‘Sex Work’ at the BBFC, Part II

by Neil Jackson, University of Lincoln, UK.

Following on from last month’s post, Neil Jackson continues his examination of the BBFC’s labelling of films as ‘sex work’ with a consideration of Tinto Brass’s 1979 film, Caligula.

The uncut Caligula (Tinto Brass 1979) received an 18 certificate in 2008 regardless of the fact that it was relieved of more than 10 minutes of its running time before an ‘X’ certificate was granted for its theatrical release in 1980. This new-found sympathy for the film was justified because its hardcore imagery supposedly ‘served some kind of purpose in order to illustrate the decadence of ancient Rome’, that wasn’t ‘wholly gratuitous’ and that, quite importantly in this context, ‘it would be viewed today as a historical curio’. [1] This is underpinned by the contention on the BBFC’s own website that ‘the passage of nearly 30 years had significantly diminished the film’s impact’. Regardless of all of this obfuscation, the fact remains that this was a film produced by Bob Guccione, one of America’s premier pornographer publishers, and directed by Tinto Brass, Europe’s seminal exponent of high end, softcore erotica. In light of Cooke’s justification, it would appear that two male individuals, both of whom were steeped in the creative and commercial global possibilities of real and simulated sex on film, somehow forged an infamously uneasy alliance that contrived to produce something that wasn’t actually a ‘sex work’. 

While Caligula’s two extended bouts of hardcore material (an encounter between two Penthouse pets and a large-scale orgy sequence) were the result of Guccione’s creative imposition upon the project, there is also copious male and female nudity, along with other brief instances of oral and genital-penetrative real sex scattered across the film. These are interspersed with simulated bouts of sexual violence encompassing male genital binding (prior to disembowelment), the rape of a virgin bride (and the subsequent anal fisting of her groom), flagellation of naked bodies, necrophilia, castration, and (real) female urination upon a (make believe) corpse. Still, according to the BBFC, it is definitely not a ‘sex work’, and should UK consumers wish to do so they can freely visit high street or online sources to purchase Arrow Video’s deluxe Blu-ray or DVD editions, both of which are festooned with supplemental features that elaborate upon the film’s torturous production and distribution contexts.      

However, compare the BBFC’s treatment of Caligula to that meted out to Radley Metzger’s Score (1974). Metzger’s reputation as arguably the finest American adult cinema director is based upon his activity in both the soft and hardcore sectors, the latter pursued in five films under the nom de porn Henry Paris. Unlike Caligula, Metzger’s film had not even been granted the dignity of an ‘X’ certificate when it was submitted for classification in 1974, the board opting simply to reject it outright. However, Score was a film that he signed with his own name, and the first of his features to incorporate hardcore imagery. He chose to do this in an extended, climactic gay sex scene, its intercutting and delirious audio-visual cross-referencing of the male and female protagonists’ respective sexual discoveries lending a subversive formal charge to the film’s exploration of shifting identities. The sequence is absolutely integral to the narrative and thematic project and any explicit detail is wholly in keeping with the film’s internal unity. Not only had Metzger submitted partly to the newly commercial viability of the hardcore option, he had done so in a manner that allowed him to expand his sophisticated, witty and stylistically adventurous approach to the sexual zeitgeist of the period.                 

None of this seemed to hold any credence with the BBFC when Arrow Video, perhaps emboldened by the positive outcome on their earlier experience with Caligula, submitted Score for classification in 2012. This time, the board’s contention was that this was most definitely a ‘sex work’ and that any uncut version of the film must be confined to the R18 category, thus rendering it economically unviable for the company. This was despite the film’s predominant reliance upon verbal and performative interplay and its relative lack of actual sexual activity, which is confined to one softcore sequence before the elaborate hardcore set-piece that anchors its latter section. Michael Brooke, who oversaw the production of Arrow’s Score disc, comments:

‘Arrow submitted Score and Baise-moi! at the same time, expecting the former to be passed uncut and the latter to get the usual ten-second snip (a penetration close-up during the initial rape scene). But, to their surprise, Baise-moi! got passed uncut while Score got slapped with an R18… the BBFC said it was ‘a sex work’, which I’d strongly dispute: it’s first and foremost a comedy of manners that just happens to have a small amount of very graphic sex’. [2]

Quite bizarrely, all of those mitigating elements afforded the examination of Caligula – the evocation of decadence, the supposed avoidance of gratuitous detail and the status of historical curiosity – were denied to Score. Consequently, Arrow was forced to submit to extensive cuts that removed the hardcore detail, thus avoiding the ‘sex work’ status that would have severely limited its distribution. The film still works remarkably well in its censored form, but at the expense of some jarring audio edits in the cut sequence. 

Therefore it seems reasonable to suggest that due partly to its director’s reputation and its history of production and distribution at less respectable theatrical venues around the globe, the BBFC immediately shunted Score into the ‘sex work’ category. This is nothing short of ludicrous when one actually stands back to deliberate over the film’s intrinsic qualities. It seems like an act of wilful ignorance on the part of the censor, a stubborn refusal to recognise that a low budget film featuring a relatively unknown cast could possibly aspire to going beyond the simple aim of arousing the viewer. A position has been adopted that insists Score is a ‘sex work’ because its primary creative contributor had a history in the very generic category created by the BBFC to suit their own processes. However, it has to be argued that no utterly objective comparative assessment of Caligula and Score can reasonably assert that the censorship of the latter was justified when the former was granted an 18 certificate in its unexpurgated form. If Score is a ‘sex work’, then Caligula is a ‘sex work’ on an epic, grandiose, multi-million-dollar scale, complete with Danilo Donati production design, the remnants of a Gore Vidal screenplay, and a host of venerated British thespians unwittingly cast in the most elaborate hardcore spectacle committed to celluloid, either before or since. 

