History of British film certificates

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This article chronicles the history of British film certificates.

Overview[edit]

The UK's film ratings are decided by the British Board of Film Classification and have been since 1912.[1] Previously, there were no agreed rating standards, and local councils imposed their own - often differing - conditions or restrictions. For cinema releases, the BBFC has no legal power (technically, films do not even have to be submitted for classification), as it falls to councils to decide who should be admitted to a certain film, but they generally apply the BBFC's certificates, effectively making them legally-binding. In exceptional cases, councils may impose their own conditions, either raising or lowering the minimum entry age from the certificate, banning a certified film outright, or setting their own minimum entry age for films that have never been submitted for BBFC certification, or which have been refused a certificate by the Board.

Prior to 1985, there were no legally-binding ratings on video releases. The Video Recordings Act 1984 introduced new legal powers to certify video releases independently from any existing cinema certificate, with the BBFC being required to rate every new video release (except those exempted from classification) to determine the minimum age of people to whom the recording can be supplied, whether by sale or rental.[2] In August 2009 it was discovered that the Video Recordings Act 1984 never had legal effect, due to a technical error when the terms of the act were not communicated to the European Commission.[3] The relevant provisions were re-enacted by Parliament as the Video Recordings Act 2010.

The following list chronicles the BBFC's ratings system from its inception to the present. Note that what is allowed in a film has greatly changed over time. A film rated 'A' in 1912 would probably be rated 'PG' now.[4]

In each section, italics indicates when a certificate has changed since the previous system.

1912–1932[edit]

At first, there were just two advisory certificates.[5]

Symbol Name Definition/Notes
U Universal Suitable for children
A Adult Some councils ruled that children must be accompanied by an adult

In Ireland, following the independence of the Irish Free State in 1922 (now the Republic of Ireland), the Irish Film Censor's Office was created in 1923 in place of the BBFC. This was renamed the Irish Film Classification Office in 2008.

1932–1951[edit]

An H (Horror) certificate was added to alert parents to horror-themed material.[4]

Symbol Name Definition/Notes
U Universal Suitable for children
A Adult Some councils ruled that children must be accompanied by an adult
H Horrific Some councils ruled that only those aged 16 or over could be admitted

1951–1970[edit]

For the first time, a compulsory certificate, X, was introduced allowing only those aged 16 and older to enter. This replaced the H certificate.[6]

Symbol Name Definition/Notes
U Universal Suitable for children
A Adult Some councils ruled that children must be accompanied by an adult
X X Suitable for those aged 16 and older (enforced by all councils)

1970–1982[edit]

On 1 July 1970 the A certificate was split into two: the A certificate now allowed those aged five and older to be admitted, but warned parents that they may not wish children under 14 to watch the film, while the new AA allowed only those aged 14 or over to be admitted.[7] As there was now a mandatory certificate at 14, the X certificate was modified to raise its age from 16 to 18. The classification symbols were given a more modern look, replacing the ageing logos that had served the BBFC for almost 60 years.

Symbol Name Definition/Notes
U Universal Suitable for children
A Advisory Those aged 5 and older admitted, but not recommended for children under 14 years of age
AA AA Suitable for those aged 14 and older
X X Suitable for those aged 18 and older

1982–1985[edit]

On 1 November 1982 the ratings system was completely overhauled with only the U certificate remaining unchanged (though its description was slightly modified). The A certificate was replaced by PG, which was now completely advisory. The age of AA was raised a year and the certificate was renamed 15. The X certificate was unchanged but renamed 18 due to the lewd reputation that the letter X had acquired. A new R18 certificate was introduced for sexually-explicit films. In order to show R18 films, cinemas must be licensed members-only clubs (previously, a loophole allowed these clubs to show such films unrated).[8]

Symbol Name Definition/Notes
U Universal Suitable for all
PG Parental Guidance General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
15 15 Suitable for those aged 15 and older
18 18 Suitable for those aged 18 and older
R18 Restricted 18 Restricted to those aged 18 and older and only available at licensed cinemas

1985–1989[edit]

The Video Recordings Act 1984 gave the BBFC the legal responsibility to rate all videos. The current certificates were all used and were also modified and coloured. A new Uc certificate was introduced for videos only to indicate a recording that is especially suitable for young children to watch on their own.[8] Those under the age of a certificate could not buy or rent a video with that certificate. Shops wishing to sell or rent R18 videos had to apply for a licence.

Symbol Name Definition/Notes
Uc Universal Children Suitable for all, but especially suitable for young children to watch on their own (video only)
U Universal Suitable for all (now also covers videos)
PG Parental Guidance General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children (now also covers videos)
15 15 Suitable for those aged 15 and older (now also covers videos)
18 18 Suitable for those aged 18 and older (now also covers videos)
R18 Restricted 18 Restricted to those aged 18 and older and only available at licensed cinemas and sex shops. The latter will not require a licence to sell R18 films. (now also covers videos)

1989–1994[edit]

Due to the large gap between PG and 15 and industry pressure regarding Batman, a 12 certificate was introduced on 1 August 1989.[8] However, it was for cinema use only and did not cover videos. 12 films released on video would typically be classified 15, though they were sometimes edited to fit the PG category[citation needed]. All of the symbols were also graphically edited.

