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A Brief History of Film Classification

Have you ever wondered how film certificates are decided and when it all started? Well, I'll give you a little bit of information about how the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has developed over the last 110 years.

If you are reading this from another country, I would be very interested to know how your country's film certification works and how it developed. Please contact me and let me know.

The classic film certification card

So, prior to 1912, local councils had the freedom to classify films as they deemed fit. Even now, local councils have the right to impose their own restrictions on films released in their areas. While films do not legally HAVE to apply for a BBFC certificate for cinema release, they have to have one for video/DVD/streaming release. In certain cases, councils can step in and enforce their own restrictions, but after a film has been declared with the BBFC classification, the cinemas are bound by law to enforce the restrictions the certificates come with.

What did they have in the early days?

From 1912 to 1932, there were just two certificates;

U - "Passed for Universal Exhibition", and;

A - "Approved for Public Exhibition to Adult Audiences".

The certificate "A" had an age limit of 16, but these were advisory and it's likely that these were not followed in all parts of the country.

"Dark Eyes of London" was not deemed suitable for all

In 1932 (until 1951), "U" remained (as it does into the present day), "A" was reduced to the equivalent of today's "12A", with "patrons under 12 permitted only when accompanied with a parent or guardian". The new certificate added was "H":

H - "Passed as Horrific"

"H" films took over from "A" being for over 16's only.

From 1951 to 1970, the "H" certificate was renamed "X" and the BBFC stated that these were "for public exhibition where no child under 16 present".

1970 saw the introduction of another new certificate - "A A". The BBFC also rejigged their guidance on the classifications.

U - "For general viewing"

A - "Parental guidance required for children under 12"

A A - "Restricted to anyone aged 14 or over"

X - "For public exhibition when no one under 18 present"

An example of a "15" card, once colours were introduced

At the end of 1982, heading into '83, the BBFC completely revamped their classification system, and we see the beginning of the modern system. "U" stays, "PG" takes over from "A", while "A A" is replaced with "15" and sees its age restriction raised. "X" certificate had started to earn a reputation for being sexually explicit films during the "Sexual Revolution" of the '60s and '70s, so this is replaced with "18", and R18 for sexually explicit films, and even then cinemas had to be licensed for showing these films.

U - "Suitable for all"

PG - "General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children"

15 - "Suitable for persons of 15 years and over"

18 - "Suitable for persons of 18 years and over"

R18 (Restricted 18) - "To be shown only in licensed cinemas to persons of no less than 18 years"

A common sight in entertainment stores

1984 saw government take a bit of a stand and sign off the Video Recordings Act 1984. This put a legal responsibility on the BBFC from to classify all videos (and going on to DVDs later). In 1985, the ratings stood as previously mentioned but instated that the video copies could not be sold to persons under that age category. "R18" films could only be sold in licensed sex shops to adults. A new classification did come in for videos - "Uc" - which indicated videos that were particularly suitable for children. The logos all now have a specific colour them, which is still what we've got today.

12A in the simplified form is orange, not red.

A debate arose in 1989 about the category for Batman, which many deemed to be too much for a "PG" rating but that being a "15" was too restrictive on the film. This prompted the BBFC to introduce "12" to fill in the large gap and to ever changing attitudes of society. In 2002, after a successful trial in Norwich, "12A" (known then as "PG-12") was released for cinema screenings. This meant that any child under 12 years old had to accompanied by an adult over 18.

12 (Video/DVD) - Suitable for persons of 12 years and over. Not to be supplied to persons under 12)

12A (Cinema only) - Generally suitable for persons of 12 years and over. Persons under 12 admitted, only accompanied by an adult.

And so we arrive to the present. Since "12A" was introduced, the only changes have been the simplification of the certificate symbols to go along with the rapid rise of streaming platforms. These are now not textured with 'bbfc' in the colour (go on, have a look at your DVDs!).

I cannot see the BBFC changing these brackets in the future, but with the constant changes in society's acceptance and exposure to the lewd, the violent and the explicit, I can imagine the restrictions of each category will change in the future.

To summarise...

All information is freely available online.

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