The time the BBFC got its knickers in a twist about four minutes of jiggling buttocks.
Censorship is an ass, as they say, and never more so than when the BBFC decided that Yoko Ono’s film Four – also known as Number Four and, more prosaically, Bottoms – was beyond the pale.
It’s 1967, the Summer of Love, and semi-naked flower children are grooving away at clubs and concerts. Nudity was no longer forbidden in movies, albeit still in context – nudist films, foreign films and art films could get away with rather more than regular mainstream cinema, but the boundaries were being pushed – a year earlier, Blow Up had included female pubic flashes and we were only two years away from Women in Love allowing fully nude men on screen. Television shows were also featuring bare flesh, and just one year from now, theatre censorship would be abolished, allowing erotic shows like Oh! Calcutta to be staged.
So you have to wonder why head censor John Trevelyan would get his knickers in a twist over just under five minutes of bare bottoms. But he did.
Trevelyan’s reputation is that of a moderniser and liberal who helped bring censorship out of the Victorian age, but in truth, he was a nervous snob, a man who was unwilling to take risks and who constantly fretted over what might happen if the hoi polloi – the “car worker in Birmingham”, to quote one of his successors, James Ferman – were to see the sort of thing that the educated and well-off enjoyed. Trevelyan had a habit of passing the buck, giving responsibility for liberalisation to local councils, most notable the Greater London Council. But even so, his panic over Four is baffling, to say the least.
Yoko Ono’s experimental film from 1966 consists entire of close-up shots of male and female buttocks, as the people involved walk backwards to the camera and the soundtrack plays the thoughts of the participants. Part of the problem was that the film occasionally afforded glimpses of male or female genitalia, seen from behind. These glimpses were hardly explicit, and this was clearly not the sort of film that would have a wide commercial release. But there was nevertheless a problem, and that was the fact that the film would be shown at the Albert Hall as part of a collection of avant-garde filmmaking. Any ‘exposure’ would have been projected at a vast size, and the event was likely to attract the press, looking for films to both scoff at and be outraged by. Trevelyan reverted to type, and so the film was rejected with the suggestion that it be submitted to the GLC instead, who approved it without concerns, though still with an X rating that forbade it to under sixteens (Ono protested outside the BBFC offices the day after the film was rejected). By this time, though, the Albert Hall – having been worried by the fact that the BBFC had banned the film – cancelled the showing, and so Number Four and the other films eventually played in a Charing Cross Road cinema club to a small but appreciative audience. The film was never resubmitted to the BBFC, so technically, it remains banned in the UK. I hope we don’t get arrested for sharing it here. There is, of course, the irony that certain social media sites would still flip out and suspend me for sharing an image from this film, so perhaps we shouldn’t mock the mad morality of the past too much.
Perhaps the most sensible decision on the film came from Birmingham council, who passed this innocuous and harmless film with a ‘U’ certificate.
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