Red Tape and Blue Pencil: The Autocracy of Film Censorship, Lesley Blanch | The Leader, April 1945

Now the play censorship is outside the law because it is a question of Crown rights: “the Prerogative” – or Royal right to approve or veto all plays publicly performed.  This has been a Crown prerogative for several centuries, dating, I believe, from those days when the theatre showed an uneasy tendency towards an irreverent or critical approach to State institutions. It is administered by the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and that’s that. From time to time, various MPs attempt to introduce a more democratic administration of a matter having so great a bearing on the public, but so far all attempts have been vanquished. 

Anyone who cares to read a full account of the latest has only to turn to Hansard, the official report on the Parliamentary debates, Vol. 406, No. 13, for Wednesday, 20 December, 1944. This is not nearly so formidable as it sounds, being a pamphlet like affair, issued regularly by His Majesty’s Stationery Office, and obtainable easily, price 6d. This particular debate makes racy reading.

Mr. E. P. Smith, M.P. for Ashford (who is Edward Percy, the author of Ladies in Retirement and The Shop on Sly Street which opened a week or two back at St Martin’s) questioned the function of   play censorship, and in particular its illogical and unpredictable attitude towards certain plays about Queen Victoria. While several films on the august lady have been sanctioned, and a whole set of Laurence Housman’s playlets strung together in Victoria Regina, an equally reverential play by Monckton Hoffe, called Mr. Lincoln Meets a Lady, was banned recently.

It seems that, while other treatments of the subject were, approximately, factual, this particular theme was an imaginary conversation piece, since the Queen never, in fact, met the President. There is a positive ruling that her late Majesty must never be the subject of a fantasy; so, in spite of Mr Percy’s plea that licence might be extended in view of Anglo- American relations, and such, the ban was not lifted; indeed, when Mr. Smith urged that the Censor’s office should be transferred to a Department more open to criticism, or appeal, he was silenced, on some point of technical procedure. But read your Hansard. The debate is also a revelation of the ingenious manner in which a progressive measure can be hustled out of court by a maze of small technicalities or rituals, such as “a point of order.”

The mere suggestion that the Crown should relinquish this particular prerogative in favour of a Minister responsible to Parliament, or in short, an approachable Department, was again cut short as being “out of order”.

On What Grounds?

From this maze of ritualistic suppressions, the debate finally arrived at the question of film censorship. Even then it got nowhere, though the few exchanges that time permitted have, I think, great bearing on the whole subject. Petty-Officer Herbert, better known, perhaps, as A. P. Herbert, the distinguished writer, who battled triumphantly for the reformation of our divorce laws, complained of the Censor’s marked prejudices. “For some reason,” said Mr. Herbert, “the Film Censor has always been a Roman Catholic”. This Censor had turned down the film treatment of his – Herbert’s famous book Holy Deadlock. Here the Deputy Speaker intervened again, saying the matter was not in order.

There are many people, however, who would like to know upon what precise grounds the Film Censor takes it upon himself to ban, for example, this witty and entirely decent book which showed up the farcical loopholes and deadlocks of our divorce laws, while permitting Gay Divorce and The Divorce of Lady X. Neither of these pictures approached the matter with the constructive purpose which lay behind Mr. Herbert’s satire. But perhaps that is why.

In 1936, Lord TyrreII of Avon, the President of the Board of British Film Censors, stated at the fiIm exhibitor’s summer conference in Eastbourne, “today’s cinema needs continuous repression of controversy in order to stave off disaster”. This queasy, yet dictatorial spirit was so obvious that, on the eve of war, the Soviet film Professor Mamlock, a moving, restrained and factually-based, though fictionally-treated, story of persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, was cut to pieces, as being likely to give offence to the Nazi overlords. This picture was shown at the Academy cinema in London where the manager, Miss Elsie Cohen, fought the decision. Later, during the war, when at last it was “safe”, or even desirable to expose Nazi brutalities, the film was again shown: but alas! The cuts had been lost in the meantime, and all that remains today is the genteel mutilated version doled out by the toadies.

As a member of the public, and the press, there are many questions which I should like to put to the Censor’s office, but I have been completely stonewalled by their uncooperative attitude. Asked a civil question, the Board replies through its mouthpiece, the secretary, a Mr Brooke Wilkinson, in an autocratic and testy manner. No: it really can’t answer questions about its origin. No: it wouldn’t care to say anything about how it works, how many members make up its committee, from what walks of life they are selected (for after all, you are not born a Censor, and what best fits you to become one, I wonder?).

What rules are hard and fast, what elasticities are permitted, what inferences agreed, what views on the Hays Office Code? These, and many more such queries, were swept aside by Mr Brooke Wilkinson, the Voice, as I should prefer to call him, with apologies to Frank Sinatra, since a telephone conversation was the nearest approach I was permitted.

