I often wonder what Mary Whitehouse, the UK’s self-imposed guardian of decency, would think if you sat her down and played her an episode of The Walking Dead. Perhaps that episode where the bad guys made someone eat his own leg. Or maybe that one where Rick and crew were captured, kneeling at a trough, and waiting to be picked off one by one. Or that episode where Glenn and Abraham both got a baseball bat in the back of the head.
Maybe she’d prefer Game Of Thrones. She might like the episode where half of the principal cast were killed off at the red wedding, and the show took great joy at showing a pregnant woman being stabbed repeatedly in the belly.
It’s fair to say that we’ve gone a long, long way from the dark days of overbearing censorship; but have we gone too far?
I was reminded the other day of the United Kingdom’s video nasties list, something I hadn’t thought about for twenty years. Reading up on it, it feels like some kind of whacky parallel universe.
It all started with a legal loophole in the early 1980s. It’s hard to believe a market as big as home-video being unregulated, but as the popularity of home video wasn’t foreseen, videos were originally released without being reviewed for classification. Bonkers!
The subsequent list of films – 39 titles which could lead to prosecution following the Video Recordings Act 1984, a further 33 titles deemed less obscene (but which could be still seized by the police), and a final 82 films deemed even less obscene (but again could still be seized) – make for some interesting reading.
Of the first list, I’ve only seen two – The Driller Killer and The Last House On The Left – and if the quality of these films is anything to go by, I won’t be seeking out the rest. I’ve seen two on the second list – The Evil Dead and The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue – but I have the most success with the third list, which seems to be a catch-all of pretty much every other horror film of the time, having seen eight titles: Dawn Of The Dead, Friday The 13th, Friday The 13th Part 2, Night Of The Living Dead, Scanners, Suspiria, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Thing.
One film commonly associated with the video nasties list was A Clockwork Orange. However, this was withdrawn from cinemas by Stanley Kubrick himself, after reports of copycat crimes. Subsequently, it was never released on home-video. Only after the director’s death was the film re-released in cinemas in 2000, and made available on VHS and DVD.
While A Clockwork Orange is a fantastic film, it will never be one of my favourite of Kubrick’s. It’s just so damn depressing, with Michael McDowell’s Alex impossible to empathise with. Of course this is just as much to do with McDowell’s performance as it is with the character written by Anthony Burgess. I can’t ever remember McDowell playing a sympathetic character – he oozes repulsion both in the people he plays, and from the audience watching him.
Even though the age of censorship that bred the video nasties list feels like a lifetime ago, one of today’s top directors was affected early in his career. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was originally denied a home-video release in the UK, despite being classified for a cinematic release in 1992. Herein lies the real headache – video classification was originally considered completely separate from cinematic classification. Another example was William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which didn’t see a home-release until 1999, despite regularly playing at midnight screenings across the country (including my local Roxy cinema in Failsworth) since its 1973 release.
What this all boils down to is a lack of trust in the consumer. The government would (begrudgingly) allow a film to be viewed at the cinema, but wouldn’t allow it to be viewed at home because they had no control over who would see it on the family television. In theory, it sort of makes sense, but it fails in practice. A huge home audience was initially refused the opportunity to see Reservoir Dogs, once declared ‘the greatest independent film of all time’, which despite featuring a lot of blood, doesn’t actually have much on-screen violence.
Hit: Title Music From A Clockwork Orange – Wendy Carlos
Hidden Gem: I Want To Marry A Lighthouse Keeper – Erika Eigen