Symbol Name Definition/Notes
Uc Universal Children Suitable for all, but especially suitable for young children to watch on their own (video only)
U Universal Suitable for all
PG Parental Guidance General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
12 12 Suitable for those aged 12 and older (cinema only)
15 15 Suitable for those aged 15 and older
18 18 Suitable for those aged 18 and older
R18 Restricted 18 Restricted to those aged 18 and older and only available at licensed cinemas and sex shops. The latter will not require a licence to sell R18 films.

1994–2002[edit]

The 12 certificate was also introduced for videos on 1 July 1994.[5]

Symbol Name Definition/Notes
Uc Universal Children Suitable for all, but especially suitable for young children to watch on their own (video only)
U Universal Suitable for all
PG Parental Guidance General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
12 12 Suitable for those aged 12 and older (now also covers videos)
15 15 Suitable for those aged 15 and older
18 18 Suitable for those aged 18 and older
R18 Restricted 18 Restricted to those aged 18 and older and only available at licensed cinemas and sex shops. The latter will not require a licence to sell R18 films.

2002–2009[edit]

The cinema 12 certificate was modified and renamed 12A. Those under 12 could now be admitted to 12A films, provided that they were accompanied by an adult aged at least 18 years old, although the BBFC recommends that 12A films are generally unsuitable for children under 12 years old. Contrary to popular belief, the certificate was not introduced for the film Spider-Man, the first film to receive it was actually The Bourne Identity. However, Spider-Man and other films still on general release at the time were reclassified as 12A. Introduction of the 12A followed two years of consultation and a trial period in Norwich, during which time the certificate was known as PG-12 (see below).[9] The video 12 certificate remained unchanged. Shortly after the new certificate was introduced, all of the symbols were graphically modernised but retained all their main features (colour, shape, etc.).

Symbol Name Definition/Notes
Uc Universal Children Suitable for all, but especially suitable for young children to watch on their own. This certificate was retired in 2009. (video only)[10]
U Universal Suitable for all
PG Parental Guidance General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
12A 12 Accompanied/Advisory Suitable for those aged 12 and older (cinema only); under 12s admitted, but only if accompanied by an adult
12 12 Suitable for those aged 12 and older
15 15 Suitable for those aged 15 and older
18 18 Suitable for those aged 18 and older
R18 Restricted 18 Restricted to those aged 18 and older and only available at licensed cinemas and sex shops. The latter will not require a licence to sell R18 films.

2009–present[edit]

The Uc certificate was retired in 2009.[10]

Symbol Name Definition/Notes
U Universal Suitable for all
PG Parental Guidance General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
12A 12 Accompanied/Advisory Suitable for those aged 12 and older (cinema only); under 12s admitted, but only if accompanied by an adult
12 12 Suitable for those aged 12 and older
15 15 Suitable for those aged 15 and older
18 18 Suitable for those aged 18 and older
R18 Restricted 18 Restricted to those aged 18 and older and only available at licensed cinemas and sex shops. The latter will not require a licence to sell R18 films.

Non-standard certificates and ratings[edit]

Symbol Name Definition/Notes
PG-12 PG-12 Suitable for those aged 12 and older (cinema only); under 12s admitted, but only if accompanied by an adult.

This experimental certificate was used during a short BBFC trial in Norwich from October 2001 to January 2002, in which all 12 certificate films on release were classed as PG-12. Norwich was chosen due to its relative isolation from other large towns, in order to avoid significant numbers of children travelling there to specifically take advantage of the relaxed controls. The results of the trial led to the adoption of the 12A later in 2002.[11][12]

Between the end of the Norwich trial and the actual introduction of the 12A, a PG-12 rating was used by Tameside Council in June 2002 for Spider-Man, over-ruling the BBFC's 12 certification of the film. In addition, some other councils awarded the film a PG certificate.[13]

E Exempt or 'E certificate' The 'E' in a square, triangle, circle, or similar, is not a BBFC rating certificate, but rather a statement from the distributor certifying that they believe a video recording is exempt from classification under the Video Recordings Act 1984 (e.g. educational material, music and sport).

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "About the BBFC". BBFC. Retrieved 2008-01-29. 
  2. ^ "Video Recordings Act 1984 (c. 39)". Retrieved 2008-01-29. 
  3. ^ Petley, Julian (2009-08-26). "Video Recordings Act was a blank tape". London: The Guardian. Retrieved August 26, 2009. 
  4. ^ a b "SBBFC: History - 1912-1949". BBFC. Retrieved 2008-02-07. 
  5. ^ a b "SBBFC: The History of the Category System". BBFC. Retrieved 2008-02-07. 
  6. ^ "SBBFC: History - 1950s". BBFC. Retrieved 2008-02-07. 
  7. ^ "SBBFC: History - 1970s". BBFC. Retrieved 2008-02-07. 
  8. ^ a b c "SBBFC: History - 1980s". BBFC. Retrieved 2008-02-07. 
  9. ^ "SBBFC: Spider-Man Case Study". BBFC. Retrieved 2008-02-07. [dead link]
  10. ^ a b BBFC Classification Guidelines 2009 (PDF)
  11. ^ "Film censor relaxes rules for children". BBC News. 2001-10-29. Retrieved 2010-05-04. 
  12. ^ BBFC report on Norwich trial (archived page)
  13. ^ "Parents warned of Spider-Man violence". BBC News. 2002-06-13. Retrieved 2010-05-04. 

External links[edit]