Visions of Ecstasy: End of the Last Taboo?

Blas for me, Blas for you, Blas for everybody in the room Eddie Izzard

Until 1676 you could still be executed for blasphemy, but the offence came off the law books in 2008, opening the way for one of the strangest bans in the history of British cinema to be repealed. Now, 23 years after it was first submitted to the British Board of Film Classification, the British public will finally get the chance to judge for themselves Nigel Wingrove’s Visions of Ecstasy – a 19 minute short film banned because the BBFC judged that it was likely to be prosecuted for blasphemous libel.

So, if the release of Visions of Ecstasy marks the end of this long held taboo, it also affords us the opportunity to look at the history of how blasphemy has impacted on film censorship over the years.

The BBFC celebrates its centenary in 2012, but the first written guidelines for what was then the British Board of Film Censors were not drawn up until 1916. 43 prohibitions were laid down, covering everything from “Indecorous, ambiguous and irreverent titles and subtitles” to “Subjects dealing with premeditated seduction of girls“. Two of the prohibitions had to do with the appearance of blasphemy: “Materialisation of the conventional figure of Christ” and a specific prohibition of “The irreverent treatment of sacred subjects”. So we’ve come a long way.

Visions of Ecstasy

Depiction of the figure of Christ was cut from several films in the board’s first years of operation. It’s tough to find details of which films, because the BBFC site isn’t indexed like that, but DW Griffith’s Intolerance either slipped through the net or was given consideration as a more artistic work, because it seems not to have been censored for its 1916 release, despite featuring both the materialisation of Christ and nudity. In relation to Intolerance the BBFC did remark, in 1917, that they “objected to nude statuary when we have seen it in certain positions”. In addition the 1916 film Civilization was submitted in a shortened version for its 1917 release. The film apparently depicts Christ as an anti-war agitator. This was a very successful suppression by the BBFC. In 1931 the film came before the board again, this time in a full sound version, but it was rejected, probably because policy hadn’t changed on the depiction of Christ, and since then it seems to have been revived only very occasionally (probably in its shortened version) at the National Film Theatre. It’s not an official ban for blasphemy, but Civilization remains all but unseen here, because it depicts Christ.

At this time there wasn’t a real public outcry about blasphemy in the media, and in 1948 Secretary Arthur Watkins and President Sir Sidney Harris began presiding over a BBFC that abandoned the absolutes of the 1916 prohibitions for a board run by guidelines (which is still how the BBFC comes to its decisions today). The 50s and 60s saw the board struggle with cinema’s depictions of sex and drugs and rock and roll. It was really in the 1970s, with the rise of Mary Whitehouse and the Festival of Light (subsequently the National Viewers and Listeners Association, now Mediawatch) that blasphemy started to rear its head again as an issue in censorship, and indeed in the courts.

Ken Russell’s The Devils came to the board in 1971, and had a rough ride. Board secretary John Trevelyan wanted to protect the film, which he considered a great work of art, and there were a number of viewings of incomplete prints and letters back and forth with Russell as he fought to keep as much of controversial film intact as possible (as the cuts were made from unfinished prints there is no record as to how much went missing, but it seems likely to have been several minutes, some of that footage has since been restored to an occasionally shown Director’s Cut, though it will be the 1971 cinema version that comes to DVD in March). Blasphemy was, in fact, not one of the issues quoted by the BBFC, but it certainly was by the Festival of Light, whose campaign against the film was led by Peter Thompson, who had members mount a letter writing campaign, first to Trevelyan, who apparently replied to each letter saying “…go and see The Devils (it won’t corrupt you)”. Continue reading →