Dr Tracy Hargreaves (University of Leeds) delivered a paper charting the work of the British Board of Film Censors and of its secretary John Trevelyan over a decade. She put to good use her 300 odd pages of research notes compiled from the Board’s archives which enabled her audience to lift the curtain and look beyond the urbane diplomacy of Trevelyan’s delicate dealings with directors, producers and scriptwriters to the highly critical comments of the Boards examiners. Trevelyan was able to resolve many disputed cuts over a pleasant lunch although, as Dr Hargreaves pointed out, from time to time he exceeded his brief and thought of himself as a scriptwriter.
Dr Hargreaves’s in-depth analysis of the Board’s records allowed her to enliven the seminar with many examples of the cuts demanded by the examiners and how the issues were eventually resolved. Although the paper covered the 1960s, I was delighted that Dr Hargreaves began a little earlier with one of my all-time favourites, Jack Clayton’s direction of John Braine’s novel, ‘Room at the Top’ which I saw upon its release in 1958. (I have not been able to forgive Laurence Harvey for his dreadful treatment of Simone Signoret). The examiners demanded and ‘bitch’ was changed to ‘witch’ and ‘don’t waste your lust on her’ to ‘don’t lust after her.’ The Board, unhappy with the film’s portrayal of an adulterous relationship reluctantly granted the film an ‘X’ certificate which was very likely to harm its prospects of box office success. Fortunately, Associated British Cinemas had the foresight and courage to distribute the film which is now regarded as a watershed in film history.
We were treated to many similar examples of cuts required and compromises achieved in such kitchen sink/new wave films as: ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, ‘Look Back in Anger’, ‘A Taste of Honey’, ‘Victim’ and many more. Dr Hargreaves highlighted the changes in public awareness, social changes and events such as Lord Wolfenden’s sympathetic Report on Homosexuality and the sensible verdict of the jury acquitting Penguin Books, the publishers of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover, of obscenity charges, all of which caused the Board to rethink its approach to film censorship. Class barriers were breaking down and it was accepted that most people were well able to cope with the cinema’s treatment of sexuality without becoming depraved and the focus, in the main, shifted to the protection of children. The tremendous social changes taking place in Britain after the Second World War were the catalyst for a more liberal approach from the guardians of our morals.
It was amusing to hear examples of the class conscious attitudes on the part of some examiners, with a hint of north south divide: ‘Bugger’ might be acceptable in a provincial public house but not in the cinema; the idea that theatre goers were more able to deal with adult themes than cinemagoers some of whom merely went in to the cinema to shelter from the rain; and the suggestion that working class youths in particular were in need of protection.
Staff and students showed their appreciation to Dr Hargreaves, thanking her for an illuminating and enjoyable seminar and, for this scribe, a happy trip down memory lane.
David Lynch is a PhD student researching the United States Supreme Court’s struggle for recognition during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.