10 great X-certificate films

As Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top arrives on BFI Blu-ray, we trace the history of its notorious X certificate through 10 films.

Anton Bitel
Updated:

Room at the Top (1959)

Room at the Top (1959)

In 1912, the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) was established as a non-governmental organisation responsible for the classification and censorship of films released nationally. At first, its ratings — U (for Universal), A (for Adult) and, added in 1932, H (for Horrific) were purely advisory, although some councils would attach their own age restrictions to those certificates. In 1951, the BBFC replaced the H with the X — not just a new rating, but a new kind of rating that restricted viewers to those 16 years or over. The X would last three decades, although the introduction in 1970 of the AA rating (restricted to those 14 years or over) meant that the age cut-off for the X rating was accordingly raised to 18. In 1982, the X was rebranded as the 18 certificate, in part because the ‘X’ had become inextricably associated with sexual content, and the rating covered more than that.

In a sense Jack Clayton’s Room At The Top, released 60 years ago, represented a positive justification for the X rating. For this was a homegrown, adult film exploring the theme of English class aspirations and boundaries through two relationships of its ambitious protagonist Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) — one premarital, the other adulterous. Its sexual frankness might previously have seen it heavily cut, or even rejected, before 1951 — but with the X rating (and a small amount of its language softened), it could be seen by a mature audience without fear of corrupting the nation’s morality.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Director Erle C. Kenton

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Moral standards change with the times. Although BBFC records were destroyed during World War II, references to human vivisection and animal cruelty were probably the chief reasons that the censorship body refused in 1933 to grant even the new advisory H classification to Erle C. Kenton’s talkie adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr Moreau. The film was resubmitted, and again rejected, for classification in 1951 and 1957 — but in 1958, it was granted an X certificate with certain deletions, including the words “They’re cutting a man to pieces!”, the spectacle of failed genetic experiments on a treadmill, and a blasphemous line from mad scientist Moreau (Charles Laughton) comparing himself to God. In 1996 the BBFC was happy to reclassify the uncut version of the film as a 12, and since 2011 it has had a PG Certificate, with the advice, “Contains mild violence and scary scenes.”

La Ronde (1950)

Director Max Ophüls

La Ronde (1950)

Max Ophüls’ film seemingly had everything going for it: an internationally respected director who, though German, had been a Jewish refugee from the Nazis; a literary pedigree (albeit from a controversial 1897 play by Arthur Schnitzler); the prestige of being a ‘foreign film;’ and a sophisticated structure of episodes in relay, replicating the circular carousel ride from which it took its title. La Ronde even won the BAFTA for best film in 1951, and was nominated for two Academy Awards in the same year. Yet its arch, cynical attitude towards brief erotic entanglements as fickle as they were extra-marital, and perhaps also its open transgression of established class boundaries, ensured that it would be one of the first films to attract the new X rating in 1951, granted by a BBFC that considered itself a guardian of public morality. It was cut too. Now uncut, it is rated PG.

Beat Girl (1960)

Director Edmond T. Gréville

Beat Girl (1959)

In the Fifties, juvenile delinquency began to concern both society and the BBFC. After refusing a certificate to László Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), the BBFC grudgingly granted X ratings to Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Richard Brook’s The Blackboard Jungle (both 1955) on condition of substantial cuts. At the end of the decade, Britain produced a homegrown variant on the theme in Edmond T Gréville’s Beat Girl. “It’s a gimmick from America,” one character says, explaining the titular movement (and also rather underlining its inauthenticity in a pre-Swinging London),“hopeless and soapless.” It all seems rather innocent now, as daddy saves Gillian Hills’ teen bourgeoise from her Soho kicks, and Adam Faith’s working-class rocker dismisses both drinking and fighting as ‘for squares’ — but striptease scenes, a predatory club owner (Christopher Lee), dangerous games of chicken and references to prostitution required cuts for its X.

Psycho (1960)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Janet Leigh undresses in Psycho (1960)

If you are looking for a film that demands the X rating while stretching its limits, Alfred Hitchcock’s most profitable film hits the mother lode. It is not just the proto-slashing penetrative violence of the famous shower scene, but the scandal of what precedes: first pre-marital, post-coital canoodling by Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) on a hotel bed; and later the unprecedented sight of a toilet flushing, symbolic of contemporary moral standards going down the drain along, soon thereafter, with Marion’s life blood. That motel proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is shown spying on Marion undressing allies our own viewing to his perverse scopophilia. The BBFC required the removal of stabbing sounds and nude shots for its X  but seeing a decline in all the values that she held dear, long-time English critic C.A. Lejeune walked out of her screening and retired forever from film writing.

