To celebrate the DVD release of his new documentary, Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two - Draconian Days, we caught up with filmmaker Jake West to chat about film censorship and moral panic in the UK during the James Ferman era of the British Board of Film Classification...
Your previous documentary covered the original ‘video nasties’ scare in the UK. So what does Draconian Days have in store for viewers?
‘Draconian Days is designed as a direct continuation of the story from where Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape left off. So this one picks up the baton and goes from the enacting of the VRA (Video Recordings Act) in 1984 up to the strange story regarding James Ferman’s dismissal as the head of the British Board of Film Classification in 1999.
‘This covers some of the anomalies in the way that censorship was handled, where you had various things that Ferman himself didn’t like such as throwing stars and nunchaku, as well as his outright refusal to allow films like The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to even be considered for release on video. Basically he just wasn’t consistent in his policies. You could say that he had a bit of class-based agenda as well.’
Well there was that really famous quote of his about a factory workers in Manchester…
‘Yeah, about it being all very well for an intellectual audience to watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but what about a factory worker in Manchester? As if they’re going to pick up a chainsaw and start killing people. I think it was very revealing.’
Even at the time, while I certainly didn’t agree with a lot of what he was doing, I still found Ferman to be a fascinating character.
‘Absolutely. And it’s important to get across to people that the film isn’t a character assassination on Ferman. He actually emerges as a very contradictory character. He was very intelligent and had to deal with a lot of pressure from people on from both sides of the argument – the pro-censorship lobby thought he was being too soft, while those who wanted the mass availability of everything we’re happy either. He couldn’t please either party.
‘But to his credit, when it came to fighting the Alton amendment in the mid-‘90s [which came about in the wake of spurious allegations linking the film Child’s Play 3 to the death of James Bulger and would have resulted in far greater censorship], Ferman really got involved and was a voice of reason at that point. And then you have his eventual demise due to trying to legalise pornography – it’s such a bizarre footnote to his career.
Thankfully, he was never shy about giving interviews either.
‘Ferman was a bit of an egotist for sure. He put himself front and centre of the BBFC. He clearly loved the exposure because he was on talk shows, he was on doing newspaper interviews, he was everywhere. I do think that he enjoyed the power of that. But because of this we were lucky enough to get hold of a very long interview with him. Because despite him being dead, we really wanted him to have a voice in the film. Again, we weren’t trying to trash him. We just wanted to understand what happened back in that period and look at how we can all make sure that it doesn’t happen again.’
The situation at the BBFC is obviously much different today – which I presume made it much easier to get individual members to contribute to the film.
‘Absolutely. The climate has changed so much at the Board since it was shrouded in secrecy during the Ferman era. Now they’re very open. So if you make a request to them, they’re pretty much likely to okay it as long as they see it s being serious-minded. Also, being a distributor ourselves (Jake co-founded Nucleus Films with Marc Morris) we already know quite a few of them. So we’ve never had any problem getting people to come and talk.’
Being born in 1975 myself and growing up a genre fan, Draconian Days also brought back a lot of fond memories of trawling classified ads and film fairs looking for uncut films…
‘Yeah and I can reveal to you Anton that we’re going to have even more of that home movie footage from film fairs on the DVD. There’s about an hour of it that we’re going to put as a little hidden Easter Egg somewhere.
‘Actually, one of the things we found when we the film had its premiere at FrightFest Glasgow was that many of the people in the audience who took part in the Q&A and had their own stories of what had happened to them at the time. So I think this documentary, probably more than the first, is going to really speak to fans about their own experiences.
‘The censorship of the time threatened to criminalise fans, forcing them to break the law, whether by importing tapes or getting hold of dubs. But when you look back and think of people like poor old David Flint (editor of the Sheer Filth! fanzine) being imprisoned, having his bloody collection seized, them having to fight something that took six months? That’s like living in some kind of awful Orwellian, right-wing state. It’s terrible. Or that poor bloke in the documentary who worked for British Rail and was hit by a dawn raid to confiscate his collection. You can see he’s just a normal 20-year old guy; an enthusiast. Not somebody trying to dismantle society. The response was just too strong.
'But the upside of this was that it fostered these great communities and networks of horror fans that still have echoes today in FrightFest and other festivals across the country. And when you look back at the fanzines of the time, it’s all people like Mark Kermode, Marc Morris, Julian Petley – all these guys who were really passionate about this stuff before they had their mainstream careers. That’s actually the positive side of the story as far as I’m concerned.’
Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two - Draconian Days is available to buy now on DVD.
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