An overview of the Draconian Days of the 80s and 90s, essential viewing for horror fans.
In 2010, Nucleus Films released a three-disc box set, Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide, which I reviewed for this site here and named as one of my DVD releases of that year. It contained Jake West’s documentary, Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, which detailed the moral panic surrounding “Video Nasties” which led to the Video Recordings Act of 1984. As a result, videos, and now DVDs and Blu-rays, were subject to the only state-mandated censorship in the UK and the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). Cinema releases can bypass the BBFC and be shown with the permission of the local council, though in practice this doesn’t happen except for very limited releases and festival showings. However, certification of homevideo releases is non-optional – except for certain documentary releases, and that loophole has narrowed more recently – and distributing an uncertified video/DVD was and still is a criminal offence.
West’s follow-up documentary, Video Nasties: Draconian Days, after a brief recap of the first film by Martin Barker (editor of the invaluable 1984 book, The Video Nasties) takes up the story from that point. Draconian Days effectively becomes a portrait of the BBFC under its Secretary, later director, James Ferman, and the documentary ends with his retirement in 1999.
Ferman was a complex individual, born in the USA (not a Canadian, as one person says) but longterm resident in the UK, with a history as a director for television before he took the job at the BBFC in 1975. There’s no doubt he was adept at being the BBFC’s public face much the same as his 60s counterpart John Trevelyan had been – unlike his immediate predecessor, Stephen Murphy, who had left the job after four of the most controversial years in the Board’s history. From my own perspective, I saw Ferman at several public events in the 1980s and 1990s, and his ability as a public speaker was not in doubt. We even see him being interviewed by Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G. We have to remember that if we considered the Ferman-era BBFC too illiberal and censorious, they were plenty of people amongst the great and good and the media who thought it was far too liberal and should have banned and cut far more films than they did. So this documentary is a little out of balance as a result.
However, Ferman’s approach to running the BBFC was by the accounts of many of the people who worked there (some of whom are interviewed in this documentary) increasingly autocratic. To a lesser extent than the first film, the interviewees are almost all anti-censorship, with pro-censorship campaigners mostly restricted to archive footage. Ferman did claim – with justification – a considerable knowledge of cinema, and he was capable of standing up to calls to reject certain works. Crash is a case in point, passed uncut by the BBFC despite a campaign led by the Daily Mail to ban it – which the London Borough of Westminster duly did. That doesn’t get mentioned here, other than a brief archive clip of David Cronenberg.
There is no doubt that Ferman had several personal hobbyhorses, and his tight control over the BBFC and the examiners allowed him to exercise them. Martial-arts weaponry, not to mention chainsaws and crossbows, were particular no-nos, and automatically cut. Even a poster of Bruce Lee brandishing nunchaku had to be cut from the 1987 film Dragnet. He also had a habit of withholding decisions on films if controversies sprang up, and refused to pass films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Exorcist for home viewing. (Both were passed in short order when Robin Duval took over as Director.)
Draconian Days covers the moral panics about video provoked by real-life tragedies which were linked to them. Michael Ryan’s shooting spree in Hungerford was linked, dubiously, to Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo films, and the result was that the next one, Rambo III was heavily cut to remove “glamourisation” of weaponry. Child’s Play 3 was linked to the murder of James Bulger by two older children, and other films featuring murderous children (Mikey, The Good Son) were rejected or had their certification delayed. On the other hand, Ferman did successfully fight Liberal MP (now Liberal peer) David Alton’s proposed amendment which as it was set out could have banned the videos of any film with a certificate higher than PG.
Meanwhile, an underground trade sprang up in pre-certificated and uncut videos, attracting raids by the police, and a number of fanzines discussing horror films were published. Festivals sprung up, such as Black Sunday, Nothing Shocking and Shock Around the Clock, often all-day-and-all-night endurance tests but places where you could see films on the big screen you couldn’t see at home, at least not in their uncut versions.
The documentary ends with Ferman’s unilateral attempt to allow more explicit material in the R18 category, denoting pornographic films available only from licensed sex shops (and not by mail order, which is still the case today). The then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, objected to this and as a result Ferman had to retire. Following the loss of an appeal, the BBFC reformed the R18 category, so that it can contain unsimulated, non-violent and consensual sex between adults, with the result that classic 70s porn films like Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones received BBFC certificates in their uncut forms for the first time. There is no doubt that the BBFC, under Robin Duval and now David Cooke, is a more open and accountable organisation than it was under Ferman and a third documentary (if there is one) would have fewer cause celebres from the last fifteen years, though there would still have been some.
There are first-person accounts of the BBFC from John Trevelyan (What the Censor Saw) and Stephen Murphy’s deputy Guy Phelps (Film Censorship) and Ferman’s memoirs might have made interesting, if possibly contentious, reading. But it was not to be, as Ferman died of acute pneumonia in 2002, aged seventy-two.
Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part 2 is released by Nucleus Films as a three-disc set as a limited edition of 6666. The discs are dual-layered and encoded for all regions. The disc starts with an extended trailer for the first volume (4:35).
As with the first volume, for the purposes of this review I’m regarding Draconian Days (which runs 97:13) as the feature and everything else as extras, though those extras – especially the contents of discs two and three – are equally as much what makes this set essential for anyone interested in horror films and the social context of the decade and a half covered by the documentary.
Incidentally, this set is an example of a release which may not be feasible in the future, or at least not without being much more expensive to produce. A recent change in the law narrowed what would be allowed to be exempted from classification: still documentary material, but anything that contained footage which would gain a certificate higher than PG is now obliged to be certified, with the fees that that entails. So, in this set, produced before that change, Draconian Days has been passed (18 uncut) and the trailers on Discs Two and Three (see below) but the introductions, some six hours of them, have been exempted.
The aspect ratio is 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. The newly-shot footage is sharp and clean, as you would expect. The archive material, from television, film clips, and video footage, isn’t always in as good a state. The soundtrack is basically mono, given that the bulk of this footage is either talking heads or extracts from archive material and films which would have had monophonic soundtracks. (The Thing being one exception to the latter). There are no subtitles for the hard of hearing, which is regrettable.
“Fanzine Flashback” is a set of self-navigating stills galleries, showing covers from a selection of fanzines produced between 1985 and 1995. This period, between desk-top publishing becoming available and affordable and the rise of the Internet, produced many such magazines. My own involvement in the early 1990s was as a contributor to magazines specialising in fiction, but this overlapped with the fanzines shown here, some of which I bought, and some of the editors of which I did and/or do know personally. The covers are presented alphabetically: A-G (6:10), H-R (6:40) and S-Z (5:10).
Also on Disc One are stills galleries of video sleeves of the DPP 72 (the 39 titles successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act and the 33 also prosecuted but later dropped from the DPP list – see the first Definitive Guide for more details, runs 08:10) and of the DPP 82 (see below, runs 7:55). On this disc are trailers for a long list of other Nucleus releases: The Playgirls and the Vampire, Grindhouse Trailer Classics 4, Night of the Bloody Apes, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Dead of Night, Cannibal Girls, Teaserama, Varietease, Ghost Story, Grindhouse Trailer Classics 2, Bloodbath at the House of Death, Death Ship, Fausto 5.0, Gwendoline, Between Your Legs, Cruel Passion, Escort Girls, Some Like ity Sexy, Fantasm, Fantasm Comes Again, The Good Little Girls, Justine’s Hot Nights, Scandalous Photos, Dressage and Education Anglaise.
There are also some Easter Eggs on this disc. Underneath the menu for Fanzine Flashback is a link to a page of disc credits. Click right on this link and you get “It’s Just a Movie” (3:22), a fan film inspired by the first Definitive Guide. To the left on the first page of the Draconian Days scene selection menu, is a gallery of festival passes (2:50). To the right on the second page of the menu are passes and programme booklets for Frightfest (0:40), held every August Bank Holiday weekend in Leicester Square, London.
Discs Two and Three follow the same form as they did on the previous Definitive Guide. This time, the focus is on the eighty-two Section 3 titles, those advised by the DPP not to be obscene, but still known to have been seized. After a short introduction, each film is discussed in turn by an expert, followed by the film’s trailer (often sourced from ropey-looking video) . Disc Two goes from A to L (294:47), Disc Three from M to Z (272:43). Each disc has the option of playing the intros only (198:13 and 187:27 respectively) and the trailers only (96:34 and 85:16). The trailer for Cannibal (aka Last Cannibal World) has been cut by the BBFC by four seconds, due to unsimulated cruelty to an animal. The experts include such familiar genre names as Alan Jones, Justin Kerswell, Marc Morris (this DVD’s producer), Kim Newman and Stephen Thrower, who contribute the bulk of the intros here and many of whom also appear in Draconian Days. Also on board are some who didn’t take part first time round, including Evrim Evsoy, Julian Grainger and Karen Oughton. The films include some classics, much undoubted dreck that would now be forgotten otherwise and some titles which should never have been on the list and aren’t even horror . You can sense some discomfort in discussing the latter: for example The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which gets a discussion relating to Australian history from the one Aussie amongst the experts, Patricia MacCormack. Incidentally, the one black and white film on the list, Night of the Living Dead, gets an appropriately monochrome introduction from Kim Newman.
Also in this limited edition are five postcards. The ones in my review copy are reproductions of the video sleeves of Headless Eyes, Naked Fist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Werewolf Woman, plus a promotional card for the Nigel Wingrove/Marc Morris book The Art of the Nasty.
There are thirteen hours worth of content in this set, and once again, the word “definitive” is entirely justified. An essential purchase.
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