In a departure from our regularly scheduled James Bond rambles, we examine the James Bond franchise’s occasional behind-the-scenes battles with the BBFC.
This feature contains moderate spoilers for Licence To Kill, Casino Royale, and Spectre.
“Now we know what C stands for.”
Considering their subject matter, the James Bond films have always had a fairly easy ride from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). The vast majority of the 25 Eon-produced Bond films produced to date were certified PG or 12 for their cinema release, but in some cases, not without cuts.
With the BBFC, it’s less a case of For Your Eyes Only and more the addendum “but also for under-12s’ eyes if accompanied by an adult”. While there’s been a growing leniency towards the series in light of its titanic pop-cultural stature, including all the A-rated (A for Adult) Bond films becoming a fixture of afternoon telly schedules on ITV, 007 has still had a few stand-offs with the examiners, especially as recent instalments have grown darker and more violent.
From Dr No’s early cuts to Spectre’s torture sequences, there’s plenty to dig into, but it should be no surprise that in its diamond-anniversary year, the James Bond series has intertwined with the history of the BBFC. It may have been around 50 years longer than Bond, but the BBFC has done a lot of its modernisation in the last half-century. Still, 007 has been in a few other scrapes with the examiners, (nee censors) that we could mention too…
When Dr No came to UK cinemas in 1962, there were three certificates given by The British Board Of Film Censorship (as it was then known) – U for Universal, A for Adult, and X for Explicit Content. Unlikely to get a U and unsuited for the less commercially open X category, the producers were angling for an A rating but had to make cuts to get it.
In their report on the first Bond film, the censors highlighted content that they judged should be cut to achieve an A rating, primarily involving Bond kicking a chauffeur when he’s down, then firing extra shots into Professor Dent’s back after that famous “You’ve had your six” line, plus an altered bit of innuendo about Dr No’s guards “amusing” Honey Ryder.
The producers made the required changes, and the film duly received an A certificate – like the modern 12A, this meant children under 12 could see the film if accompanied by a parent or guardian. Further cuts were suggested for From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, so on Thunderball, Eon Productions sent the shooting script for Thunderball to the BBFC for advice on how to achieve an A certificate while production was ongoing.
What’s apparent in the BBFC’s lengthy, very deadpan report is that examining a script is quite a bit different to examining a film, and the board made more than 30 suggestions for cuts to avoid an X certificate.
In the covering letter, BBFC secretary John Trevelyan explains: “I get the impression that this screenplay has been deliberately hotted up with a view to its including more sex, sadism, and violence than the previous Bond pictures […] it seems less light-hearted in tone.”
In any case, when Thunderball arrived before the censors in 1965, it only required one cut, which showed Bond stroking a girl’s bare back with a mink glove (oo-er), for its A-rating, but it has all the attendant womanising, murdering, and other not-especially-kid-friendly behaviour intact. Two years later, You Only Live Twice was the first Bond film to be passed at A uncut.
These early brushes with the board are significant for preservation reasons. The practice at the time was to make cuts to the original film negative to ensure consistency across all prints worldwide. That means that most of the BBFC’s cuts have persisted on all versions of the film, including home media, and most of the trimmed footage from these early films is lost for good.
Going forward from the early Bonds though, all of Roger Moore’s Bond outings, from Live And Let Die to For Your Eyes Only were passed uncut at A with varying degrees of sex and violence.
But more pressingly, this coincided with the start of a crucial adaptation in the Board’s continued existence and evolution – the updating of standards based on whether the work in question involves a known quantity.
For context, when Dr No came out, it was based on an Ian Fleming novel that many contemporary reviewers had decried as obscene, and at a point where broadcast standards didn’t allow for more salacious content on television.
However, Dr No premiered on ITV in October 1975, between Moore’s second and third big-screen outings, and was watched by 10.5 million viewers, so there was no arguing that 007 wasn’t well-known in the mainstream. Heck, elsewhere on ITV, it wasn’t long before Roger Moore was doing James Bond sketches as a guest star on a 1980 episode of The Muppet Show.
