In 1984 the Video Recording Act was passed in the UK and almost immediately a slew of movies became illegal to rent or own. This didn’t happen over night of course but to the general members of the public that were effected by this law it appeared to. The VRA came into existence not because of the need to control “images that could corrupt or deprave” but instead to please the growing sabre rattling by certain pro-censorship groups as well as create more much needed income for the British Board of Film Censors.
The BBFC (previously British Board of Film Censors, but now calling themselves British Board of Film Classification) is an organisation paid for by contributions from the films they classify, or censor, and they therefore find themselves in the odd position where they are selling an unwanted service to the very people they are harming.
On the other half of the same side of the coin we have the pressure groups of the day, the most famous of which was Mary Whitehouse and her “National Viewers and Listeners Association” who through political deals and public pressure obtained an enviable amount of control over what the media would allow and how they would allow it. There were many who opposed this kind of control, but there were others who fell in with it and saw a common goal.
In the early 80’s these two powers found a mutual enemy in the cascade of movies that were being released on home video in the formats formative years. A great many of these movies fell foul of both Mary and the BBFC and the two organisations began working together in a common goal but very different motives.
Mary found the BBFC could be used to create a structure that had already been available for the cinema going audience for some years, and in turn the BBFC found that the very vocal talents of Mrs Whitehouse could be used to dissuade cinemas and video stores from stocking uncertified movies while a more permanent deterrent could be found.
In many ways Mary Whitehouse’s motivations were more pure and although it’s difficult for many free thinkers to see her as anything less than a fascist she was a committed one, who believed in her ideals. The BBFC on the other hand were motivated by one of the oldest human needs, wealth. Even if they had some belief in their ideals it was buried under their need to make money; and the way they made money was classification and censorship, an obvious conflict of interests.
But then arose a third interested party, and possibly the most insidious member of this triad; The Daily Mail. This was (and still is) a tabloid newspaper with pretensions of broadsheet that deliberately and maliciously enflamed the public by printing articles that were poorly researched and sometimes clear fabrication, not that anyone seemed to notice. As with most things if enough villagers get together and light enough torches the worst things can become right and this is what happened in the years leading up to the infamous 1984 Video Recording Act.
Though the damage was in reality done a few months earlier in June of ’83. This was with the release of the DPP list that was issued in anticipation of the act becoming law. It contained a list of films that the local police should have some awareness of and it was the films on this list that became known as “video nasties”.
With some lateral thinking it becomes clear how convoluted any argument would become concerning these dreaded films, especially any arguments that dared to defend them. Various factions of the pro-censorship lobby were gearing up for war, but unfortunately there were no members of the opposition who could rally the same amount of support for obvious reasons.
And so the witch-hunt of the early 80’s began and continues in many forms to this day.
Many of us who live in the UK remember this time with more than little confusion and fear, it was a genuinely strange time that few people who did not experience it could understand. Worse things happen in the world that is certain, but when people are caught in one of the hideous conflicts that present such things there is at least a sense of persecution; and those who permit or commit such acts are rightfully reviled.
During those years in the UK, and arguably we are still in them, there were no reviled persecutors. It was a time where the victims of such persecution were made the enemy. It reminds me of how the Jewish must have felt in the years before the war in Germany, when their actions and beliefs were used to raise national awareness of something considered subversive to the ruling regime. Some may think this is too harsh and comparisons should not be made but I disagree, a belief system does not need a book thousands of years old to have worth to those who believe in it; and no one has the right to disregard one belief system over another because of their own aesthetic values or lack of understanding.
The acts of Mary Whitehouse, the BBFC and The Daily Mail drove the viewing and appreciating of such films underground; it made it a criminal offence and drove public anger in the direction of those who would not submit. These acts changed those who persisted in their disobedience, it made these “video nasties” into something more than just cheap tasteless entertainment; it changed them into something like parables for those who believed they had a right to choose for themselves.
Given a chance most horror enthusiasts can give impassioned and intelligent argument for their choices but they were never given the chance, the villagers were already out and the fires were burning, so no one believed that they needed to listen.
It seems much better now in a new millennium thirty years later but there are many questions that still bother me deeply. We discovered a few years ago that the Video Recording Act was poorly drawn up and is now considered unenforceable. To put it simply the VRA is not a law and a person can not be prosecuted by it, so what happened to all those VHS tapes that were confiscated and burned (as the Nazi’s burned their books) and what happens with those poor people who were put in prison for their non-crimes?
It seems nothing, perhaps because might really does make right and despite it all nothing has really changed that much. It seems that people who watch those “images that could corrupt or deprave” are not presented with the same “human rights” that many others are allowed. It is a common occurrence to find a news item (perhaps printed by The Daily Mail?) where “human rights” are quoted; where a rapist or murderer can not be deported because their rights may be forfeit. So what of our rights? What of the rights of the average person to make choices concerning their own entertainment and enlightenment?
And what of the “human rights” of those persecuted, fined and imprisoned for a law that was never really a law at all?