The Voice refused to see me: the Voice disposed of the whole idea of an article on the censorship in what seemed to be a rather high-handed manner. The subject could be of no possible interest to anyone, it was understood to say. The whole question had been written about over and over again. There was nothing to be gained by going over old ground, and it wasn’t going to waste time doing so. Asked if these innumerable articles on the subject were in their files, the Voice replied yes. Asked, still pleasantly, hopefully even, if, in order not to waste any more of the Voice’s time, I might consult these files, the Voice snapped a sharp No down the line. No, it said. No; no; no; no to everything. No for no’s sake, I suspect. Unable to make any further headway into this No Man’s land, I withdrew.

Mouths are Firmly Shut  

But what, precisely, is this aura of self-appointed autocracy which shelters what should be an entirely open and democratic institution, to match others upon which we, in this country, have always prided ourselves? The few facts which I have obtained, (though I have no means of checking all of them, since the horse’s mouth is snapped shut), were by the helpfulness of a few private individuals and the courtesy of such as the Board of Trade and the M.O.I. Films Division, who waxed very merry over some little maladjustments of authority which they had to settle in the early days of the war, before the Board realised the precise limits of its control.

It seems that on all questions of Security, the Board has no say. Service Departments have their own Censors who vet everything showing material likely to be of sue to the enemy — landmarks, special weapons, planes, shipping, and such. After this, the film is passed to the Board of Censors who issue it with the certificate enabling it to be shown, and decide on their own special snippets, to be cut or —. A “U” certificate is for universal showing; an ”H” is for Horrific; an “A” is for adult audiences only. News reels are not subject to the censorship, I believe, though series like The March of Time are.

Pictures of a horrific nature, atrocity pictures, the realities of war, and such, are not encouraged by the Censors, who have a favourite argument that there might be a pregnant woman in the audience upon whom such pictures could have fatal results. But, in the light of the stoicism displayed by all the pregnant women who have lived through the realities of blitzes, V1 and 2, during the last six years, the Censors’ argument seems a little weak.

I take it that the Board regards the cinema first and last as a medium for entertainment. Controversial themes, such as India, Muslim sufferings, displaced persons and world security based on an industrial national share out, such as Paul Rotha‘s World of Plenty, would not, I fancy, appeal to the Board.  They show a positively touching anxiety to keep us distracted with jolly, dazzling bauble-like subjects. To be still, in fact, influenced by the American President’s dictum that a continued representation of controversy is needed.

There are, of course, certain rulings regarding questions of morals and taste with which one would quarrel. Bedroom scenes, for example, must never be double-bedroom scenes, but always twin-bedroom scenes. That is deemed OK by the Censor if you show a couple in twin beds, but never in the same bed. If one person is in the bed, the other outside person sitting on the bed then one foot at least must remain on the ground (a classic version of that time-honored phrase “Both feet on the ground”). I seem, to remember some steamy scenes on sofas, however, which got by, technically. What Hollywood used to refer to as “the horizontal kiss” is not favoured.

Clergy must never be mocked, or shown as comic characters, which removes at one go many ripe music hall humours, as well as the whole of Molière’s Tartuffe. On the other hand, the Lord’s Prayer was removed wholesale from a film on Canterbury Cathedral. It must not be inferred that a policeman might be bribeable, and an officer of the law must never be shown in a moment of being knocked down. That is, you see the thug about to sock him — cut — and the prostrate form: but you mustn’t see him proved fallible, or perhaps, fellable. If I am wrong in any of these statements, perhaps the Voice will correct me. Which will be one way of getting answers to my questions, though belatedly.

A Director’s Experiences

I have little hope, however, of obtaining answers to the less pertinent, but still  interesting aspects of the organization. Questions regarding tis personnel for example. Some years ago, in 1936, Mr John Grierson had the same number of difficulties, but a found a few striking facts of which he wrote in an article called The Invisible Hand of Censorship.

Now I do not suppose all the people of whom he wrote then, are still in office. He reckons that the combined age of five of them to be over three hundred. The President of the Board of British Film Censors, Lord TyrreII of Avon, was then approaching seventy. A Major Harding de Fonblanque Cox, Vice-Chairman, was a recent appointment to the Board, at the age of eighty-one, and suffered, on his own admission, from “ a peculiar from of lethargica”. As for the Head of the Board, Mr Edward Shortt, he “died at well over eighty, censoring films to the last”. Of its secretary, Mr Brooke Wilkinson (the Voice), Mr Grierson states that “his age is not known, but he has boasted of his acquaintance with John Ruskin who died in 1900”. He suffered from some serious eye trouble and disapproved of watching Sunday films.

