus operandi. As he himself says in one clip: “We set a standard that people in society appreciate.” The subtext of ‘we’ was ‘I’.
He was a clever propagandist too. Frightfest’s Alan Jones recalls being hoodwinked into believing censorship might be a good thing via a presentation at BAFTA. Ferman played a horrifying montage of graphic, violent images from films they’d reviewed. When the audience got their breath back he then announced he would repeat the sequence of images, but as they were before they were censored by the BBFC – a masterstroke. He was facing an audience asking themselves do we really need it to get any worse. Thank goodness the BBFC are watching this stuff so we don’t have to.
There are a few clips of the Liberal Democrat, David Alton. These are chilling flashbacks to how crazy people got in the second wave of video nasties fever. On one TV debate show clip you see a young Alex Chandon (Inbred) sadly getting chewed up and spat out by the shrill tones of a person who just doesn’t want to listen to an alternative view on the subject. These films are just bad and not necessary.
Sex and violence was Ferman’s big bugbear says one of his former examiners. Another recalls an assessment of Lulcio Fulci’s New York Ripper (1982). It’d be funny, if she wasn’t deadly serious, when she describes how three examiners were in tears after their viewing experience. Based on this subjective response, not official guidelines, they decided, that that film, like many others condemned behind closed doors, wouldn’t see it’s way to being released in the UK.
Let’s remember this is pre-Berlin Wall coming down. The UK prides itself on being a free, democratic country, but West/Morris exposes a paternalist government happy to blame society’s ills on horror and violent films. All of which bolstered the power of Ferman and his BBFC.
There was resistance and some rebellion too. Horror fans up and down country started to make it their mission to find the uncensored versions of the films. The more determined were heading to the continent – Holland especially – for the good stuff and smuggling them into the UK like drug mules. Or the “Robin Hood’s of gore” as producer Morris calls these enterprising folks.
Fanzines such as Spencer Hickman’s (Death Waltz Records) Psychotic Reaction were born to document what films you should be trying to see and more importantly why. Film fairs became hotbeds of illegal tape trading. Classified ads in the likes of Darkside allowed people to share their wants and needs with each other. The film shows that the more the BBFC pushed its censorship agenda, the more the burgeoning horror community was driven underground. And because cinema was legally able to show more than VHS at home the horrorfest was born. Alan Jones and Stefan Jaworzyn started Shock Around The Clock at the Scala in Kings Cross and Hickman’s Nothing Shocking! was at the Forum Cinema, Northampton.
For all the fun and excitement of getting your hands on the illicit material, there were serious recriminations just around the corner. Frighteningly, homes, film fairs and video stores were raided by the police. And the terrifying stories of people in the documentary are a welcome reminder of a recent past that younger horror fans should take note of, and consider, when they hear public discussions about why the internet should be censored.
Headpress’s David Kerekes pops up to highlight a similar zealot operating at the highest levels of public service – the God Fearing, Chief of Police for Greater Manchester Police, James Anderton. Much lampooned at the time in political satires, like Spitting Image, but still very much using his power base to employ heavy handed tactics to clamp down on films and literature he disapproved.
The weirdest thing about Draconian Days is how Ferman was the architect of his own downfall for doing the opposite of what he’d made a career out of doing. He created the R18 classification to allow hardcore porn to be sold in licensed sex shops. It was a surprise lurch away from censorship, but the lack of public consultation and negotiation with central government, coupled with media outrage, proved too much for Jack Straw, Home Secretary at the time, and Ferman had to go. Paradoxically, the overlord for the Draconian Days of heavy film censorship, was now forced to leave for being too liberal in 1999.
Watch Draconian Days for the brilliant story of what happened, and how a horror community was born in the face of so much adversity, but let it also act as a warning. Less than 20 years ago it was a criminal offence to bring certain films in to the UK and/or trade them with friends. That’s truly scary.
Video Nasties: Draconian Days is out on DVD from 14 July
Originally published at http://www.britflicks.com/review.aspx?filmid=6737