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Censor, written and directed by Prano Bailey-Bond, is released in the UK on 20 August. It’s a fun, trippy, if somewhat inconsequential meander set against the backdrop of 1980s London and, in particular, the claustrophobic confines of the British Board of Film Censorship offices as they wrestle with the nips and tucks they needed to suggest before such evergreen classics as Driller Killer (1979), or anything with ‘Cannibal’ in the title, might get released for your home viewing pleasure.

Fond memories of browsing the shelves in my tiny local video rental store on Commercial Road in East London flooded back, as well as the near incandescent rage I felt that I might be denied watching any of the low-budget, extreme gonzo horror movies that I felt were my birthright because of the faceless bureaucracy that was the BBFC. The shock and horror whipped up by the tabloids – the Daily Mail in particular – which painted hardcore horror aficionados like me as feeble-minded idiots who would be incapable of resisting the urge to re-enact what they saw on screen – albeit the small one – is as insulting now as then.

As it was, only a handful actually got banned. I’ve seen them all since and, although the younger me was right – they didn’t inflame or corrupt me enough to copy the vile acts presented for our enjoyment – I’d also have to own up and honestly admit my life is really not that much richer for the cinematic experiences they offered. Although I did get to make an episode of my Incredibly Strange Film Show for Channel 4 on Blood Feast (1963) director Herschell Gordon Lewis, who turned out to be a delightfully warm and hospitable fellow and meeting him was a joy. Definitely more fun than most of his movies.

So, not least because of that frustrating period in the 80s, I’m not a fan of onscreen censorship in any form. Cinema should, and does, mirror real life, and although the more garish extremes of genre entertainments is not, thankfully, based on reality, it needs protecting as well. If for whatever reason we still get some sort of weird pleasure in seeing entire campsites of teenagers decimated by supernatural slashers, or want to squirm while eco-warriors get chomped down on in a savage cannibal fantasy (providing the filmmakers play nice with cultural differences and don’t favour colonialists, naturally), then we shouldn’t be denied.

But part of me craves, if not censorship then some guidelines. A little self-control. Some parameters so that filmmakers don’t rely on chucking in the gore and the gratuitous nudity and hyper-real violence just to liven up otherwise dreary and forgettable fare. See, if you’re going to rent – or stream – a film called Cannibal Ferox (1980) or The Wizard of Gore (1970), then you should know what you’re getting yourself into. But in the last few decades the extremes of what was once an acquired taste loitering on the edges of the mainstream has been welcomed into the bosom of the studios.

The Dark Knight (2008)

I think the first alarm bell for me was watching the excellent if rather self-serious The Dark Knight (2008), Nolan’s best Batman movie. The scene in which the Joker dispatches a henchman by pulling him, eye-first, on to a sharp pencil was, I felt at the time of release, a little much for a 12A certificate. But afterwards, on reflection, I’ve come to think that the certification isn’t the problem. It’s the fact that the scene was largely unnecessary – at least in such an evocative and compelling presentation. And, let us not forget, this was a Batman film.

I’m not against pulp-fiction style violence – the gruesome head-in-the-vice sequence in Casino (1995) earned its place both in the context of the story and in the illustration that these lovable rogues weren’t actually lovable at all. But The Dark Knight, admittedly based on an adult reimagining of the caped crusader by Frank Miller, is still a superhero story. And, frankly, it just weren’t necessary.

I’m not pining for the Hays Code, where the police could not be shown to be corrupt, gay men or women would have to be punished for their ‘sins’ and frotting of any kind is evil if not in a marriage. But I am beginning to feel that the casual reliance on sex and violence to attract an audience, or to give an otherwise anodyne story an edgy quality, might not be necessary if the story itself and the people telling it were any good.

That mention of the Joker has made me think about the decline of comic books. The rise of inferior edgelord writing in the wake of sophisticated work that Alan Moore and Frank Miller put into reshaping the mythologies we’d grown up with meant not only nasty, poor quality stories but also more or less the death of the ‘all-ages’ comic book. When we fell in love with these characters it was when we – and the genre – were young. And we grew up, but the writers and artists working in the field back then were still mostly adhering to the Comic Code Authority guidelines. This was similar in most ways to the Hays Code with some print-specific rules – eg, avoid using the words ‘flick’ or ‘Clint’ because the ink could often run together creating less family-friendly words.

So I don’t want censorship. But I want to see what our most talented writers and directors can do if they set their creative dials to ‘inclusive’. The rules of censorship that governed comic books and of course movies back in the day led to some incredible creativity and left us with adult-themed, sophisticated movies which you could watch with a ten-year-old. My proposal is a Dogme 95-style challenge, but instead of the limitations being budgetary or technical, I would like to see filmmakers make some proper grown-up movies that you could also happily show to a kid. I’d like to see what they can do with their imaginations inspired by but not shackled to grim reality. In short, I just don’t want to see anyone getting a pencil in the brain again.

More on Censor

In the realm of Censor: Mark Kermode speaks to director Prano Bailey-Bond

By Mark Kermode

In the realm of Censor: Mark Kermode speaks to director Prano Bailey-Bond

Vile VHS: unspooling the history of the ‘video nasty’ controversy

By Kim Newman

Vile VHS: unspooling the history of the ‘video nasty’ controversy

We spit on your grave: women and the video nasties

By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

We spit on your grave: women and the video nasties