Victim (1961)

Director Basil Dearden

Victim (1961)

In 1957, the Wolfenden report had recommended that homosexual behaviours in private between consenting males over 21 be decriminalised, but it would not be till a full decade later  that the 1967 Sexual Offences Act would implement those recommendations. So Basil Dearden’s film, which sympathetically dramatised the vulnerability of gay men to blackmail and abuse, and which also sought to depathologise and humanise homosexuality, is staid and notably chaste by today’s standards, but in its time was audacious and risqué in highlighting characters who were still considered a criminal class and an ‘abnormality.’ Indeed, Victim was the first English-language film to include the word ‘homosexuality.’ An X rating was inevitable, with a brief cut. Shifts in both law and public attitudes can be traced in its subsequent reclassifications for video, from 15 in 1986 to 12 in 2004. A theatrical re-release in 2005 had a PG rating.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Director Stanley Kubrick

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

The introduction, in 1970, of a new, non-advisory AA rating for viewers of 14 years and older allowed the age bar for the X certificate to be pushed from 16 to 18. Now the latter rating was able to accommodate more adult content, so that Stanley Kubrick’s latest feature could be passed uncut with a reformed X, even though previously the film’s taboo combination of “the old in-out” and “the old ultraviolence” would never have got past the British censors. Not that it mattered  for when, with little evidence, the tabloids branded several subsequent attacks as ‘copycat crimes’ inspired by the film, death threats made to Kubrick and his family would lead the director to withdraw A Clockwork Orange from British screens. This self-imposed ban would last until Kubrick’s death in 1999 (when the film would again be passed uncut with an 18 certificate, this time without controversy).

The Devils (1971)

Director Ken Russell

The Devils (1971)

While sex and violence have always been regarded with some suspicion by the BBFC when appearing separately in a film, their admixture is even more censorable. Ken Russell’s historical drama featured not only this combustible combination, but threw in, as fuel to the fire, a blasphemy-courting exposé of religion’s repressions, hysterias and hypocrisies. So it was hardly surprising that the BBFC, when shown a rough cut of the film, responded with a list of required cuts. Unusually, the film’s worried distributor Warner Brothers also drew up its own list of cuts, more swingeing than the BBFC’s. After much vigorous dialogue between director, distributor and censor, a compromise was reached, with several scenes shortened, and one entire scene (‘the rape of Christ’) removed. Its release, with an X rating, sparked controversy both inside and outside the BBFC, and a further six minutes were removed for the American R-rated version.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Director Bernardo Bertolucci

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s anti-romantic story of intense grief and anonymous sex had already attracted controversy from its screening at the New York Film Festival, and arrived before the BBFC amid a tabloid furore. The censors wanted 20 seconds cut from the notorious ‘butter scene’ (in which Marlon Brando’s character anally rapes Maria Schneider’s), but agreed, after an appeal by Bertolucci and his producer, to grant the film an X certificate (in 1973) with only 10 seconds removed. When an individual brought a private prosecution against the film’s distributors citing a breach of the Obscene Publications Act, the court concluded that the Act did not cover film. Absurdly, when films were eventually added to the Act by the Criminal Law Act 1977, the BBFC’s new Secretary, James Ferman, having reexamined the film decided that it could be released within the law under the X certificate with all the previous cuts rescinded.

Alien (1979)

Director Ridley Scott

Alien (1979)

Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror would divide the classifiers and test the demarcations between ratings. Some at the BBFC believed that Alien would, like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) with its merely advisory A rating, “prove far more frightening to adults than to children,” and that the addition of H.R. Giger’s nightmarish body horror imagery would “suggest more to adults with their knowledge of human anatomy” than to teenagers. Others, however, argued that not only did past precedent — like Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) from the previous year, with its similar “perverse view of the reproductive function” — point towards an X rating, but a failure to impose an X would set its own precedent for ‘similar entertainments’ in future. In the end, the distributors abandoned their bid for an AA rating, recognising that the more adult X rating came with a commercially beneficial cachet for a horror film.

The Evil Dead (1981)

Director Sam Raimi

The Evil Dead (1981)

With the rise of VCRs, the Eighties was to become the decade of the ‘video nasty,’ as the Director of Public Prosecutions, spurred on by conservative Christianactivist Mary Whitehouse and the tabloids, drew up a list of home-release horror films deemed to be in breach of the Obscene Publications Act 1959. Sam Raimi’s slyly comic low-budget shocker made the list, as one of three titles — along with Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) — that would standardly be cited in the press as poster films for the ‘nasty.’ Despite this notoriety, however, the DPP removed The Evil Dead from its list in 1985 after the distributors successfully argued in Snaresbrook Crown Court that it was not obscene. Indeed it had been passed, with negligible cuts, by the BBFC for theatrical release with an X certificate in 1982 (the rating’s final year).

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