A selection of predictably hysterical and ill-informed British TV documentaries and discussion shows from the height of the Video Nasty moral panic.
Video Nasties – the curious phenomenon that, once we get past the official list of movies seized and prosecuted in the early 1980s, becomes rather harder to identify – has long been the subject of debate… little of it informed, sadly. For those who supported the censorship of horror films and believed them to be a corrupting influence on adults, children and dogs, the definition of a ‘nasty’ would vary over time to include just about any horror movie – while the 1980s hysteria centred around low-budget movies by and large, by the end of the decade, the term was being bandied around to cover just about any horror film – if you could call Child’s Play 3 a Nasty, then you could use the term to describe anything, and so it was at the height of the James Bulger murder mania. Before then, just about any violent movie was caught up in a post-Hungerford massacre mania – from Rambo to Miami Vice, just about anything that featured a gun was immediately attacked as likely to influence mass murderers like Michael Ryan (who, famously, did not own a VCR and probably hadn’t even seen Rambo).
British television does not have a proud history when it comes to covering this subject – perhaps wanting to deflect government and tabloid concerns away from their own output, TV broadcasters have tended to go for the hysterical over the informed with their debates and discussions, sometimes veering into the absurd, such as the time Michael Winner and Mary Whitehouse fought it out with a full row of Rambo lookalikes sat behind them. Be it chin-stroking worthiness or tabloid-style moral panic, the coverage of film censorship on British TV has generally been shameful.
The first video nasties documentary to appear on TV, A Gentlemen’s Agreement? (so named because of the plans for voluntary video censorship before the British government stepped in with state controls) itself caused outrage by including clips from the likes of SS Experiment Camp (and in doing so perhaps revealing just how laughably unrealistic these films generally were) when broadcast on Channel 4 in June 1983 – sadly, the documentary is no longer available online. However, a few discussion shows have been salvaged by enthusiasts and show the sort of ill-informed thinking and mad misinterpretation of what are, lest we forget, works of fiction. We can laugh at all this now – but of course, the BBFC is still banning some of these films, and much of this moral panic has simply shifted to video games, internet porn and other populist entertainments.
The Video Nasties phenomenon and moral panic was, of course, an entirely British affair, but America’s dumbest film critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert tried valiantly to import the hysteria to the States in 1987. The pair had form – back in 1980, they had led a campaign against Friday 13th and then took aim at movies like I Spit On Your Grave and others. Ebert, of course, had written sex and violence soaked screenplays for Russ Meyer, but didn’t seem aware of the hypocrisy in railing against other films that were often much tamer than his own work.
And from the same year, a 20/20 report called VCR Horrors ladles on the hysteria and hyperbole, with top marks going to the concerned parents and Dr Dan Linz – one of the authors of the widely discredited study A Question of Pornography – for wild generalisation and misrepresentation.
For the full story of the whole Video Nasties debacle – and its ongoing legacy – we recommend Jake West’s two thorough documentaries on the subject.
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