One former cinema employee shares his secrets as to how people trying to sneak into films underage often got caught.

Yesterday, we ran a story on the site about one person’s attempt to get into seeing Bad Boys underage in the 90s. Here’s a story from the other side of the ticket booth, from someone working in cinemas at the time, and whose job it was to stop underage patrons getting in…

I have spent several years working for cinemas in and around the city of Oxford, mostly in the 1990s. It was only at the ABC-turned Virgin-turned Odeon cinemas, of which Oxford still has a pair, that I saw any real number of ‘certificate skippers’ – people trying to sneak into movies underage.

In those big, city centre cinemas, where you would watch the sort of films advertised on a phone box or a bus, there were plenty of underage customers trying to see movies that, according to the BBFC at least, they shouldn’t have been anywhere near.

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The standard defence, taught to all box office staff, was to challenge the apparently under-aged for ID. Amazingly, this rooted out 90% of the interlopers. But sometimes, they brought along somebody else’s ID.

My favourite example of this was a young girl looking to watch There’s Something About Mary with another miss who appeared to be an older sister. I asked for ID and the younger girl proudly pushed a Birth Certificate my way. This meant it was time for my phase two defence. The simple question: “When’s your birthday?”

She confidently gave me a month and a day, but not a year. So I pushed. And so she awkwardly guessed at the year in which she herself had allegedly been born. And she guessed incorrectly.

I looked to the older sister and asked “You’re Megan, right?”

“How did you know?” As soon as she said it, I saw the penny drop.

I gave Megan [her name has been changed to… um… plug a hole in my memory] her birth certificate and told her that while she was old enough, her little sister was not. Did they want one ticket or none?

The sibling’s ID stunt was a common one, though it didn’t usually end quite as perfectly. Usually the kids crumbled entirely when being asked for their birthday. I always tried to be totally friendly about it, but being on the spot when you’re lying seems to be pretty tough for a tween.

One day, I was working outside of the box office and I saw a kid headed towards the auditorium. It was looking touch and go as to whether he was under 15 or not, so I looked over at my cashier colleague for confirmation that she had checked, and she gave me a thumbs up through the glass.

It was a few days later that I found out my colleague hadn’t actually bothered checking and was just dodging blame. I was working box office at the other branch of the same chain, just 200 metres away, and the same, borderline kid came up to me for a ticket – this time to a PG film.

His mistake was asking for a child price. A schoolboy error. Literally.

I asked for ID, not really expecting it – and he, of course, said that he didn’t have any. So I told him that he’d been to see a 15 a few days before and so he now had a choice. He could pay adult price – or go down on record as being under 15, thereby becoming somebody we’d all recognise and never again let into 15 certificate films without valid ID.

He said he’d have to think about it! As far as I remember, he went off and we didn’t see him for weeks. I saw him on a bus a few years later and he still looked about 13. I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d paid full price for his bus ticket.

My colleague hadn’t checked this lad’s age at all because she didn’t care. This was really quite normal. I sometimes saw the staff tearing tickets at the door just stand by and let all sorts of ages walk through and watch all sorts of films.

Yet when under-age viewers couldn’t simply walk in unchallenged – or when they at least expected some resistance on that front – they often tried to sneak in through the exit doors instead.

The Magdalen Street branch now has a second screen, a tiny little upstairs thing, for what it’s worth, but in the 90s, there was just one big auditorium, seating 900. I remember it as a lovely room, with a main entrance-exit door to the foyer, and two other exits that would lead to the side of the building. Unfortunately, the ‘fire doors’ on the side of the cinema were pretty easy to open from the outside, and lots of kids gave this a go.

But those exit doors were also quite close to the ‘bin room’ where bulging bags of spilled popcorn and drink cups were stored between screenings to be collected the next morning. A disgusting place (not that this stopped certain staff members sneaking off there for some ‘friendly time’, though that’s a different story) but also a perfectly placed location to spot fire door infiltrators.

Just before one screening of Showgirls was due to kick off, I caught a mob of about 20 pint-sized chancers trying to slip in this back way. They might have done well to keep the chattering and giggling dialled down a little.

This goes doubly for the literal dozens of kids caught and rooted out mid-screening throughout my years of duty, uncovered simply because they were playing the fool in the dark of the screen – and very loudly to boot. What is it about a 15 certificate movie that puts gangs of 13-year olds into hyperdrive?

Actually, I know. Swears and boobs, mainly.

Because the BBFC’s rules are very different from those in certain other countries, we had several tourists kick back against our refusal to sell them tickets. I lost count of how many times American patrons wanted to take their kids into 15 and 18 certificate films and argued the superiority of the R-rating system, whereby adults can take minors – even toddlers, if they so desire – to watch films like Halloween, Hostel or Hellraiser.

The bottom line, of course, is that a cinema’s license depends on it honouring BBFC certificates, local authority intervention notwithstanding. Even if American parents should be allowed to decide what their children watch (not a debate I’m having here) simply allowing them to transgress the guidelines could, in theory, see the cinema put out of business.

There was one American mother who simply tried coming back every ten minutes or so for over an hour. I don’t know if she suffered from prosopagnosia, therefore bluntly returning to my window over and over in the hope that I was a different person, but I certainly didn’t. I can still see her face now. This mum seemed absolutely desperate to see The Long Kiss Goodnight; I hope she liked it when she eventually managed to find a babysitter.

All in all, my time in cinemas told me that, whatever people think of BBFC certificates in general, there’s customers of all ages who think they shouldn’t apply to them personally. I don’t know how much the Oxford Odeons were really at risk of losing their licenses over certificate skipping, but I certainly wasn’t inclined to gamble my my measly wages and crummy, flexible-hours working agreement. Which is exactly how they get us…

Lead image: BigStock


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