Made in Dagenham
d. Nigel Cole / 2010 / UK /  113 mins
Cinema 1 @ Barbican (London, UK)

Still from Made in Dagenham

Good, solid, entertaining film in that time-honoured English tradition of taking a chunk of recent British social history and feelgooding it up. Sally Hawkins is great, Bob Hoskins is wonderful, and it’ll undoubtedly scoop the pool at the BAFTAs next year.

But rather than the film itself, I wanted to discuss the curious, minor controversy it sparked with regards to cinema ratings and the harsh word. Handing down its rating in May, the British Board of Film Classification awarded Made in Dagenham a 15 certificate for several instances of strong language. For a film with an arguably educational bent and almost nothing in the way of violence, horror or sexual titillation, Made in Dagenham – and subsequent ratings for another British film, The King’s Speech – led to a peculiar set of circumstances in which the relative weaknesses of film rating boards on both sides of the Atlantic were laid bare once again.

Dismayed and displaying barely contained anger, producer Stephen Woolley led the charge on behalf of Made in Dagenham against what he considered the outmodish attitudes of the BBFC, documenting his long and complex relationship with the organisation for an op-ed piece in The Guardian, and campaigning via various newspapers and radio shows including Radio 5 Live’s Kermode and Mayo. Declaring the film to be a victim of ‘box-ticking’ with regard to a handful of non-sexualised, factory floor F-bombs (which he rightly argued could be heard any day of the week in pop songs, sporting arenas and even playgrounds), Woolley was perplexed that Made in Dagenham should be deemed unsuitable for those under the age of fifteen, particularly since a film as bleakly violent as The Dark Knight (amongst many others) had previously been awarded a 12A certificate.

Once the film was officially released in early October and it became clear that, despite a number of appeals and a very public campaign against the certification, the BBFC were not likely to change their mind, Stephen Woolley did tone down his rhetoric a little. But in late October, the BBFC conveniently proved Woolley’s theories about the sheer ridiculousness of the situation – rating a film out of the reach of early teens simply because of a few instances of ‘foul’ language – by overturning a decision on the certification of another film with equally educative qualities and similar use of non-sexualised expletives.

Tracing the interactions of the stammering King George VI (Colin Firth) and his speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010) was initially given a 15 certificate by the BBFC for ‘strong language in a speech therapy context’. Following an appeal – and a rapid, one week ‘formal reconsideration process’ – the BBFC revised its certification and awarded The King’s Speech a 12A.

Despite a number of claims of cultural elitism (not least from Woolley himself) which suggested that a swearing King was acceptable whilst a swearing factory worker was not, the BBFC adequately justified its decision by claiming that, though repeated in quick succession in a therapeutic context, there were only a couple of instances of strong language and they were neither aggressive, nor aimed at any of the other characters. And whilst such a decision seems reasonable enough, and a 12A certificate for The King’s Speech is undoubtedly justified, Woolley and Co. obviously feel – rightly, I would suggest – that a similar certification for Made in Dagenham would have been equally acceptable.

The story doesn’t end there, however: cross the Atlantic, and the tale of these two films and the use of pesky four-letter words gets ever stranger and ever more puritanical. Claiming ‘language and brief sexuality’ for Made in Dagenham and ‘some language’ for The King’s Speech, the Motion Picture Association of America slapped an R rating on both films, the second highest level of certification in the United States which deems that anyone under the age of 17 must be accompanied by an adult.

That fifteen and sixteen year olds should be hindered from seeing a pair of relatively mild-mannered historical britpics is strange enough, but when you consider that it is only the result of a handful of instances of ‘bad’ language, it borders on the bizaare. Consider this: other major R rated releases in North America in the second half of 2010 have included Saw 3D (for ‘grisly bloody violence and torture, and language’), Predators (for ‘strong creature violence and gore, and pervasive language’) and The Expendables (for ‘strong action and bloody violence throughout, and for some language’).

Meanwhile, PG-13 certificates – the next lowest rating, which suggests that ‘some material may not be suitable for children under the age of 13’ – meant that those same fifteen and sixteen year olds (indeed, anyone aged 13 and over) were able to see films like The Last Exorcism (with ‘disturbing violent content and terror, some sexual references and thematic material’), The Other Guys (‘crude and sexual content, language, violence and some drug material’) and Scott Pilgrim vs The World (‘stylized violence, sexual content, language and drug references’).

Generally speaking, I’m not really one to advocate censorship, but I do understand the need for parents to receive guidance when deciding what their children should and should not watch in the cinema and at home. But when you restrict twelve, thirteen and fourteen year olds from seeing a film simply because of strong language, but allow the same teens to freely view scenes of grizzly violence and stylised horror, there is something genuinely wrong with the priorities of your ratings board.

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