Banned And Damned: Sex, Violence And Blasphemy On Channel 4 In The 1990s

The provocative season of films and documentaries about forbidden culture, from the days when Channel 4 was still a credible and daring broadcaster.

Channel 4 in Britain is now a shamelessly dumbed down yet ultra right-on populist broadcaster that specialises in the crassest of crass reality TV, even as it pretends to be edgy and alternative. It’s also a channel that routinely and haphazardly censors shows – US sit-coms, from Frasier to The Big Bang Theory have lines of dialogue crudely chopped out to make them suitable for daytime slots, even if that line of dialogue is the punchline to a scene that makes no sense without it. It’s a channel with no respect for either its viewers or its traditions, having embraced the lowest forms of television broadcasting with depressing enthusiasm.

Back in 1991, things were rather different. Still only nine years old, Channel 4 was still viewed with some suspicion by the establishment and the tabloids, who alternated between scoffing at low viewing figures for niche programming to being outraged at the sort of content that no broadcaster had previously touched. In the early days of Channel 4, films by directors like John Jost and Stephen Dwoskin were shown, at some points with the screen blanked out – censorship, perhaps, but transparent censorship that made the viewer aware that it was reluctant. The channel was the first to stop censoring bad language, and its Red Triangle season – a warning/come-on for viewers that allowed more extreme films to be shown – was a bold experiment.

WR – Mysteries of the Organism, with added goldfish

In April 1991, Channel 4 broadcast a much-hyped Banned season, consisting of films that had previously been considered unsuitable for television, once-banned TV episodes and documentary films. From the off, this was controversial and almost didn’t make it to air at all. In the end, it was somewhat compromised – the version of WR – Mysteries of the Organism had the explicit visuals covered with super-imposed goldfish and psychedelic swirls that director Dušan Makavejev supervised (this same version was later issued on VHS by the BFI’s Connoisseur label), Scum and Sex In Our Time had scenes cut, and the short film Dick was pulled entirely. But despite this, the season was impressive and challenging. The episode of the BBC’s Secret Society that had been seized by the police from the BBC offices and producer Duncan Campbell’s home, and then subsequently buried by a complaint BBC was shown, albeit it in a reconstructed form – the original documentary remains, to this day, hidden away in a BBC vault.

At the heart of the season was a pair of documentaries that explored censorship in a forthright manner and outraged the authorities – Scotland Yard’s Obscene Publications Squad threatened to prosecute the channel over the broadcast of Sex and the Censors in particular and the season in general. In the end, they backed down – but the threat was as much a warning to Channel 4 not to even consider doing this again as a serious possibility of prosecution (which the police and Director of Public Prosecutions clearly knew would never result in a conviction by any jury). It’s likely that they were annoyed because that documentary, in particular, makes the obscenity squad – and obscenity laws – look remarkably stupid and ill-informed.

Of everything shown, the most provocative was this documentary. It was a study of British film censorship – of which there have been several over the years – but for whatever reason, the documentary decided to not only go beyond the usual censorship cause celebres beloved of serious critics, but to show clips of censored content that, in 1991, was still seen by the BBFC as the worst of the worst. These clips were usually shown on TV monitors, arguably offering a certain distance (and a definite reduction in image quality) – but it’s bizarre seeing BBFC head James Ferman wringing his hands in dismay over the exploitative rape scene in Death Wish 2 that he had cut from the movie, while the scene itself plays out next to him. “I’m sure that Channel 4 won’t let you show very much of this”, opines Ferman, but there it is, at length. Ironically, robbed of audio and filmed off a TV screen, the footage looks grimmer than it does in the movie – almost like people imagine a snuff movie to be, in fact.

The New York Ripper

The documentary also shows the eyeball and nipple slicing scenes from The New York Ripper – again, filmed on a TV screen – as fanzine editor Andrew Featherstone makes a fumbling defence of the film. At the time, Lucio Fulci‘s film was still seen as the worst of the worst by the BBFC, with this scene being the most notorious moment.

