It’s Thursday 3 July and I’m at London’s Prince Charles Cinema, just off Leicester Square, to see Video Nasties – Draconian Days, the follow-up to Jake West’s 2010 documentary Video Nasties – Moral Panic, Censorship And Videotape. Billed as a world premiere of the 97-minute cut, the event, which has been organised by FrightFest, has attracted a close-to-sell-out crowd. West is here, along with the producer Marc Morris and some of the film’s participants, to take part in a post-screening Q&A. It’s reportedly the warmest day of the year, and I’m glad of the cinema’s air-con. “If you’re feeling hot and bothered,” says Morris in his brief introduction, “this will make your blood boil”.
Draconian Days picks up the story of UK film censorship in 1984, with the passing of the Video Recordings Act, and takes it through to the late 1990s and James Ferman’s resignation from the BBFC. Ferman, the organisation’s director from 1975, was notoriously – and I guess you could say ironically – bloody-minded in his treatment of certain horror films. He certainly wasn’t going to grant The Exorcist a certificate for home viewing, and he wouldn’t give the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre a theatrical one, either.
“It’s all right for you middle-class cineastes to see this film,” he once said of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 film, “but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?” It’s the classic cry of the censor: this stuff’s all right for me to see and hear – it’s those others I’m worried about.
Footage of Ferman, who died in 2002, is featured heavily in West’s documentary, alongside more than 20 fresh interviews with the likes of writer and film journalist Kim Newman, ex-MP Graham Bright (Conservative), filmmaker Alex Chandon, ex-BBFC examiner Carol Topolski, director Neil Marshall and writer Stephen Thrower. Eye-watering snippets from various films are featured, while archive footage from various TV debates captures the mood of yesteryear very well – as do press cuttings and headlines from a number of moral panics that, displaced from time, can easily be seen for what they were.
Some of the arguments put forward for censorship produce gales of laughter from sections of tonight’s audience, which unfortunately drowns out some of the points being made in the wake of the clips. I don’t begrudge people the odd hoot, but towards the end I start tilting an ear in frustration at what I’m missing. The DVD is on sale in the foyer, but as it’s a bit of an expensive month I decide to pass for the time being. As with the original 2010 documentary, the three-disc set is housed in packaging that resembles a VHS box, for a bonus rush of nostalgia. It’s a good-looking thing, too – totally befitting of the labour of love that the film so clearly is.
The post-screening Q&A sees Jake West and Marc Morris joined by FrightFest organisers Paul McEvoy and Alan Jones, writer David Flint and professor of screen media and journalism Julian Petley. The panel all come across very well as they field questions from the audience. These are the kind of people I want on my side in this debate. Petley, in particular, is good value, his measured tones the perfect vehicle for his passionate yet logical arguments against censorship.
It’s been said many times over the last three decades that a lot of the original video nasties were trash, but their legacy – a pushing of cinematic boundaries and debate over artistic freedom – is anything but. Offended by horror films? Don’t watch them. There’s a big difference between harm and offence, and the nation has never been in danger from rubber appliances and lashings of Kensington Gore. As Video Nasties – Draconian Days shows, the attempted erosion of adult freedoms is the real axe-wielding maniac here.