Minding the nation’s morals

Irish censors didn’t just impose their rulings in this country. One early pioneer also served in Britain, writes Robert Hume

Minding the nation’s morals

IT WAS an Irishman who played a leading role in the early years of the British Board of Film Classification, the censorship body set up one hundred years ago this week.

Thomas Power (TP) O’Connor, born in Athlone, Co Westmeath, developed his critical skills from careers in journalism and politics.

By 1912, cinemas, or ‘picture palaces’ as they were often called, had mushroomed in Britain. They were especially popular with working class families, and the authorities were worried that films would lead to moral decline and juvenile delinquency. Boys caught breaking into a shop in 1905 said they had learned how to do it from watching a film.

Local councils began applying their arbitrary censorship standards. Some stopped cinemas from opening on Sundays. To pre-empt government censorship, the film industry offered to set up a self-censorship body.

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) was founded in November 1912 “to prevent any films getting on the market which … it might be better should not appear”.

Films were viewed by four examiners and had to be “clean and wholesome and above suspicion”, to receive a certificate. Any nudity, or the portrayal of Christ, would guarantee rejection.

Those which passed the BBFC test were categorised U (Universal) or A (Adult), cut or uncut. However, no producer had to submit films to the BBFC, and local authorities could show a film the BBFC had rejected, or ban a film the organisation had allowed.

TP O’Connor was elected president of the BBFC in 1916, and his journalistic expertise helped the organisation produce regular reports. He thought it best “to err on the side of restraint rather than slackness”, and introduced 43 grounds for rejecting a film.

These included the “irreverent treatment of sacred subjects”; “drunken scenes carried to excess”; and “unnecessary exhibition of under-clothing”. Reasons added in 1919 were “clutching hands” and “women fighting with knives”.

In Ireland, cinema arrived when organisations such as the Gaelic League were trying to develop a national identity. Films were thought to undermine this work by transporting their audience into a fantasy world and awakening hidden desires.

Nearly two thirds of films shown were American. Chicago gangsters, spangled nightclub queens and society playboys would mean the ‘Los Angelesation’ of Ireland. And women who smoked, wore trousers and answered back set a shocking example.

The Irish Vigilance Association claimed that the majority of films shown in Dublin were “un-Irish and unhealthy”. Shortly after independence in 1923, the Irish Censorship of Films Act allowed local authorities to screen a film only if “the whole of such film is fit for exhibition in public”.

Since 1923 there have been 10 Irish film censors or classifiers — all men. Assisted by examiners, they have banned films outright, cut, or issued a limited certificate.

The extent of their control is “hard to imagine, let alone justify,” writes Kevin Rockett in Irish Film Censorship (2004).

Many have held very old fashioned attitudes, especially towards marriage and the family. “I take the Ten Commandments as my code,” said James Montgomery, Ireland’s first Film Censor. Between 1924 and 1940 he banned 1,905 films, whereas the BBFC banned only 177.

One of the earliest rejections was Tarnish (1924), featuring an unfaithful husband. For Montgomery it was “the most vulgar film I’ve seen … such filth won’t be tolerated”. It was followed by True as Steel (1924) which “reeks with sex, conjugal infidelity and divorce”.

The first Appeal Board chairman, William Magennis, believed that medical doctors or psychiatrists would make the best censors to deal with the “vile lowering of values”.

By 1970, of 50,000 films examined, the censors had banned 2,500 films and cut an additional 11,000. Only in 1972 was a censor with a background in cinema appointed. Cork Film Festival director Dermot Breen was relatively liberal, and passed films with a more explicit treatment of sex. But when it came to contraception and abortion, he was no more flexible than his predecessors.

Sheamus Smith (1986-2003) only banned 10 films, and believed that a director, not the censor, should cut films. The censor’s task was to ‘classify’; though for many years no reasons were given for the decisions.

In 2008, his successor, John Kelleher (2003-09), renamed the censor’s office the Irish Film Classification Office (IFCO). Kelleher told me: “I realised pretty quickly that the practice whereby the censor refused to give the reason for his decisions was quite unacceptable in today’s world. Accordingly, I established a website in order to communicate to the public, and to parents in particular, the rationale for my decisions.”

Today the IFCO recognises it has a duty to protect children and young people from harm, but believes that adults should be free, within the law, “to choose what they wish to view”.

What would TP O’Connor have had to say about that?

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