And then there was the scene from Sebastiane that showed an erection. Passed by the BBFC, oddly, but edited from Channel 4’s broadcast of the full movie, the hard-on wobbles into view quite clearly here, over the shoulder of Derek Jarman as he discusses the censorship. This moment would be the most notorious part of the documentary (make of that what you will) and was explained away as having slipped through unnoticed, everyone involved in the production and the broadcast apparently too engrossed in Jarman’s words to see the thing that he makes clear reference to in the interview. A likely story, you might think, especially as it pops up once again in the closing credits.

Sebastiane

Unsurprisingly, the documentary has never been shown again. It is, however, on YouTube – for how long, of course, is anyone’s guess. We suggest watching it now before it is pulled.

Also shown was Damned in the USA, which looked at American censorship of the arts – quite the hot topic at the time as fundamentalist Christian organisations fought against state and local arts funding going to the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, acts like 2 Live Crew were taken to court on obscenity charges and the likes of Andres Serrano poked the religious bear with artworks such as Piss Christ. Ironically, the film itself became a target for the religious moralists in the USA and was caught up in legal action by Rev. Donald Wildmon, American Family Association president. It would be years before the film could be seen in America. Again, Channel 4 have never re-shown the film, but you can rent or buy it online:

https://vimeo.com/ondemand/damnedintheusa/433982510

The possibilities of anything like this appearing on Channel 4 again seem likely. They did broadcast another Banned season in 2004/5, but this was simply a series of lightweight documentaries with the usual selection of vacuous celebrity talking heads, rather than anything challenging. TV now is far too controlled, far too scared of upsetting OFCOM and far too keen on box-ticking and mass-market demographics to ever risk pushing the boat out in this way. Today, the compliant and socially-conscious Channel 4 is firmly in the pro-censorship camp.

DAVID FLINT

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4 comments

  1. Regarding Death Wish 2, I remember on New Years Day about 10 or 11 years ago MGMHD showed it uncut twice in the same night, the first showing being at 9pm. It was never shown again and the channel shut down soon afterwards. I love it when these things just happen to slip out. Cruising I also remember having the hardcore inserts when it was shown on channel 5 long before it was passed uncut. They were also featured in clips in The Celluloid Closet on channel 4 in the 90’s. Filmfour was also much better in those days when it was subscription. Nowadays, Jesus, you get a decent film about 3 times a month. And even then it’s at 1 in the morning. Although they were not above cutting films even then. I remember Kermode introducing Zombie Flesh Eaters as the “more gore than allowed before” version which obviously included much more of the splinter in the eye than previously classified versions but the Filmfour showing cut the shot completely. I complained about this on their website but the comment was deleted.

    1. TV broadcasters used to be the bane of the censors, inconveniently showing (by accident) uncut films that the BBFC had censored – not so much sex and violence, but the less obvious things – nunchakus, horse falls, instructional criminal behaviour and such. I remember some years back Sky Movies scheduling and then pulling The Trip, because it was still banned – they had the legal right to show it, but doing so would’ve been a huge embarrassment for the BBFC. Now, of course, the BBFC, OFCOM and the like are all in bed with each other – jobsworth civil servants making a career in censorship moving from one regulator to another – and it’s officially stated by OFCOM that no films banned by the BBFC can be shown on TV, and all BBFC cuts must be replicated.

    2. “It’s also a channel that routinely and haphazardly censors shows…”
      Even the sacred, previously untouchable ‘The Simpsons’ has fallen victim to this treatment recently.
      An episode in which Homer buys a gun and proceeds to use it as a TV remote etc. was chopped. Not for any of the copious footage involving his hilarious idiocy, but a fabulously insightful final shot of Marge checking her reflection out while holding the confiscated gun before sneakily slipping it into her handbag. Because nobody wants to be seen to promote the idea that reasonable people (much less virtuous mothers) could fall under the alluring spell of guns….
      Who sanctions these decisions? Especially ones that seem more knowingly deliberate? Whistleblowers please!

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