One of the last gasps of local council censorship as the politicians of Lancashire go up against Oliver Stone.
It’s 1995 and after a ferocious and hypocritical tabloid campaign against it, Natural Born Killers – Oliver Stone’s extraordinary satire of the very media outlets that would predictably come out against the film with vacuous claims of copycat crimes and the dangers of merely seeing such a violent film – has finally been passed uncut by the British censors, much to the fury of moralisers and hand-wringers across the UK. One such concerned citizen in Preston – a Lancashire city that might not strike you as being at the epicentre of modern culture wars – complained to the local council that despite the BBFC’s 18 rating, the film should not be allowed to be shown to the delicate local population on the grounds of copycat violence and general offensiveness. We can safely assume that the anonymous complainant had not actually seen the film, but when has that ever stopped the censorial?
In fact, the BBFC had delayed the film’s release while it carried out a long and ludicrous investigation into the claims that the film had been responsible for crimes in America and France. Film censors have to cling to the idea of ‘monkey see, monkey do’ or else their job is effectively pointless, and so while everyone else knew that these claims were as fatuous as any other claims of cause-and-effect, the BBFC duly carried out a study into the claims. Even if they had proven valid, I’m not sure that is reason enough to ban a film – such cases are rare and as we know, lunatics have been triggered by the most unlikely of movies… you’d have to ban everything, not just the violent and erotic movies, if you wanted to avoid any chance that the odd nutter would be inspired by what they see on screen.
In any case, the BBFC found no evidence for these stories and so the film was finally passed just before Christmas 1994 for a February 1995 theatrical release. While this caused some press outrage, very few local councils were concerned. Back in the early 1970s, Mary Whitehouse and her cranky supporters encouraged local councils to fight back against the spread of permissiveness, using their powers to override the BBFC, whose certificates for theatrical release had no statutory legal standing – film ratings were an industry agreement and the legal right for a film to be shown in any area was down to the individual councils that had generally gone along with the BBFC’s decisions. This changed in the early Seventies when the moral panickers encouraged councils to ban films like The Devils, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, Last Tango in Paris and others, reaching some sort of a peak in 1979 with Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Some councils – notably the Greater London Council – operated in the other direction, allowing films that the BBFC had rejected to have local screenings – but that’s a story for another day.
These councils – often made up of jumped-up little power-hungry nobodies in small towns that relished being able to cock a snook at the London sophisticates – enjoyed this new power and would ban films often without even watching them. But it quickly became clear that having to make decisions over every controversial film that came along was terribly exhausting and not nearly as glamorous as the small-time politicians might have hoped. The Life of Brian outrage was the last great hurrah of local council control over what could or could not be shown, and while the odd council would still make oddball decisions in subsequent years – a few taking against 9½ Weeks and Westminster notoriously banning David Cronenberg’s Crash – the enthusiasm for such censorship diminished, especially as it soon became clear how ludicrous it made them look with bus trips to neighbouring towns and home video (out of the control of local councils) making it all look very silly. By and large these days, councils are only called on to approve special local screenings of films that have not been approved by the BBFC, and such decisions – requested by festivals, film clubs and arthouse cinemas – are rarely controversial.
In 1994 though, the Preston councillors took their free preview of Natural Born killers very seriously. They had some form with going against the BBFC, but only in lowering certificates to make films like Mrs Doubtfire available for family viewing. In the end, with some misgivings, they approved the film for release in Preston, any fretting about its effect on the local populous perhaps tempered by an awareness that any such ban would only send people to nearby Bolton or – God forbid – Manchester. In any case, it was expected that the film would be clogging up the video shelves within a year, as it might well have done had it not been for another unfortunate event. The Dunblane massacre in Scotland took place just before the planned March 1996 video release and Warner Home Video decided to pull it, perhaps wisely thinking that this was not the time for a film that the tabloids already thought was glamourising gun crime to hit the shelves. For some reason, the film wasn’t just delayed for a few months. It would not be until 2001 that Natural Born Killers had a home video release (by this time on DVD) in the UK.
You will be unsurprised to hear that the film did not cause the collapse of civilisation in the UK – not even in Preston – when it finally hit the cinemas and later went almost unnoticed when released on DVD. It did, however, continue to be connected with violent crime in America until the end of the decade, being one of several film and music works that were blamed for both the Columbine and Heath High School shootings.
The BBC’s Northwest Tonight local news programme reported on the controversy and here it is for your viewing pleasure:
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