Malcolm McDowell as the titular Roman emperor in Caligula (Tinto Brass 1979)

Truly perplexing in its hypocrisy here is the concept of ‘historical curio’ as the partial alibi exonerating Caligula from the ‘sex work’ category. Theoretically, this seems to open up the potential for classification of other adult films of a certain vintage, assuming (one would hope) a greater objectivity and flexibility in judgement that remains mindful of operating within legal parameters. However, while visual depictions of consensual sexual activity considered neither harmful nor illegal are no longer seen to be in contravention of the Obscene Publications Act, the BBFC has been unyielding in its position, using the R18 certificate to continue to seal off a period of film history that has elicited an ever-expanding field of scholarly interest and appreciation, but that remains off limits to members of the general audience that might choose to sample it for themselves. The extent to which this all-encompassing resistance actually reaches is confirmed through the BBFC’s 2004 classification of The Good Old Naughty Days (Michael Reilhac 2004) at the R18 category. This compilation of silent stag films reputedly produced between 1905 and 1930 indicates that the excuse of ‘historical curio’ only extends so far.   

It is apparent that the board remains either fearful of or blind to the simple acceptance that Metzger and several other filmmakers were seeking to expand the parameters of what adult cinema could achieve. Other hardcore Metzger films, such as The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (1974) and The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976), were rejected upon their initial submissions to the BBFC in the 1970s, and even now they are deemed fit only for the R18 category, the former with a significant portion removed due to its problematic rape scene. At the same time, deliberate provocateurs such as Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noé continue to convince the censor that their hyper-modern, digitally-amended and 3D gimmick-laden hardcore explorations are wholly justified by their artistic ambition or cultural significance. However, the BBFC remains unconvinced that there are any grounds for applying the same criteria to the output of Metzger, or even contemporaries such as Gerard Damiano, whose landmark Deep Throat (1972) is confined to the R18 category should one wish to see it uncut. [3] The sheer ludicrousness of this is illustrated by the fact that, at the 18 certificate level, the BBFC permitted a brief image of Linda Lovelace fellating Harry Reems in the documentary feature, Inside Deep Throat (2005), which goes to some lengths to determine the sociocultural significance of a film that the BBFC has consigned to the distribution purgatory of the licensed sex shop. 

Such reasoning is somewhat skewered, and just a little perverse. In the USA, adult films created over 40 years ago are now being lovingly and expertly restored by independent US labels such as Vinegar Syndrome and Distribpix; a process enacted as much for posterity’s sake as any pursuit of commercial gain. In the age of hardcore excursions by arthouse enfants terribles and meretricious Hollywood adaptations of the execrable but hugely popular Fifty Shades of Grey saga (2015-2015), is it just possible that UK audiences, viewing through that all important lens of the ‘historical curio’, are also ready to re-assess the unexpurgated versions of the best of what 1970s adult cinema had to offer? Discussing Damiano’s The Story of Joanna (1975), a film that hails from the same thematic wellspring as Fifty Shades of Grey, critic Brad Stevens describes it as ‘filmmaking of a high order’, [4] an assessment that could be applied quite equally to other examples of the director’s output. Indeed, the best films of Metzger and Damiano offer an impressive economy of style and vision, along with a handling of narrative outcomes and implications often more vivid, intelligent and uncompromising than their analogues in the ‘legitimate’ cinema. 

One might conclude that none of this much matters when all of the aforementioned product can be downloaded or imported, legally or illegally, at the click of a computer mouse. Furthermore, the relatively liberal outlook of the BBFC in the 21st century has been a welcome shift in its historical progression, bound as it is by the demands of British law. Yet, the fact remains that the UK film censor continues to operate in a frustratingly idiosyncratic way. This is regardless of how nominally ‘progressive’ its underlying philosophy, how deftly furtive its excisions, amendments or rejections, how insidiously persuasive its justifications, how well intentioned its concern for the creative integrity of artists, and how intellectually benign its insights into the moral fallibility of the mass audience. However, for as long as it persists in imposing a meaningless label upon a crucial period of adult cinema, it will continue to deny the very idea that some hardcore films might have approached their material with a significant level of creative intent. If the censor quietly passed the likes of The Devil in Miss Jones (Gerard Damiano 1973), The Opening of Misty Beethoven and The Story of Joanna at the 18 level, who would actually notice in a marketplace that can countenance the extremes of Caligula or Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier 2013)? The reality is that the ‘sex work’ is a woefully inadequate catch-all term, obstinate in its discrimination against a specific class of popular sub-cultural product. These films from the 1970s also have a genuine historical significance and should be moved out of the shadowy corners in which the BBFC has shunted them, allowing them a place alongside other sexually explicit material that presents itself more self-consciously, but often quite deceptively or ambivalently, as a serious work of art.   


[1] David Cooke. 2012. ‘The Director’s Commentary’. In Edward Lamberti, ed. Behind the Scenes at the BBFC: Film Classification from the Silver Screen to the Digital Age. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 165.

[2] Michael Brooke, personal correspondence, 22 June 2017.

[3] A truncated version was passed at the 18 category in 2000.

[4] Brad Stevens. 2007. ‘The Ballet Scene: The Story of Joanna’. In Chris Fujiwara, ed. The Little Black Book of Movies. London: Cassell, 510.


Neil Blog

Dr Neil Jackson is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Lincoln, UK. He is co-editor of Snuff: Real Death and Screen Media (2016) and his article on ‘Exhausted: John C Holmes the Real Story’ (1981) appears in Grindhouse: Cultural Exchange on 42nd Street and Beyond (edited by Austin Fisher and Johnny Walker 2016). He is currently preparing a study of the representation of the Vietnam War in exploitation cinema.


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