The academic author who was the lone defender of Video Nasties and horror comics during the cultural dark ages of the 1980s.
Professor Martin Barker, who died on September 8th 2022, is one of those scholars known to different groups for different things. Some will remember him for his pioneering work in the theory of cultural racism, which was the focus of much of his work in the 1970s. Others – and perhaps more significant for Reprobate readers – was his impressive work covering the world of British comic books, censorship and Video Nasties that began in the 1980s.
I remember first encountering Barker’s writing as a schoolboy when I found a copy of the New Society in the school library that had a dramatic cover – a drooling maniac axing a Cronenbergesque, organic TV set to death. It was related to an article by Barker about Video Nasties, which stood in dramatic opposition to everything else that was being written about those films at the time. Barker’s article was a passionate defence of the movies, contrasting with the wide opinion of both the reactionary Right and the media establishment of the Left (the film industry’s failure to defend the Nasties because they were ‘worthless horror and porn films’ is a shameful stain that immediately revealed the snobbery of the media establishment) – I recall his comments defending I Spit On Your Grave as being especially insightful, given how that particular film had been widely attacked – even by genre fans – as leering rape-porn, an interpretation that is so far removed from reality that it makes you wonder about the critical faculties and basic levels of understanding (not to mention the sexual kinks) of those who make such claims.
Barker’s article – which was hugely controversial and widely condemned by New Society readers as I recall – was a sampling of the ideas that would appear in his book on the subject, The Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Arts – the first book to explore the subject, written from the front lines. That Barker specifically referenced ‘the arts’ in the title was not accidental and pointed out that these films were works of art that were being demonised and destroyed. Around the same time, he wrote A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign, a companion book that explored the almost forgotten but oddly parallel 1950s British hysteria about comic books. Both of these books remain essential historical studies.
Barker would author, co-author and edit several other books about controversial movies, comic books and media effects – most notably, books about Judge Dredd, David Cronenberg’s Crash and his huge study of the notorious British comic Action, which made a brief appearance in remainder shops before becoming as rare as hen’s teeth, worth its weight in gold if eBay resellers are to be believed. While working at Aberystwyth University, he was commissioned by the BBFC to carry out research into their favourite bugbear, images of sexual violence on screen, assessing audience reactions to films as varied as Baise Moi, Irreversible and The House on the Edge of the Park. The research didn’t really tell the censors what they wanted to hear – not only did it fairly clearly demolish the idea that audiences have a ‘monkey see, monkey do’ reaction to such films but also made it clear that no one was looking at these scenes in order to be (or were incidentally becoming) sexually aroused. It was quietly ignored and later BBFC research – heavily criticised by Barker – was instead used to justify tightening censorship (Barker’s angry article is online but you’ll have to pay typically extortionate academic publisher fees to read it).
He would also pop up in documentaries about Video Nasties – most notably Jake West and Marc Morris’ pair of films that remain the essential document on the subject – and it’s clear when you see him in these films that the passion and anger about the whole scandal had not left him. Barker, perhaps more than anyone else who defended the Video Nasties, was demonised and attacked, and it clearly had a bruising effect. While some of us had similarly traumatic encounters with the law as a result of movie collecting and censorship and the few film critics who dared to suggest that the films might not all be worthless trash were immediately attacked by their peers, Barker seems to have been particularly singled out for criticism, a result perhaps of not only writing a book on the subject but also being an egghead academic in a world where Mary Whitehouse ‘common sense’ (which was, in fact, neither common nor sensible) was all that was needed to condemn huge numbers of fascinating, challenging movies to the ovens. He still seemed justifiably angry in these films and very aware that this sort of thing could easily happen again – as, indeed, it had in the 1990s and is today with online censorship and Far Right and RadFem-driven moral panics. The Video Nasties panic might now only ever be written about as a bit of comical nostalgia by the mainstream press, but it set the template for every panic that followed and its effects are still felt today. Let’s not forget that some of the films banned in the early 1980s have been rejected by the BBFC in the last couple of years. His books remain valid warnings from history and his sensible research and impassioned arguments will be missed.
Martin Barker – 20 April 1946 – 8th September 2022
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