X-Ploitation: How independent film distributors battled against the BBFC and won

In the second of our series of guest contributions by writers, researchers and academics, Adrian Smith talks about the relationship between the British Board of Film Censors and the distributors of exploitation films in the 1960s. Adrian is a full-time  PhD candidate at the University of Sussex, and has written and researched extensively on 1960s British film history, particularly around issues of censorship and distribution. He also writes for the specialist film magazines Cinema Retro and Screem, and has contributed to recent Arrow and BFI blu ray releases. Read more of his work on his website here.

“Film censorship in Britain is a peculiar amalgam of historical accident and a lurching attempt to resolve all the conflicting interests and pressures.”[i]

– Dr. Neville March Hunnings

In the mid-1960s the British Board of Film Censors were, as they are today, an independent body, free from Government intervention and funded by the film industry. The BBFC felt their main responsibility was to ensure that filmmakers were protected from criticism and could not be charged with obscenity. This was a difficult task to enact as there were no strict guidelines as to what or could not result in a successful prosecution. The Board were viewed by many as being self-appointed guardians of public morals. John Trevelyan, Chief Film Censor during the 1960s, revealed a bias that could be considered snobbery when he referred to horror films and sex comedies: “People who do not like that sort of entertainment will complain if it is allowed… That is the sort of criticism we just cannot afford to bring on ourselves, unless we feel that it is in the cause of something culturally worthwhile and that we shall have the support of the intelligent minority in what we do.”[ii]

The ratings system still current in 1965 was first introduced by the BBFC in 1952. The system was divided into three categories: ‘U’ meant a film was suitable for everyone including children, ‘A’ signified that any child under the age of sixteen had to be accompanied by someone over the age of sixteen into the cinema and ‘X’ films were suitable for adults aged sixteen and over.


A blank BBFC ‘X’ certificate. 

A number of British film distributors specialized in importing explicit material. Amongst these were Hunter Films. In 1967 they submitted Dusan Makavejev’s film The Switchboard Operator to the BBFC for a certificate. The film is a tragic account of a woman in a relationship shaped by the totalitarian regime of Yugoslavia.  The managing director of Hunter told the BBFC : “I am sending you a film which has a few tits in it. I don’t think much of it but I can sell it to the sex theatres.”[iii]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that less than enthusiastic endorsement, the BBFC made several cuts, mostly featuring male and female nudity, before passing it. The Greater London Council, despite their recent changes to cinema licenses, refused to pass the film at all, and instead it was shown at the New Cinema Club and other private film societies where it received enthusiastic reviews from leading film critics. Many local newspapers criticized the Board for not passing the film uncut and a scene from the film featuring nudity was even screened by the BBC as part of a programme on censorship. In light of all this the BBFC backed down and gave the film an ‘X’ certificate with only one minor cut, enabling the film to be accepted at more local authorities including the GLC.

switchboard copy

The Switchboard Operator (Dusan Makavejev, 1967)

In 1968 Contemporary Films, the UK distributor of Swedish film Hugs and Kisses (Puss & kram, Jonas Cornell) called a press conference and invited John Trevelyan to attend. The film was screened in full and Trevelyan was then given a chance to explain the Board’s position on the film. The film had been issued an ‘X’ certificate following several cuts including a scene of a nude woman looking at herself in a full length mirror. Trevelyan explained that the current Obscenity Laws were very unclear and it was felt that if these shots were allowed it could result in charges being made against the distributor, the exhibitor and even the Board itself, with the real possibility of prosecution. Referring to the rules regarding nudist films, Charles Cooper of Contemporary Films asked whether the scene would have been passed if the woman’s pubic hair had been shaved off, to which Trevelyan replied, with a hint of unintended innuendo: “Not at all. It doesn’t follow that if the pubic hair weren’t there, no other problem would arise.”[iv] The scene remained cut from the film until it was discovered that several local authorities had passed the film with the scene in. As there was no public outcry or threat of legal action, the BBFC allowed the film to receive a certificate uncut.

puss and kram

Hugs and Kisses (Jonas Cornell, 1968)

As a response to these and other battles with film distributors, directors, critics, cinema clubs and others, the BBFC introduced significant changes. In June 1970, after many meeting and negotiations with various committees and local authorities, a new category system was introduced and adopted throughout the British Isles. This system was as follows:

‘U’ – Passed for General exhibition.

‘A’ – Passed for general exhibition but parents/ guardians are advised that the film contains material they might prefer children under fourteen years not to see.

‘AA’ – Passed as suitable only for exhibition to persons of fourteen years and over. When a programme includes an ‘AA’ film no persons under fourteen years can be admitted.

‘X’ – Passed as suitable only for exhibition to adults. When a programme includes an ‘X’ film no persons under eighteen can be admitted.[v]

It is my belief that the efforts of film distributors to have their product shown with or without a rating brought attention to the perceived failings of the BBFC. Trevelyan had voiced his concerns in 1965 that the Government could disband the Board and replace it with an official body if they were viewed to be failing in their responsibilities. By reviewing and revising the system the BBFC effectively removed that possibility, at least for the time being, so in part the move for change also came from within the BBFC as a need to survive. Trevelyan had adopted as a motto for his time in the BBFC: “Times change and we change with them.”[vi] This proved to be true and helped the BBFC progress towards treating the British public as adults whilst giving filmmakers and distributors greater freedom.


[i]      Hunnings, Dr Neville March, Great Britain in Censorship Films: A quarterly report on censorship of ideas and the arts, number 2 Spring 1965

[ii]     John Trevelyan interviewed by Arkadin in Film Clips, Sight and Sound v.34 (1 April 1965) Spring

[iii]    Trevelyan, John, p.117, What the Censor Saw, Michael Joseph, London, 1977

[iv]    Trevelyan, John, p.13-14, What the Censor Saw, Michael Joseph, London, 1977

[v]     Trevelyan, John, p.63, What the Censor Saw, Michael Joseph, London, 1977

[vi]    ibid., title page

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