“It’s alright for you middle-class cineastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker from Manchester happened to see it?” (James Ferman)
After the critically acclaimed success of their documentary Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide, which brilliantly managed to encapsulate the moral panic that was created during the Video Nasty shenanigans (“research WILL show they can also affect dogs”), Marc Morris and Jake West in their second feature on the subject examine the years 1984-1999. This period of course found the aforementioned Mr. Ferman still at the helm, but in the wake of the nasties outrage and the introduction of the VRA (Video Recordings Act) which stipulated by law that ALL new releases had to be certified, our infamous BBFC Director was intent on bringing a public face to the institution.
Ferman himself was American by birth and came to the UK following a period in the US Air Force. After a spell at Cambridge he worked behind the camera in Television directing such shows as Armchair Theatre and Emergency Ward 10 before taking up a position at the BBFC in 1975 – a time when the organisation was accused of being too liberal. He was a very hands on Director, and had quite a penchant for conference appearances where he would regularly whip out a prepared compilation of scenes they had cut from notorious films, which being viewed in isolation naturally caused the audience to feel repugnant. Even the respected author Alan Jones stated how he came out pro-censorship following this showman-like spectacle. Only in the cold light of day wold he realise that it was clever propaganda, and he states “from that moment on I would never trust the censor”.
Draconian Days goes on to analyse how individual tragedies affected the BBFC’s practices, and both the Hungerford Massacre and the murder of James Bulger are afforded pertinent scrutiny. The key issues that surrounded these incidents include the difficulty in enforcing who watches a VHS in the home, and also the ability for a viewer to isolate a scene. The use of weapons too it turns out was a particular area of concern for Mr. Ferman – the Rambo knife for example, and nunchucks, ninja stars and other martial arts orientated weaponry led to strict censorship. As we saw with Video Nasties part 1 though, such strict guidelines often resulted in frequent moments of idiocy such as the covering of the word ‘chainsaw’ in Fred Olen Ray’s Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers.
The hero of Morris and West’s first documentary was undoubtedly Martin Barker who was a continual source of enlightened reason. In Draconian Days he says something at the beginning which every person with the slightest regard for cinema – not just genre movies, should have etched into their brain.
“We have to care about the way things got controlled in the past. If we don’t remember, we’ll allow them to do it again”.
At times I think there’s a perception that the Video Nasty period is looked back on with rose-tinted glasses as something that’s buried in the past. Draconian Days though highlights the members bill put forward by MP David Alton in 1994 which intended on implementing a new classification ‘unsuitable for home entertainment’ – effectively banning anything that was not suitable for children. This received a political consensus AS WELL AS overwhelming public support. Pro-censorship lobbyists will always rear their ugly head – they don’t trust you, and they don’t think you’re intelligent enough to view material that they consider unsuitable. As one of the former BBFC examiners stated (to camera) in regard to Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper – “It’s the most damaging film I’ve ever seen in my life. After the film three of us were quietly weeping. That there’s an audience for it… that says something about the viewing audience”.
This second Video Nasty documentary is essential viewing. While the first one I regarded more as an eye opening history lesson about a ridiculously heightened moral panic, (even now the thought of someone walking into my Video Store an seizing my own product I find chilling) Draconian Days takes it and broadens the timeline giving us a complete picture of the role of the BBFC through the 80s and 90s. There’s little about it to look back fondly over, be it with Ferman’s private conversations with studios to dissuade them from even submitting films like The Exorcist or Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or with BBFC examiners seemingly devoid of a balanced analysis of the work of one of Italy’s most loved genre filmmakers. Irrespective of the shocking nature of the organisations behaviour, Marc Morris and Jake West keep their documentary moving at a brisk pace with superb commentary from folk such as academics, industry experts, writers and Morris himself with archive clips inserted where necessary.
If you care about artistic freedom as well the dangers of living in a society where the content of the films you want to see can be regulated by the actions of rogue MPs, self-serving BBFC directors or pompous campaigns in the Daily Mail, then it’s imperative you support this release from Nucleus films.