‘Mary Whitehouse is living in my head’: how the video nasty scandal inspired a hot new film

Censor, Prano Bailey-Bond’s horror debut, was inspired by the 80s home video outrage. She discusses art versus offence, while the BBFC’s head makes the case for its relevance today

Rising film directors hailed as rock stars by the movie industry don’t always have much to talk about. Prano Bailey-Bond is different. Her first feature, the smart, playful horror Censor, is a talking point itself, an excavation of a murky British past. Then there is her background, of eye-opening things seen notably young. Her interview style is sharp. “I try to keep it fresh without changing the whole story,” she says.

Bailey-Bond has dark hair in a fringe, a trace of a Welsh accent and the friendly, practical manner of a film-maker used to working on a budget. Censor is set in an unwell-looking London, circa 1985. The heroine – ish – is Enid, played by Niamh Algar, a film examiner at what we take to be the British Board of Film Classification. Her personal history is a risk for an organisation in crisis. That much is drawn from real life – the tinderbox era of video nasties.

The video nasty scandal arose from the emergence of what was then called home video. As with many disruptive technologies, legal loopholes meant that watching films at home was suddenly – in the eyes of some – a lawless, dangerous territory. Dingy living rooms lay outside the remit of the BBFC – home videos did not need a certificate.

Throughout the early 80s, headlines shrieked the diehard outrage of the anti-“permissive society” campaigner Mary Whitehouse. Finally, the director of public prosecutions released a list of 72 titles whose distribution might invite legal action for contravening the Obscene Publications Act 1959. These included Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (later a franchise, a musical and a series on the Starz network) and work by the genre grandee Dario Argento and the Andy Warhol associate Paul Morrissey. The bulk were dog-eared cannibal and zombie flicks, some inventive, others flatly grim. All were effectively banned.

Bailey-Bond has seen most of them. “A lot are on YouTube,” she says. Others exist now as lavish Blu-rays. She revisited many as research for Censor. “I really love a few of them. It was fun taking notes.” Eventually, the law caught up with home video, equipping the BBFC to rate home entertainment, demanding cuts as it saw fit. Bailey-Bond also accessed the examiners’ reports. “There were no guidelines. So you see their personality in what caught their eye. Their own obsessions.”

The modern BBFC offered up more than old manila files. Censor is set in a likeness of the board’s headquarters in Soho Square, London. Bailey-Bond spent time with working examiners. Whitehouse died in 2001, but the board and its colourful ratings remain a fact of British life. When I ask for an interview, its chief executive, David Austin, agrees happily.

Austin made staff welfare a priority during the pandemic. Still, an examiner’s work can be lonely, even before working-from-home. In Censor, that pressure is no good for Enid. As such, it feels odd to find the BBFC promoting the movie. To Austin, it is proof of a healthy culture. “I would ask: why wouldn’t we be friendly with Prano? We’re an honest and transparent organisation.”

What did he make of the film? “I enjoyed it!” he says, quickly. A pause. No one at the BBFC now would call themselves a censor, he says. “And there were some lines. ‘If in doubt, reject it.’ That is just so far from what we are today.” He looks pained.

Like so much British cinema, Censor is a period piece. At one point, Bailey-Bond pans to a front-room TV and news of the miners’ strike. Of course, the miners were striking for their livelihoods rather than the right to watch Anthropophagus: The Beast uncut. While the miners also lost, the tribal horror community formed in the video nasty melee not only survived, but entered the mainstream of British film. Its legacy turns up in everything from the hugely popular FrightFest to the movies of Ben Wheatley.

But in the authoritarian gloom of mid-80s Britain, horror felt like one more thing the government didn’t like – one more door kicked in. For Bailey-Bond, the era has the fascination we often feel for things we bump into as children. Her parents moved to Wales in the 70s. Her mother was an actor, her father an artist turned set designer. They were followers of the Indian mystic Osho. Their daughter was originally named Prem Prano. “It means ‘lover of life’,” she says. Keen to live in nature, they settled in Penuwch, west Wales. “Properly rural. You wouldn’t even think it was a village.”

The community was a mix. “Some people were there because it was this cosmic land. A few were trying to avoid the police.” Despite the off-the-grid ambience, shelves in the family home brimmed with videos, belonging to her parents and her two older siblings. By 1990, Twin Peaks was on TV. Bailey-Bond watched, enraptured. “I realised this weird, dark stuff was what I loved,” she says. She was in primary school, about eight years old. She wore her sister’s I Killed Laura Palmer T-shirt to the playground. “Someone asked why I was saying I’d killed a random girl. I just rolled my eyes.”

A teenage horror fixation followed. The glam-goth vampire movie The Lost Boys proved the “gateway”. The Evil Dead became an obsession. Bailey-Bond tells a gleeful story about an experimental stage homage during her performing arts BTec. She wasn’t even meant to be the director. “I just took control,” she says.

In her case, early exposure to gore appears less to have corrupted her than instilled a work ethic. Desperate to make films, she moved to London at 18. “I just saw Wales as fields between me and the industry.” She spent the 00s in Soho. There were jobs as a runner and at the post-production house Goldcrest. The older she got, the more she scrutinised the films she watched, asking what they really were, deep in the images.

