How the dictatorial British film censor James Ferman became an obsessive buzz kill in the 1980s.
The personal bugaboos and paranoias of the former head of the BBFC, James Ferman, are the stuff of legend. Ferman, who ruled over the censor’s office with an increasing sense of authoritarianism from 1975 to 1999, developed several obsessions over his reign, often surrounding the glamorisation of weapons, trigger images for rapists, the drip-drip effect of violent imagery, the line between the legal and the obscene and the potential for copycat behaviour. Little of this was backed up by any research – at best, there were conflicting studies that Ferman would cherry-pick from in order to confirm his own biases. Discredited studies of the effects of violent porn were clung to while newer, less concrete studies – sometimes by the same researchers – were ignored. Case studies and legal precedent were accepted only when it supported Ferman’s own peculiar obsessions, and he would often claim that the lack of evidence supporting his belief that certain images and certain weapons had caused social damage simply proved that he had been right to ban them – by removing these things from the public eye, he had pro-actively prevented an epidemic of crime. The lack of criminal cases involving nunchucks was because he had ferociously removed all evidence of them from every film that came his way (even, infamously, a string of sausages from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film and a poster of Bruce Lee holding the weapon seen on John Travolta’s bedroom wall in Saturday Night Fever). Like most censors, Ferman seemed to think that British cinema existed in a vacuum and that by cutting or banning imagery, he was somehow removing it from the public consciousness. No matter that the Bruce Lee poster was widely available on the high street; no matter that the images he banned were widely available in magazines, books and other media, including TV shows.
The nunchaku was the most infamous weapon that Ferman imposed a blanket ban on, but as his time in power dragged on – seemingly without end – so his cranky obsessions expanded. Other martial arts weapons like throwing stars, ‘Rambo knives’, flick knives, crossbows and other niche weaponry joined his list of the forbidden, despite no evidence to show that they had become a public menace. Most bizarre was Ferman’s growing fixation with chainsaws.
When The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was banned by the BBFC in 1975 – by then-head censor Stephen Murphy, before Ferman joined the Board – the official reason (one repeated whenever anyone tried to secure a release for the film over the ensuing years) was that the problem was less any specific moment of violence, but rather the overall ‘tone’ of the film – the fact that it was too effective in its aim of scaring the bejesus out of the viewer – and, as time went on, the film’s intense terrorisation of the central female character became Ferman’s main concern. Sexual violence was another Ferman obsession, and as someone who believed himself to be more feminist than the feminists, he expanded that concern to non-sexual imagery – the idea that rapist would be aroused even by non-sexual assaults lodged itself firmly in his mind. Ferman actually referred to the film as “the pornography of terror”, and attempts to have the film classified in the late 1970s and mid-1980s came to nought.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre became one of several films that Ferman became increasingly stubborn about – like The Exorcist and The Trip, the more time that passed, the stronger his determination that the film could never be released became, as if it would be a personal humiliation if he were to say – as the BBFC routinely do now – that society has changed and the film was no longer a danger. Ferman’s conviction of his own infallibility would never allow him to admit to being wrong, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was too high profile for a certificate to be quietly granted, unnoticed. The film became one of his lines in the sand – something so unspeakably dangerous that there would never be a time when it could be shown.
Although not mentioned as a reason why the film had been banned, somewhere along the way, the chainsaw began to morph itself into something of a fixation for Ferman. As a weapon, it’s not the most practical of choices for anyone outside criminal gangs who use it to send a particularly grotesque and messy message to rivals. And there was no evidence that anyone had adopted it instead of knives or guns to carry out murders, even in countries when the film had been widely released (which, by the mid-1980s, included the UK, where The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had been widely available on pre-cert VHS – and notably avoided prosecution as a ‘video nasty’). But as time went by, Ferman seemed to develop a kneejerk reaction to any mention of the tool.
In 1986, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was submitted to the BBFC, where it was an inevitable hot potato. The fact that the original film – a much less gory and excessive affair – was still banned meant that the film was unlikely to sail through the censorship process, and indeed the protracted proceedings would become amongst the most infamous in the BBFC history. As with the earlier film, cuts were considered – the Board watched the film on three occasions, and were torn between heavy cuts and an outright ban. Eventually, a version that was cut by 22 minutes was submitted, but even this did not satisfy the BBFC. Unsurprisingly, the distributors then gave up on the process – to have cut the film even further would have left them with a product too compromised to sell.
