The UK in the early 1980s. The Video Cassette Recorder (or VCR) was the new “must-have” status symbol, and the video rental business was in full swing. Business was booming and many people wanted a part of it.
This is now a period that is regarded by many as the outlaw days of home video as there were seemingly no rules about what could be supplied.
From 1979 to 1984, there were no legal requirements for video works to be classified by either the BBFC (the British Board of Film Censors as they were then known) or any other regulatory body. The BBFC’s only role at the time was to classify films intended for cinema release on behalf of the local authorities (which is a function they still perform). This era is what some collectors and fans fondly refer to as the Pre-Certification (or Pre-Cert) era.
The major film studios were initially hesitant to enter an industry they imagined would bring about the death of cinema. However, they realised they were missing out on a booming industry at a time of economic uncertainty and they too wanted part of it.
But independent video distribution companies with no ties to major film studios were emerging throughout the country as the industry mushroomed at a phenomenal rate. This made available for the first time a mind-boggling selection of material as companies sought to expand their inventories with almost anything they could lay their hands on.
From obscure horror films many had only read about or which had been rumoured to exist as very few had ever seen them, to sex films, kung-fu, cult classics, obscurities and outright trash, all these and more could be found in local video rental store located on almost every high street in the country. It is estimated that 10,000 titles were issued on VHS, Betamax and V2000 formats during this very short space of time, so there was seemingly something for young and old alike.
Many of these independent companies were simply fly-by-night seat of the pant operations that purchased the rights to any package of films they could find at the right price. Many were unaware that the films had previously fallen foul of the BBFC when submitted for their original cinema release and may have required substantial cuts or been denied a certificate and rejected outright. However, these films gained more publicity and better rentals, so these distributors were encouraged as the money rolled in and sought out more outrageous films to release.
And to make their tapes stand out, these independent distribution labels began using more and more outrageous cover art, and this included more graphic imagery, more blood, more nudity and more eye-catching over-the-top text and taglines.
However, these boom times did not last. What began as tabloid newspaper moral panic whipped up by The Festival of Light’s clean-up campaigner leader Mary Whitehouse and fanned by newspapers like the Daily Mail and their infamous “Ban the Sadist Videos” headline ignited into widespread media hysteria over these so-called “Video Nasties”. As there were no age-restrictions on video tapes, anybody could rent them – from children to those considered “weak of mind”.
Soon, video rental shops, retail outlets like HMV and warehouses across the country were being raided by the police, who sought prosecutions under the Obscene Publications Act – which had previously applied to pornography but now extended to video cassettes that were perceived to have the power to deprave and corrupt (or make morally bad) a significant proportion of their likely audience.
In turn, this meant that juries, often unfamiliar with contemporary horror films, were required to watch ‘splatter’ or ‘stalk and slash’ horror films (the most popular genre of films seized by police forces and subsequently recommended for prosecution by the Director of Public Prosecutions) and decide whether they were ‘obscene’.
Over the next few years a total of 72 films would be added to the Director of Public Prosecutions’ list of banned videos as the successful prosecutions mounted up and these titles were regularly seized as they now had a proven track record for being found obscene. Retailers or distributors were now being fined and, in some cases, jailed for offering such ‘obscene’ articles for gain.
However, successful prosecutions were not always guaranteed as different juries in different parts of the country could either convict or acquit the same work given the quality of the defense or prosecution case or the composition of the juries themselves. A more consistent approach was seemingly needed to avoid the risk of acquittal and to ensure the ‘Video Nasties’ were purged from the land.
So, Conservative back-bench M.P. Graham Bright introduced a Private Members’ Bill in parliament to attempt to legally regulate the availability of these titles and their ilk. After the Conservative government of the day actively supported the bill’s passage through parliament, it subsequently passed into law as The Video Recordings Act (1984). With few exceptions, this act now made it illegal for any company to supply a video work for sale or hire without a classification certificate awarded by the designated authority, the British Board of Film Classification.
Many of these works vanished from the streets and were only available illicitly. There were – and still are – penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment for supplying unclassified works or works containing material cut as a condition of classification. Many of these works could now only be obtained after often draconian cuts had been made so as to reduce the likelihood of harm that the BBFC were legally obliged to consider (amongst other relevant factors) and also to render them significantly different from the previously prosecuted versions.
For many years, many of these works were not legally available and the pre-certification era vanished with the more notorious titles
The 1st Definitive guide covers the birth of home video from 1979 to 1984 and history of the Original 72 prosecuted Video Nasties.
The 2nd Definitive guide cover the history from the passing of the VRA in 1984 and the subsequent history of censorship and moral panic up until 1999, plus it explores the entire now infamous Section 3 list.
NUCLEUS FILMS is a DVD releasing company established by writer/film researcher Marc Morris and filmmaker Jake West, which creates and distributes high quality collector’s cult film titles for lovers of independent and cult cinema..
Nucleus Films also produces high quality DVD extras for other clients, ranging from extensive featurettes to audio commentaries. Nucleus Films produced the highly acclaimed 98-minute documentary on the Phantasm series, entitled Phantasmagoria, which was included in Anchor Bay UK’s five-disc Phantasm Box Set. They also made the featurette Stormy Seas: The Journey from Blood Star to Death Ship which was included on the 2007 release of the 1980 cult classic Death Ship and Running the Bloodbath.
Leave a Reply