At the time when Mae West was causing some anxiety to various Censors, League of Decency, moral uplift, and Welfare organisations of the world, it is interesting to recall the manner in which the octogenarian sporting Censor, Major Cox, approached the profession. He was at that time the Board’s assistant reader of scripts, “I shall judge film stories as I would horse-flesh, or a dog. I shall look for clean lines”. On Mae West he is reported to have said, “I am a man of the world, a broad-minded fellow, and they used to say I was a good judge of women . . . I shall judge her as I would a horse, or, say, a fox terrier”. (The Major founded the Fox Terrier Club.) I still look for good clean lines”.

The Voice staunchly adheres to strict rules regarding nudity. This must not be seen, nor in silhouette, and the Film Institute reviews passage of arms with the Voice, who insisted that one of Lotte Reiniger’s fairy-tale silhouette pictures must be cut on account of a nude silhouette. At which Miss Olwyn Vaughan, the secretary, taxed him on his low interpretation, saying how did he know they weren’t wearing bathing suits anyhow? Sometimes I think the Voice must have a harassing time. Although, on his own admission, the Censorship has always given satisfaction, there are undoubtedly many progressive minds among the cinema industry who would welcome a more enlightened and cultured approach. And certainly a more democratic one.

The Hays Office

Now that Mr Rank has decreed the Hays Office Censorship Code of America shall be studied here, by all his film-makers, it may be of interest to remark some of its precise rulings. Not that the close adherence to the rules will predispose the American market towards our films, I fear. The trouble with showing |Fanny by Gaslight there was not so much that she was illegitimate and lived, by inference, in sin, but that it might have proved to be an enjoyable, highly-coloured competitive picture. The Hays Office is an unofficial, all-powerful organisation, but, I believe, far more approachable than our Board. Its Code is laid down, for all to see, in the Motion Picture Herald Almanac. It has many points of similarity with ours.

“The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy,” it says. “The use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful.” “The history, institution, prominent people and citizens of other nations shall be represented fairly.” Which is an ambiguous statement, open to the widest interpretation, as we see at every turn. “Adultery,” says the Code, “Must not be presented attractively.” “Seduction or rape is never the proper subject for comedy.” Reading on, it strikes me that Hollywood, Lubitsch and Preston Sturges in particular, are pretty spry tightrope walkers, one way or another. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was truly a miracle of audacious steering.

Banned Words

Then there is the question of specific words or phrases. The name of the Lord must never be taken in vain, or as in common usage. Thus “My God! He’s shot her!” would be inadmissible; so would “Good Lord! I’m frozen.” Different words take on different meaning each side of the Atlantic. “Fanny” is out in America. “Bloody” says the Code, is invariably deleted by the English Censors. So is “Cissie”. “Pansy” is taboo in America. And “Fairy” in a vulgar sense, which won’t affect Peter Pan. Razzberry (the sound) is out. America bans “tart”, “alley cat,” or “broad”. We shy at “Gigolo”. “Travelling salesman and farmer’s daughter” jokes are out in America. So are words like “louse,” “lousy,” cries of “Fire” or “hold your hat — or hats,” as the Code states categorically, a remark which might otherwise elude the vigilance of our Censors.

In America you cannot, for fear of offending the various nations involved, refer to Chinks, Wops, Frogs, Greasers, Yids or Hunkies. All bar Yid and Kike, but not, I think Yank. It is curious that the most precise information I have been able to obtain, on our own censorship is gained, circuitously, via the Hays Code.

The Code was, I believe, the outcome of a big clean up, said to be instigated by the Vatican, which took place in the early nineteen-thirties when gangster films glorified every brutal act and made crime appear to pay: when the “Horizontal kiss” was only the beginning, and sex was sex, and no clean fun about it.  Scenes of sadism, such as the 1919 version of Broken Blossoms where Lilian Gish is beaten almost to death by her drunken lout of a father in the dreadful slum, would no longer be permitted in such entirety. Love scenes such as that between Garbo and John Gilbert now would be done under stop watch embraces. Much of the genius of Von Stroheim would be lavished on scenes and subjects inadmissible today; or rather their manner would have to infer such matter.

But I am not quibbling at that. The cinema is, by the flexibility of its medium, capable of expressing everything. Used imaginatively, a whisper can penetrate where a headline would only deafen. It is a sublet and limitless medium. But it is an art, as well as an industry. It can be a great progressive force in the post-war world, too.

And it is unbecoming that so vital and new a medium should be, in all its aspects, dependent for  public showing in Britain on the dictates of so autocratic, unrepresentative and undemocratically administered an organization as the Board of British Film Censors appears to be.

Lesley Blanch © The Estate of Lesley Blanch. All rights reserved. First published April 1945. Any questions? Contact us via the from on the Enquiries page, thanks!

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