Kink and controversy: How Rosemary’s Baby fell foul of the censor

Our latest guest blog is by Dr Paul Frith of the University of East Anglia. Paul is currently a Post-Doctoral Research Associate on the AHRC-funded Eastmancolor project, which aims to investigate the impact of Eastmancolor, a film stock introduced by Kodak in the 1950s, on British cinema. His particular research focus is on censorship and horror cinema. Here he discusses the press controversy generated by Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby following its UK release. 

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When Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby made its way onto British shores at the turn of 1969, the film instantly hit the headlines following a decision made by the British Board of Film Censors to remove 15 seconds of a scene depicting the rape of protagonist Rosemary (Mia Farrow) during a satanic ritual. The moment which depicts the creation of the ‘Devil-child’ was briefly trimmed to remove the following dialogue:

Woman at Bedside:      ‘You’d better have your legs tied down – in case of convulsions.’

Rosemary:                   ‘Yes, I suppose so.’

For the BBFC these few lines were deemed to be indicative of a far more unsettling scenario than rape at the hands of the Devil; namely, the act of ‘kinky’ sex. While the 1960s was a decade in which the BBFC were more open to depictions of sex and violence on the screen, when used in tandem the Board were less willing to be seen as accepting of such activity (this would come to a head a few years later with Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange).

These minor exertions made to films dealing with sex and violence were often attempts to demonstrate to the moral guardians that the BBFC were always acting in the public’s best interest – even though they were not necessarily in favour of cutting films themselves. Any exploitation film dealing in such matters could easily be censored by the Board without repercussions. However, if the censors were seen to be interfering with a respected director’s ‘art’, said director was safe in the knowledge that the British press (who were not particularly fond of censorship anyway) would be there to pressure the Board into defending their decision to the public.

While director Roman Polanski himself requested that the film’s premiere remain free of any cuts, upon its release to the general public this brief exclusion remained in place. As reported in the Daily Mail, 14 January 1969, Polanski criticised the BBFC’s decision to censor the scene in question, stating that ‘I am strongly opposed to censorship. I am determined to show the film uncut to the critics. They are the best judges to decide if it is harmful.’ Reporting for the Daily Express, Victor Davis’s meeting with the director reveals how he fought ‘for six weeks’ with the BBFC in order to reduce the number of cuts made to the final released version. With regard to BBFC secretary John Trevelyan, Polanski argued that ‘if I had allowed him to make all the cuts he first suggested the film would have made no sense at all.’

Polanski was also keen to distance the scene from the realms of the occult, suggesting that the moment in question ‘belongs to the world of fantasy’ with it being part of Rosemary’s ‘dream sequence’. The Board’s decision became a talking point within the national press, sparking a series of debates regarding the suitability of the film at a time which saw an increased interest in witchcraft and occultist Aleister Crowley. As reported in the same Daily Mail article, Trevelyan wrote to Polanski in response to the director’s criticism of the Board’s decision, stating that it was a ‘tricky scene since it contains elements of kinky sex which are, I believe, associated with black magic.’ He goes on to add that ‘while the film in general paints an unfavourable picture of people who indulge in this kind of thing, this particular scene is not entirely helpful, since the sexual side is undoubtedly an attraction to some participants or would-be participants.’

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Rosemary wakes from her ‘dream’ covered in scratches.

However, Trevelyan also admits in the same article that it is not known whether there is ‘activity of this kind in this country…’, a question which is answered by the Sunday Telegraph, 19 January, who report that ‘there are at least 10,000 actively interested in witchcraft or magical practices’ – a significant increase from the 2,600 some 18 months prior. The ‘well-known North London witch’ questioned for the article stresses that the majority of those of practicing witchcraft are of the ‘white’ variety, with those invested in ‘black’ being purportedly tied to the Catholic Church.

Polanski’s response to Trevelyan was reported by the Daily Mirror, 14 January, where he defends the film against the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ stand taken by the BBFC and their sex-centric approach by arguing that as a director he has ‘better ways of keeping the public interested.’ In the Evening Standard, 13 January, the director furthers his defence of the film by ridiculing the censors’ use of the phrase ‘kinky’, suggesting ‘some people find shoes stimulating. Does Mr. Trevelyan want actors to work in their feet?’ For the Guardian, 14 January, Trevelyan’s comments got even more specific remarking that ‘black magic is not an insignificant thing, and it is connected with perverted sex’.

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‘Polanski is a fine artist, but we have a job to do’ – Trevelyan defends his decision to cut the film in The Guardian (14 January, 1969)

Polanski’s actions seem to have had the effect the directed intended as, writing for The Sun, 21 January, Ann Pacey ridicules the Board’s decision by insinuating that ‘perhaps the censor believes in witches’. Writing for The Observer, 26 January, Penelope Mortimer also criticises the BBFC’s decision in pointing out that while the dialogue in question may have been removed from the film, the Ira Levin novel Polanski’s version is closely based upon remains ‘for sale on practically every bookstall in the country’ adding that ‘surely in this case the censor has lost all dignity and justification and become no more than a myopic and properly resented old nanny?’ In reference to the scene in which Rosemary threatening holds a knife over her pregnant stomach (not censored by the BBFC), The People’s Ernest Betts, 26 January, states that ‘no scene which I have encountered in a picture is quite so horrifying as this one. All that stuff about violence and sex the censor talks about pales beside it.’

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Nina Hibbin for the Morning Star, 25 January, wryly argues that in disseminating the ‘many ridiculous aspects to this matter’ the only conclusion can be that ‘the censor, who is notoriously public spirited, wanted to draw attention to the futility of his job’, suggesting that the controversy has provided Rosemary’s Baby with ‘a reputation it really doesn’t deserve.’ Adding that ‘it isn’t the kind of film that people who haven’t seen it now believe it to be’, Hibbin’s comments demonstrate how the Board’s reaction not only drew attention to the very matter it wanted removed from the film, it would also encourage others to see what they were missing out on.

However, while the BBFC felt pressure from the press for decisions deemed to have been unnecessary, and would often have to defend their actions in public, this type of response was used by the Board as a means of gauging changes in tastes; if the critics want it then, next time, they’ll get it!

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