The industry hubbub around Bailey-Bond now suggests overnight success. Cliches are true about such transformations. For several years, she made darkly inventive short films while collecting rejection emails from funders. “Not having that support was helpful. It let me develop into me,” she says, half smiling. “Let’s say that, anyway.” Finally, in 2015, she made Nasty, a short harking back to the bad old good old days. “That definitely was me.” She started work on Censor soon afterwards.

Ask Austin how he feels about the 80s BBFC and you might think he was talking about a late, disgraced elderly relative. The Video Recordings Act of 1984 gave the BBFC control over the films people watched at home; in the same year, the board dropped the word “censors” from its title. But, to Austin, a more profound change came in 1999. That was when the board switched from airing examiners’ hang-ups to transparent guidelines drawn from public consultation. Twenty-two years later, 10,000 members of the British public are still asked annually to gauge the level of sex and violence that should be viewable by, say, a typical 12-year-old. “I don’t just make up the standards in Soho Square,” Austin says. “Our standards are given to us by the public.”

Other surveys go on year round. They yield endless statistics that dot Austin’s conversation (“95% of teenagers want consistent age ratings between cinema releases and streaming,” he says, casually). He speaks of reflecting public opinion with such passion that you want to gently put a hand on his shoulder. “We’re deeply self-critical. We constantly ask: ‘Are we getting this right? Can we be more transparent?’ Danny, let us know if you have any ideas. I’m in the market for maximum transparency.”

But Austin is canny, too. In the 80s, video nasties spotlit the BBFC. They also obliged it to change in changing times. At its heart, the board is still a curiosity – a non-government body with quasi-legal powers. But its methods and image have been expertly reshaped. No longer the strict, slightly odd headteacher, it is slick, democratic and chipper. “We’re an ally to families,” Austin says. “We give people the information they need to help decide what they choose to avoid.”

Much of the heat has gone out of the argument. In recent years, few films have moved the board to demand cuts (the 2010 shock-horror A Serbian Film is perhaps the most notorious). Horror itself feels different now, with female directors breaking through, upending the male violence that once filled the genre. In Britain, Censor follows Saint Maud, the unnerving 2020 sleeper hit directed by Rose Glass. “I don’t see the film as making horror my own,” Bailey-Bond says. “It’s been mine since I was a teenager.”

Yet not everyone is at peace with the BBFC. In 2016, the film-maker Charlie Shackleton pushed back. His objections included its financial model: not profit-making, but reliant on distributors having no choice but to submit their films for certification – and to pay the BBFC to do so, for each minute of screen time. His provocative response was Paint Drying, a 10-hour study of a freshly painted wall. The classification fee was crowdfunded, the issue publicised. (The film got a U.) Shackleton remains a sceptic. “It suits the BBFC to highlight video nasties. They acknowledge the absurdity of their past and tell everyone they’re different now. Then they release another survey to justify their existence.”

The BBFC’s Soho base long sat among companies tied up with cinema and physical media. These days, that is less the case. Like everyone else, it has turned to streaming. The jewel in its crown is Netflix – whose content in Britain is all BBFC rated. (“And 88% of parents found it useful when Netflix started using BBFC classification,” Austin says.) But the relationship is unusual. Rather than submit content to examiners, the company uses an algorithm developed with the board. The bill is substantially cheaper.

Austin wants to work with other big streamers. But the real prize is the internet. If video nasties were an early freakout at rising individualism, online life is the world after the flood. Here, more than movies, is where the questions of the 80s endure. When does “I don’t want to look at this” attract the addendum “and no one else should” or “because they might copy it”? “That was video nasties in a nutshell,” Bailey-Bond says. “It came from people feeling everyone was morally shady, that we’re only ever one film from garotting someone with a shoelace.”

But the internet remains out of reach. In 2017, the government tasked the BBFC with creating an age-verification system for online pornography. Two years later, the plans were dropped. Austin sounds frustrated. “Masses of work went into that. It would have been highly effective.” Opponents had mocked and expressed unease. Austin is unapologetic. “We would have made children accidentally stumbling into pornography a thing of the past.”

The BBFC keeps asking Britain what it wants classified next. This year, the board has canvassed opinions about racism in films. It also released a survey revealing a preference for British age ratings (reflecting “UK values”) over European regulations (too lax). Austin insists the research was apolitical. But trying to follow the public mood can take you to unpredictable places.

Either way, what BBFC research most reliably shows is how comfortable people are with the BBFC. No finger is needed on the scales. Austin’s case that Britain likes its movies vetted seems self-evident. Bailey-Bond identifies the accommodation. “Censorship is problematic. I also think guidelines about whether a film will upset your children are useful.”

But Shackleton sees the board slipping into irrelevance – a safety net that catches no bodies. “Every kid in Britain is in their room looking at anything under the sun with absolutely no regard for its classification or lack thereof. And, as a country, rather than push for greater media literacy, we say OK – let’s give every film on Amazon Prime an age rating.”

Then again, there was always something performative about the video nasty saga. Whitehouse never watched the films she wanted banned. She knew she didn’t need to – that her campaign tapped into something awkwardly primal, our lack of trust in each other and maybe ourselves.

Researching Censor, Bailey-Bond took a break from old favourites to check out the more recent past. It left her troubled. Watching the grotesque A Serbian Film, she became upset. “I thought: I really don’t think anyone needs to see this. And then I thought: what if this puts ideas in someone’s head?” She stops and looks aghast. “Even now, I went straight from one to the other. Even now, Mary Whitehouse is living in my head.”

Censor is released in UK cinemas on 20 August

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