By pulling out of the submission process in 1987, Columbia-Cannon-Warner allowed the BBFC to avoid officially banning the film, though reducing the running time by almost a third was a close as they could get to banning the film as possible – like many films that were not officially banned, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 suffered the death of a thousand cuts. It is, of course, an extraordinarily excessive film by any standard, both in terms of gore and wildly intense psychosis – it’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre turned up to eleven, and in a period of intense censorship and only a couple of years after the Video Nasty hysteria had been at its peak, this wasn’t going to be the hill that the BBFC died on. The fact that it was a sequel to one of their most problematic titles was just the icing on the cake.
Should you think that both films reaching the same fate at the hands of the British censors a decade apart was just unfortunate coincidence, consider the fate of Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III in 1990. This too was banned outright, seemingly without as much consideration given to cuts. Indeed, the BBFC could hardly have been sniffier in their reports on the film, calling it a “humourless, deadening experience, which cuts would do little to alleviate.” The film was, indeed, another intense experience – certainly in comparison to the increasingly bland genre pieces of the time – but it seems almost incomprehensible that three films in a single series, made over a sixteen-year period by different filmmakers, could all be banned without there being something within the very concept that was the problem. What that thing was already seemed obvious to British genre fans by this point, as they’d seen the near-hysterical treatment of Fred Olen Ray’s bad taste comedy Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers.
This 1988 low budget movie stars Linnea Quigley, Michelle Bauer and Gunnar Hansen as the members of a cult who use chainsaws to dismember victims – basically, it does what it says on the tin. At least the tin used outside the UK. Ferman, we can assume, didn’t get the joke. As well as cutting over a minute of cartoonishly splattery action – namely a naked Bauer being sprayed with blood as she hacks rubbery limbs from a victim using the chainsaw – Ferman forced a title change. In one of the BBFC’s most infamous moments – very much up there with the sausage nunchucks – the word ‘Chainsaw’ was excised from the film, resulting in a version called Hollywood Hookers – which, of course, makes it sound like something that it isn’t. Distributor Colourbox – who had launched a year or so earlier with a splurge of publicity as cult movie specialists, but were now floundering under the weight of BBFC disapproval – replaced the word ‘Chainsaw’ with a silhouette chainsaw shape on the sleeve, and were forced to publicly apologise for the film being so badly cut (it had shown, uncut, at the Shock Around the Clock festival earlier in 1988, and so a lot of fans knew what to expect and were about to be severely disappointed).
In case there is any doubt – Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers is an entirely harmless comedy. The gore is deliberately unrealistic and the bad taste very much tongue-in-cheek. You’d need to have a very big stick up your ass to believe it to be a danger to society, and it’s hard to imagine the thinking behind the idea that even the word chainsaw’ was so beyond the pale that it couldn’t appear anywhere on the release. This was also the era of the Video packaging Review Committee, a ‘voluntary’ arm of the BBFC that vetted sleeves for any sign of offensiveness (the BBFC had already, illegally, held back certificates for a couple of titles including Roberta Findlay’s The Oracle until the sleeve art had been modified, and so the VPRC was the next step in dealing with another non-issue). If you chose not to sign up to the VPRC, you could kiss goodbye to having your tapes sold or rented in most shops who had been strong-armed into signing up to the regulations.
Ferman, of course, couldn’t entirely remove chainsaws in the way he could nunchucks – you’d still find them popping up in everything from Scarface to Motel Hell. But they had obviously become one of his trigger images, and the banning of the mere word represented a low point of paranoia, even for the increasingly notorious censor. Over the next decade, he would consolidate his power and his grip on what the nation could see, until his own hubris caught up with him. After making a unilateral decision – albeit it one encouraged by the outgoing Tory government – to allow more explicit sex at the R18 rating (not because of a liberal bent on his part, but because it was clear that the porn black market was running wild and only liberalisation of the law could bring it under control), Ferman was given his marching orders by outraged Home Secretary Jack Straw.
Within a year of his humiliating departure from the Board, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exorcist, The Story of O and others that he believed to be unremittingly dangerous were all passed uncut. Ferman lived just long enough to see what could only have felt like a slap in the face, as the new regime effectively admitted that he didn’t know what he was talking about – not only by passing these films uncut, but by rapidly abandoning his weapons policy. The legacy that Ferman had been so carefully building was left in tatters, his reputation in ruins. When he died in 2002, he was remembered not as a great reformer, the man who held back the tide of filth that had swept the rest of the world or even someone who had successfully balanced the rights of people to watch what they wanted with the need to protect the vulnerable, but as an autocrat who allowed his own ego and oddball beliefs to blind him to reality.
All three banned Chainsaw films, along with Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, have now been passed uncut.