By then, parents were expected to know what a Bond movie entails and make their own judgement on its suitability for their children. And as we’ve covered in the weekly Bondrambles, Moore has a lighter, more comic touch than either Sean Connery or George Lazenby’s portrayals of the character, which mitigates some of the more adult content and makes him “a Bond for kids”.
In a 1982 overhaul of the system, A and X were replaced by the advisory PG and the compulsory 15 and 18 certificates, respectively. The following year, Octopussy became the first Bond film to receive a PG certificate, with no cuts required. What’s more, the Video Recordings Act of 1984 required the BBFC to classify home video releases too, which is when they changed the C from “Censors” to “Classification”. In subsequent years, all of the previous A-rated Bond movies were awarded PG certificates for home viewing.
While Eon still scheduled BBFC advice screenings of new outings during post-production, most of the notes given were related to the nudity in Maurice Binder’s trademark opening title sequences, including a visible nipple on Octopussy.
This outing and its follow-up, A View To A Kill, are both significantly more violent than the average Moore Bond film, but only the latter got any pushback. During one of the post-production screenings of the film, the BBFC requested two cuts to the fight between Bond and a henchman in Max Zorin’s stables. Zorin sadistically gunning down henchmen and laughing near the end is one of the more violent bits that passed muster in the PG release.
Licence to cut
We’ll come back to Timothy Dalton’s era in greater detail in a few weeks’ time, but where the BBFC is concerned, it was the second of his two films as 007 that caused the biggest stir. 1987’s The Living Daylights passed uncut as a PG, but to this day, 1989’s Licence To Kill remains the only Bond film released in cinemas with a 15 certificate.
The second Dalton film sees Bond single-handedly take on a ruthless drug cartel leader after an attack on his CIA buddy Felix Leiter, bringing the level of violence up to the standard of the 1980s action genre in the process.
Anticipating pushback, Eon booked an advice screening of an unfinished cut of the film in February 1989. They were surprised to be told that in its current state, it would receive an 18 certificate, as BBFC examiners took issue with violence and injury detail in several scenes, including Lupe Lamora being whipped, Leiter being fed to sharks, and the grisly deaths of Milton Krest and arch-villain Franz Sanchez later in the film.
An 18 certificate would have been a huge step-up for a series that was at this point exclusively PG and also entirely shut out the younger demographic that was part of the series’ box-office success.
The filmmakers made the cuts and resubmitted the film with a more complete sound mix in March. However, the added sound effects pushed some more of the film into 18-certificate territory and examiners sent back a list of further cuts required for a lower category. When these changes were made, the Board granted Licence To Kill a 15 certificate after a third screening in May.
The filmmakers had also had to make cuts based on feedback from the BBFC’s American counterpart, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), to secure a PG-13 rating. Although all the American ratings are advisory, establishing a new rating between PG and R not only solved a common category error but also opened up a lucrative centre-ground for movies targeting younger teenagers.
The process of “four-quadrant” tentpoles defaulting to PG-13 had already begun by this point, and so the BBFC found itself classifying a lot of Hollywood movies that landed between our PG and 15 categories and were either rounded down or moved up a level. And so, the introduction of a new compulsory 12 category was announced in 1989, partly foreseeing the demand for younger audiences to see Tim Burton’s Batman.
Having lobbied for the 15 rather than the 18, the Bond producers now appealed to the Board for a 12 certificate. Just weeks before the film’s UK release date in July, a private screening of Licence To Kill was attended by BBFC President James Ferman, six examiners, and a focus group of young members of the public aged between 15 and 20.
The subsequent report found that 15 was the correct certificate and “there [was] no support at all for reclassifying 12, even with cuts” among the audience who attended this fourth screening.
Soon after sent a memo to the distributors and filmmakers offering a 12 upon further omissions from “the whip, shark, and pressure chamber” scenes, but upon finding that the 12 certificate wasn’t set to be introduced until August, they accepted the Board’s previous decision and Licence To Kill was released with a 15 certificate.
The film didn’t do nearly as badly at the box office as its reputation suggests, but it certainly might have done better if the under-15s weren’t shut out. Unlike the earlier films that made cuts to achieve a certificate, Licence To Kill was still available uncut and was finally released on DVD in its uncensored form with 2006’s Ultimate Edition DVD release.
