What the censor saw!
Lawrence Lettice on a year when the film censor John Treveleyan came up against a trio of notorious films
For people of a certain age, including this writer, it’s often forgotten how much power, influence and expected controversy was once within the remit of the Film Censor.
You know, the guy often found in a darkened room wielding a large pair of metaphorical scissors, slicing away at risqué scenes in a film that may never see the light of day – or a movie screen for that matter.
You rarely hear much about their activities these days, but cast your minds back fifty years to 1971. When a grand total of two censors found themselves under siege.
Three films instantly stood out that year, and were placed before the censor’s inquisitive eyes, no doubt causing them endless headaches and sleeplessness nights as a result. Do you recall them? Like Edinburgh buses, the three films in question arrived – boom, boom, boom – virtually back to back. All made by notorious controversialists.
Welcome to Ken Russell’s The Devils, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange - back in the day, that amounted to an inescapable triumvirate of potential banana skins.
Censor John Treveleyan was the main man in the late 1960s, a time that gave strong hints and indications of what was to come crashing into his path…
At that time films were becoming more and more enmeshed in crude violence, explicit sex, profanity, drug abuse and all manner of sordid perversions.
It was the tail end of the ‘swinging sixties’ after all. So, if dealing with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Women In Love, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, The Music Lovers, Soldier Blue and Performance (a film of which one film executive remarked “even the bath water is dirty”), were giving the censor some heavy-duty homework to deal with.
What eventually erupted, in 1971, would turn out to be the stuff of a madman’s dreams.
The censors delaying tactics were akin to that small boy with his finger stuck in a dyke, vainly attempting to stem the on-coming flood of filth heading in his direction.
You could also add all three films were made by serious, innovative, and highly individual filmmakers, each in their own way trying to advance film as an art form. Not the types who could be easily described as slasher movie makers out to make a few dollars by producing crass films full of vulgar exploitation.
First up was Ken Russell’s The Devils. An everyday tale of 17th century France, featuring a relatively sober Oliver Reed being brutally tortured and burnt at the stake while possessed, and hysterical writhing nuns (with, or without their habits) indulging in all forms of blasphemous activities. It is not difficult to envisage a film like that not being made today.
Next came Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, (think a Cornish western) which climaxed in scenes of wanton death and destruction. However, its most contentious sequence focused on a disturbing and uncomfortable rape scene involving Susan George as an ambiguous victim.
To complete the ‘terrible’ trio, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange came stampeding over the hill! Based on Anthony Burgess’s cult novel – which was considered by many to be unfilmable – it is set sometime in the near future and focuses on gangs of aggressive teenage thugs who get their kicks (literally in some cases) from indulging in rampant acts of rape and violence, often to the accompaniment of Beethoven on the soundtrack.
The British Board of Film Censors found itself engulfed in the most putrefying period of its existence, with Mr Treveleyan in particular appearing out of touch with the way the wind was blowing in early 1970s cinema.
He was giving a pretty good impression of a stern headmaster trying (unsuccessfully) to keep order amongst a class of wild and unruly teenagers.
So, by the time first two films had been placed before the censor’s board, he wisely decided to retire, handing the baton (along with the scissors) to Stephen Murphy.
By the end of 1971 the strong perception was that the floodgates had finally been breached. And what would emerge in the next few years, would give the censors more headaches, along with a few grey hairs – sailing over the horizon were; Last Tango In Paris, Deliverance, The Exorcist, Death Wish and, probably most controversial of all, The Night Porter.
Yet it seemed that by the end of the seventies, the worst of the storm had passed.
However, as a new decade beckoned, an altogether newer and more insidious form of film fare had emerged. The video nasty!
Just when the censors though it was safe to put down the editing scissors, the likes of Driller Killer and I Spit On Your Grave managed to sneak undetected into the living rooms of Britain – courtesy of the domestic video player.
An all-new battlefield had opened up, one in which it seemed there could be no winners.
Postscript: Bizarrely, none of the above was the box office smash of 1971. That honour fell to a TV spin off of On The Buses, starring Reg Varney – if the censors were to make cuts to that film now they’d need a pair of wallpaper scissors!
Oliver Reed was sober on this one, apparently