09/03/2012 17:25 GMT | Updated 09/05/2012 06:12 BST

This Film Contains... From Censor To Trusted Guide

In the early years of the BBFC, the emphasis was on deciding whether or not a film was suitable to be viewed at all, hence our original title of the British Board of Film Censors. Nonetheless, even as early as 1912 the BBFC also performed a significant 'consumer advice' function. When the Board was first set up, we employed two classification categories - U (meaning a film was 'suitable for all') and A (meaning a film was 'more suitable for adults', albeit without any restriction as to who might attend a performance). Over the years, the classification system has become more and more subtle, first with the introduction of the 'adults only' X certificate in the 1950s and then with the introduction of a specific 'teenage' category, the 'double A', in the 1970s. Nowadays, we have the more familiar U, PG, 12(A), 15, 18 set of classifications, giving a broad indication as to the suitability of a film for people of a particular age group. Nonetheless, although the classification system might provide a useful general guide as to the suitability of a film for a particular audience, the concept of explaining why a film might have received a particular certificate is a fairly modern one.

As the emphasis of the Board's work has gradually transformed from censorship to classification, so it has become necessary for the Board to explain precisely why a film has received a particular certificate. During the 1990s the Board pioneered a system of consumer advice in which the amount of sex, violence, drugs and bad language in a film was signposted on the back of VHS cassette boxes. That system (or a revised form of it) was generally welcomed by parents and remains intact on DVD boxes today, as well as on the posters and advertising for most cinema releases. However, the realities of space constraints (there is only so much one can print on a poster or a DVD box before it comes to resemble a book!) means that the BBFC has had to look at new and more innovative forms of information provision.

In 2007 we introduced a new system of Extended Classification Information, known as 'ECI' that would be published on the BBFC's website, accompanying each new film and game to be classified by us. The reasons for this were twofold. First of all, although it might be possible for the Board's consumer advice to explain that a film contains 'strong violence' or 'strong language', the context within which such issues might occur remains extremely important, as the Board's Guidelines recognise. For example, a throwaway use of strong language might be more forgivable, for some viewers at least, than an aggressive and personally directed one. Beyond that, although a film might be taken to '15' in Guideline terms for a handful of uses of strong language, the presence of nudity or an abortion theme (not themselves category-defining at '15') might be more of an issue for some viewers - and for some parents especially. It was in order to accommodate the specific context within which an issue might occur and the broader range of issues that a film might feature that we introduced ECI.

The Board's Guidelines place a strong emphasis on the overall tone and context of a work, in line with the findings of our recent public consultation exercises. So, although a film at '12A' and a film at '15' might both feature a similar sense of 'moderate' threat in purely visual terms, our ECI can be more explicit about the context within which that threat occurs. Accordingly, our ECI for Contagion ('12A'), which focuses on the outbreak of a global pandemic states: 'The scenes are not unduly sustained, are occasional rather than frequent, and there is an emphasis placed on the authorities' search for an antidote rather than on the victims' suffering. Therefore, the scenes are permissible at '12' where the Guidelines state 'Moderate physical and psychological threat may be permitted, provided disturbing sequences are not frequent or sustained'.

By contrast, our ECI for The Last Exorcism, which involves the documentary-style exorcism of a young girl states: 'The sense of strong threat, which is sustained throughout much of the film, increases as the story progresses. The teenage girl suffers increasingly frequent periods of possession, which are accompanied by harrowing sequences showing her distress and her mental and emotional vulnerability. The girl looks terrified and pleads with her father, asking him to shoot her. These tense and dark scenes are too strong and sustained to be permitted at '12A' where the BBFC's Guidelines state that 'moderate physical and psychological threat may be permitted, provided disturbing sequences are not frequent or sustained'. However, the scenes are permissible at '15' where 'Strong threat and menace are permitted unless sadistic or sexualised'. It is interesting, perhaps, that both films were classified at 'PG-13' in the US, meaning that children of any age could attend performances. On one level, the visuals of threat are similar but the context is entirely different and this is something the BBFC's ECI seeks to make clear to viewers and to parents in particular. Elements such as the realism of the threat and its relation to real life concerns may play a part, as may its occurrence within recognisable domestic situations and environments. It is this emphasis on the context and feel of scenes that distinguishes the BBFC and its system of consumer information from some other regulators, who rely upon a more literal and 'tick box' system of classification.

This emphasis on context is nicely illustrated by the example of The King's Speech, which the BBFC recently classified at '12A', in contrast to the 'R' rating awarded in the US (similar to a UK '18'). In this case, several uses of strong language made the film an uncomfortable fit at the requested '12A', where four uses of strong language is the normal upper limit. However, as our ECI explained; 'The BBFC's Guidelines at '12A'/'12' state that 'The use of strong language (for example, 'fuck') must be infrequent'. The King's Speech contains around 15 uses of strong language. However, all the examples of strong language occur during two isolated moments in which the King uses strong language at the instigation of his speech therapist. The strong language is not aggressive, sexual or directed at any other person. The uses also occur in rapid succession. In this unusual and very specific speech therapy context, it was concluded that the strong language was sufficiently infrequent, in terms of the film as a whole, to be permissible at '12A''.

A very literal deployment of the Guidelines, as occurred in the US, might have resulted in a straightforward '15' classification with the accompanying descriptor 'Contains strong language'. However, the BBFC's reliance upon detailed scrutiny, not only of the contents but also of the context within which an issue occurs, results in a more subtle and pragmatic approach to classification than that employed elsewhere. In my experience, the BBFC is unique in the scale of its public consultation and in the detail and nuance of its ECI. The future challenge for the Board is to promote this kind of additional advice and to ensure it reaches those people, parents especially, who will find it most useful.