You know his name
No Bond film has received a PG certificate since The Living Daylights. By the time 007 returned to the big screen in 1995, the swing towards PG-13 was well underway. This presented problems for UK audiences and for the longstanding laissez-faire attitude towards the Bond films, specifically because 12 wasn’t an advisory category.
Nevertheless, GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies both had a variety of BBFC-suggested cuts in violent scenes to make them suitable for a 12 certificate. When restored for those 2006 Ultimate Editions, both were escalated to 15. Meanwhile, unlike its predecessors, The World Is Not Enough was passed uncut as a 12, because festive innuendo is acceptable.
The James Bond films of the 1990s have been directly linked to the drive for the current advisory cinema category, 12A. In a 2019 interview with Film Stories Magazine, BBFC Head of Compliance Chris Lapper told us that demand for an advisory 12 certificate started brewing around the 1990s Bond movies, which put a compulsory age limit on the movies. Another Pierce Brosnan-starring film, Mrs Doubtfire, also generated debate earlier in the decade.
Lapper explained that in the run-up to 12A being introduced, “there was a fairly clear message that parents wanted the discretion to decide whether children under the age of 12 could see a particular film.”
The controversy around Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man coincided with trials of the PG-12 category in select UK cinemas, which eventually led to the introduction of the 12A certificate nationwide. The Bourne Identity was the first 12A cinema release, arriving a few months ahead of Die Another Day and thus Bond was just a couple of films behind when it adopted a similar approach to action choreography and cinematography in the next film.
Die Another Day was released uncut with a 12A certificate in the UK. But across the pond, the MPAA’s predictable objection was to female pleasure, depicted in a rare sighting of Bond actually having sex, rather than finding him before and after. The distributors cut 7 seconds of a sex scene between Brosnan’s Bond and Halle Berry’s Jinx to secure the PG-13, but the film was released uncut everywhere else it played.
A few year and one reboot later, the BBFC’s notes on 2006’s Casino Royale were more clear-cut. The film’s faithful adaptation of the genital torture sequence from Ian Fleming’s novel understandably rubbed examiners the wrong way (though not with a big rope this time). As it turned out, the filmmakers had to make different cuts to secure a 12A in the UK and a PG-13 in the USA.
As with Casino Royale, the filmmakers sought BBFC advice about Spectre nine years later. Examiners advised director Sam Mendes and co that reductions would be required for an eye-gouging scene, the aftermath of a suicide, and, later, another torture sequence in which a villain drills into Bond’s skull. The newly completed 12A cut went before the BBFC quite late in the process but yielded the desired certificate.
When Spectre’s 12A certificate became the Board’s most-complained-about decision of 2015, the BBFC’s Annual Report spoke to the 40 complaints received by members of the public, stating:
“Given the lack of detail in the scene and the context of an action film featuring a larger-than-life hero character who always defeats his enemies, this moderate violence is acceptable at 12A.”
Quantum Of Solace and Skyfall remained uncut, despite the latter including the series’ first-ever deployment of the F-bomb, when Judi Dench’s M commiserates with Bond over the handling of the situation. Her successor, played by Ralph Fiennes, utters the second F-bomb in No Time To Die, which has largely escaped censure or complaints on the question of whether it’s suitable for kids or not. However slowly, the needle has undeniably moved as the BBFC modernises in line with public consultation.
(UPDATE: According to the 2021 Annual Report, No Time To Die only received 7 complaints from members of the public, largely about the film’s moderate violence.)
Whatever form Bond 26 takes – and producer Barbara Broccoli says it will be a while away – the series has moved to the centre-ground of 12A, along with your other four-quadrant franchise hits. That’s made the category something of a broad church even within the Bond franchise, spanning from Diamonds Are Forever, thus far the only PG Bond to be reclassified at a higher category for its “moderate language, violence, and threat”, to Casino Royale and Spectre with their ick-making torture sequences, and parents are once again trusted to know the difference.
Still, if all this talk of testicle torture and head-drilling is getting a bit much, here’s a palate cleanser from a more PG time – Roger Moore battering enemy agents during a musical number on a mission in between Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only…
For Your Eyes Only is screening in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 1st July, and that one has a PG certificate.
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