Sunday, August 3, 2014

Video Nasties : Draconian Days And My Own Experience Of The Hysteria

Nucleus films recently released the sequel to their hugely popular Video Nasties : The definitive guide, which features Jake West's follow up to his earlier documentary Video Nasties : Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape (which I covered here). West's new film titled Draconian Days follows directly on and takes us right up to 1999 when James Ferman, then head of the BBFC retired. I'm not going in depth on Draconian Days, just sharing a few thoughts before talking about my own experiences of the time.

Draconian Days has a similar mix as the earlier documentary of archive and film clips, interspersed with talking head footage, and the two films would blend together almost seamlessly as a double bill. The film spends much of it's running time focusing on Ferman and his reign as head of the BBFC. I know many horror fans, myself included, demonised Ferman throughout this period, as the UK was subjected to some of the most stringent cutting in the Western world. Horror fans would begin frothing at the mouth at the mere mention of his name, and to some extent he did himself no favours with his superior attitude and seemingly utter contempt for the proletariat. Famously when speaking about the reasons for refusing a certificate for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre he said "It's alright for middle class cineastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?". How that alone didn't create riots in the streets is a wonder to me. Ferman also had serious problems with particular content in film, famously sexual violence and weaponry, particularly knives but especially anything from the martial arts. The latter of which were cut without question, regardless of what type of film they were featured in.

The documentary actually treats Ferman in a pretty fair way, highlighting not just the negatives of his time, but also the work he did to prevent the escalation of hysteria surrounding the James Bulger murder, when the press went completely barmy all over again. We should all be thankful of Ferman's presence when it came to David Alton's frankly idiotic bill, that effectively tried to ban anything above a PG rating for home viewing. It says a lot about a country when you have MPs like Alton, so desperate to make a name for himself, going to the lengths he did in the name of self promotion. It makes me wonder just who votes these idiots in, oh yeah it's us!

At this point the film changes focus and edges more towards fan service, as the underground tape trading circuit is covered. The frustration of being unable to view the films you wanted to see in their uncut form led to an explosion of illegal trading, helped by the thriving fanzine scene. Place a classified ad in the zine of your choice and wait for the postman to deliver list after list of rarities. I did get a real nostalgia fueled buzz from this section of the film, but I question whether it should have been in there. I feel it would have worked better as an extra rather than as part of the film, but that's just my opinion, I had a great time watching it.

We then go back to Ferman and the decision that brought his demise, as he seemingly became more and more autocratic. He made the decision to legalise hard porn, something he did without much in the way of discussion, and that was pretty much that, the decision upset the wrong people and although he got his way he was quickly emptying his desk afterwards.

Overall what strikes you when watching Draconian Days is the quality of the journalism. It's a hot topic at the moment for me, just how terrible reporting has become, both in print and on TV. This highlights in many ways how this is nothing new. With knee jerk reactions to awful events proving to whip up a frenzy of disinformation and outright lies and stupidity, and normally sensible people losing their heads in the frenzy of hysteria.

My own experience of the madness began with a knock at the door on a Friday afternoon, it was the police. At the time I was still living with my parents, they knew I was tape trading, but weren't bothered by it, at least until the knock at the door. Two C.I.D officers asked for me, luckily it was my father who answered, rather than my mother. He was calm as he asked the officers what was going on. This gave me time to bolt upstairs to stop the whirring vcrs from copying whatever it was for whoever. I was petrified, panicking I literally ripped the cables out of the back of the top deck and threw it under the bed, because of course no one would think to look there would they? At that point I thought about trying to hide the tapes that were on show, but where? As sense was beginning to return to my brain I realised I wasn't going to be able to hide them and that I was running out of time. The two officers came upstairs to my bedroom, had  a cursory glance around and then asked if I knew a specific person. I remember saying no, because in the moment I genuinely didn't remember. They jogged my memory by showing me a photocopy of my letter to him. They then asked which of the video nasties I had. Sensing their hearts really weren't in it, I told them I had only two, taking The Evil Dead and Zombie Flesh Eaters (complete with b&w photocopied covers) from the shelf and handing them over.

