Notepad on Life

June 20, 2012

An email to the British Board of Film Classification

Filed under: Cinema — - @ 9:00 am
Tags: , ,
English: "15" label. Suitable for th...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Sirs,

Travelling to work last week, I found myself struck by the poster on the side of a bus, advertising the film The Five-year Engagement.

I’m sure the studio and its advertising agency would be saddened to note that what caught my eye was not the fruits of their design labours but your own organisation’s contribution – a certification that read ’15: contains adult language, sex scenes and sexual references’.

I wondered what our forefathers of even just 20 or 30 years ago would have made of what we are putting in front of children these days. (Even in America, I see that this film is restricted for under-17s).

Given that there is clearly a sliding scale at work here, two questions occurred to me on which I would welcome your comments:

A) How long will it be – ballpark figure – before we can expect to see the same wording alongside the number 12 on film posters?

B) When that day comes, can we rely on everyone at the BBFC having the decency to apply for voluntary redundancy, given that you will by then be as redundant as redundant can be?

I look forward to hearing from you but before you reach for the old ‘changing times’ get-out clause, please remember that ‘change’ and ‘improvement’ are not necessarily synonomous, so it may not get you out of anything.



Thank you for your email and comments.

Our classification decisions are carefully considered and made in line with available research and our published Guidelines. Our Classification Guidelines are a product of an extensive public consultation process which is repeated regularly. Over 8,700 people contributed to the most recent revision of the Guidelines in 2009. These are available on our main website –

At ’15’ the Guidelines permit “frequent use of strong language”, as well as stating “Sexual activity may be portrayed without strong detail. There may be strong verbal references to sexual behaviour, but the strongest references are unlikely to be acceptable unless justified by context”.

THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT is a film about the ups and downs of a long-term relationship, of which sex is an inevitable and integral part. This theme necessitates, on occasion, some ‘strong’ imagery and language in order for the characters and their situations to be both believable and entertaining. However, the treatment of the subject in THE FIVE-YEA ENGAGEMENT is responsible and comic rather than sexual or salacious. The issues about relationships will not be unfamiliar to the 15 -17 age group drawn from their own personal experiences and those of friends and family. By the age of 15, most teenagers will have received some form of sex education as part of the national curriculum. Many adolescents will watch this film with interest as the dramas of those ahead of them in ‘the game’ are played out. There is nothing in THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT which we judged to be unsuitable for the 15-17 age group.

It is encouraging you noticed our consumer information for THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT. We produce this information for every film we classify and it is usually displayed on promotional material for films such as posters and newspaper and TV adverts. We also provide a fuller account of a film’s classification. The purpose of this information is to convey to the public (particularly those responsible for children) a clear sense of the content of films and details the issues which contributed to its certificate. It is also used to signal the presence of material which may be of particular issue to some viewers (eg. racism or a child abuse theme). This information is available on our main website. For films classified ‘U’, ‘PG’ and ’12A’, this information is available in a family friendly format on our dedicated website for parents – I enclose the relevant link for THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT from our main site below –

Cinema goers and parents can also access this information via our apps. These apps are free to download at

We actively encourage cinema goers – especially parents taking children to the cinema –  to consult our customer services to make informed viewing choices prior to visiting the cinema or watching a DVD at home. Those who wish to avoid being exposed to a particular theme or hearing certain words, are thus warned in advance about a film. I hope you will find these resources useful for your future viewing.  

You mention “changing times” in your email. Inevitably public attitudes – and our classification criteria –  will change over any given period. However, it does not always follow that these changes signal a fall or relaxation in standards. While opinion towards some subjects has become more lenient (eg. on-screen portrayals of sex and nudity), it has become less tolerant of others. For example, our last consultation in 2009 revealed that the public had become more concerned about seeing racism, drug misuse, knife-play and self harm techniques in films, especially in works aimed at younger audiences. Guidance on the ‘new’ classification issue of discrimination and the tonal aspects of a work were incorporated in the last revisions. Public attitudes towards the portrayal of sexual violence in films has remained constant, and the BBFC has always applied a strict policy when classifying scenes of rape and sexual assault. New concerns will also emerge, while old ones will become less significant. Our standards and decisions change to reflect these shifts of public feeling.  

Thank you for taking the time and trouble to express your views to us. We do not expect everyone to agree with our decisions, but we hope they understand the rationale behind them. I hope this response has gone some way in reassuring you that the BBFC takes its function of classifying film and DVD works seriously, and that we are taking significant steps in making the viewing public aware of what they plan to watch. Please be assured that the BBFC takes these issues seriously, and that your comments have been noted.

Yours sincerely,

J L Green
Chief Assistant (Policy)


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