Ah, the old vcr balancing act. A familiar setup to many involved in tape trading I'm sure.

At this point, I thought about the letter and where the hell my correspondence was. If this was how they were working through the network it was important they didn't get hold of mine. To my horror, it was just laying there in full view, on the bed, the folder open with letters on show. As casually as I could I moved to position myself where I was blocking it from their view, hoping they hadn't seen it yet. Fortunately, they didn't conduct any kind of search, they said they'd seen enough and that we could carry on the conversation downstairs. As they left the room I grabbed the folder, stashed it out of the way, took a deep breath and followed.

Nasties such as The Killer and Gone In 60 Seconds. Great job!

From there I was told I would need to make a formal statement at the station, and then depending on if a prosecution was going to go ahead I may be called as a witness in court. In the end they didn't even confiscate The Evil Dead or Z.F.E, instead leaving them with my father, like I was a naughty child!  Later that evening I went to the station, father in tow. Before going in, he gave me some of the best advice I've ever had, "Say as little as possible, don't speak unless they ask you a question and if you can answer with one word, do so." It was probably pretty mild as far as these things go, but I felt like I'd been grilled for two hours when it was over. They spent almost as much time asking what was wrong with me (because I liked horror films) as they did about the actual details of the case being investigated.

The notorious Dr.Giggles, Dirty Harry and Pantyhose Hero. Oh the horror!

Over the next couple of weeks as more and more raids took place, hitting the headlines in typically hyperbolic style (I remember seeing footage with where they'd confiscated that well known video nasty Assault On Precinct 13), my paranoia grew and grew. After my close shave and pure luck in avoiding a similar fate due to the complete lack of interest of the officers assigned to question me, my thoughts began to drift to the others who had been raided. What if they hadn't been quite so lucky as I had? What if they'd left correspondence in plainsight? Could I expect another visit? Surely if I popped up on the radar again, they have to look deeper into it? I'd been warned by my father to cease anything and everything to do with the trading, but he stopped short of telling me to lose the tape collection. This wasn't really necessary as I was still absolutely terrified, and as a precaution I stashed the tapes at a friend's house who wasn't involved in the scene. As for the correspondence, I burned it and hoped all my fellow traders had done the same, and that was that, my tape trading days were over.

I was lucky this didn't happen to me.

As my paranoia began to fade (although my heart jumped whenever there was an unexpected knock at the door), I heard nothing for months, thinking the case had fallen apart and it had all blown over, I began to relax. Out of the blue I got a phone call requesting my presence in court. I had that familiar sinking feeling again. I'm quite shy and absolutely hate any form of public speaking, so the thought of giving evidence in front of a court full of people was far more terrifying than any of the horror films I've seen before or since. The thought that I could be at least partially responsible for sending someone to prison for no more a crime than trading a few video cassettes was gut wrenching. The first day of the case, another witness failed to turn up, which for anyone who doesn't know is a huge issue, with appropriate consequences without an extremely good reason. So after a day of sitting around, I was told I'd have to go back the next day as well, great! On the second day, everyone was there and I gave my evidence, being careful of what I said to make the testimony as favourable as I could. In truth, it was nowhere near as horrible (from a personal point of view at least) as I'd anticipated, but the whole experience soured my feelings towards horror and for a short while at least, film altogether. Of course it didn't last long, as my love for Hong Kong cinema re-kindled my passion for film in general, but I was buying vhs copies of the latest HK movies rather than trading.

I never did find out what happened to the guy in the dock, I'd like to think that common sense prevailed, but sense, common or otherwise was in desperately short supply during this period, with MPs and journalists (and perhaps even judges) falling over themselves to jump on the gravy train of publicity that was the video nasty.


JP Mulvanetti said...

Fantastic write up, and thanks for sharing your story, too. Must have been terrifying! It's hard to beleive that teenagers would laugh at you now if you told them what lengths you had to go to to see certain films, and the consequences if caught. The world changed so fast after Ferman left, and not just with censorship, but in how the internet knocked down barriers to being able to meet people into these films and how easy it became to just order up uncut DVD's of previously outlawed titles. I couldn't believe it when I ordered my copy of Cannibal Holocaust, it was almost too good to be true!

Thanks again for the write up!

Wes Moynihan said...

Mart, an absolutely terrifying story... let's face it, most of us here will never so much speak to a cop for any length of time let alone have one come into our home and scrutinize our personal belongings. I would be deeply unnerved by the court appearance as well - the only people who are cool in court are career criminals. But thanks for sharing that story, it really gives me an idea of how intense things got. We heard about these reports in Ireland - I remember coming home from school at lunchtime and seeing the credit sequence from I Spit On Your Grave on the BBC 1 o'clock news - but nothing comparable happened here in terms of raids and confiscations. Your point about Ferman is well made, and he really did try to bring some sort of level-headedness to the debate - even now those Mirror headlines really sicken me and I think I did get some flak from my parents for collecting Horror films, as if I was part of some ch*ld p*rn network. John's comment above the world changing faster than than the BBFC could keep up with, ultimately was a God-send for Horror fans, but at the time it seemed like we would be forever forced to settle for 10th generation copies of those great outlaw films. Cannibal Holocaust on Blu-Ray ? Someone pinch me...

A hero never dies said...

JP, Agreed, everything's changed so much as to almost make the classification part of the BBFC job as redundant as the censorship side. I do wonder if they realise this and that's why they are so much more lenient on casual violence these days, particularly in action films which regularly surprise me with 15 certs. I don't think there is anyway back now, I'm sure that horse has bolted, but it's only a matter of time before some moral crusader looking to make a name for him/herself tries to stir it all up once more. Thanks for your comment.

A hero never dies said...

Thanks Wes, They really did try to make me out to be some kind of freak of nature during the time I made my statement. Very uncomfortable!

Ferman was a strange one, he comes across as a complete egotist who thought he was superior to everyone else, even his colleagues. I imagine he wished he could divide himself to fill every position at the BBFC, now that would have been being in charge. That factory worker comment.... Jeez.

Wes Moynihan said...

Oh, shocking really... I mean, I was that factory worker, two years later and I had no problems processing I Spit on Your Grave or any other of his problem titles. That kind of snobbery has always enraged me, coming from a very working class background and neighborhood, but it works the other way as well, and growing up I used to get mocked for being "weird", when I should have been knacker-drinking somewhere instead of listening to music or watching films. I'm gonna stop now as I can endlessly drone on about this subject 'til the cows come home !

Phil said...

Wow! I never realised it was so bad. This is a great post - really eye opening. From my perspective, Ferman was the guy who chopped up Bruce Lee movies so much they were hardly worth watching anymore...maybe that was the intention.

We usually managed to get hold of Spanish bootlegs and preferred watching them.

A hero never dies said...

Knacker-drinking is a new one on me Wes. A similar story here too.

Thanks Phil, My first exposure to Bruce Lee was tainted thanks to those cut to ribbons VHS releases, never forgiven the BBFC for that. I'm sure that was exactly the intention, making them almost unwatchable.

Ty said...

Excellent write-up! Definitely want to see this documentary. Looks awesome.

lordcorneliusplum said...

A friend had a similar experience at the time - possibly the same tape traders correspondence led the Police to his address. Luckily for him he was out at the time the police called and his dad , being Polish and of the generation who fought in the war had dealt with the SS , so the CID were nothing.

We quickly moved his entire collection to the bottom of my wardrobe for the next 6 months until the heat had cooled off.......

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