Visions of Ecstasy: End of the Last Taboo?

Blas for me, Blas for you, Blas for everybody in the room Eddie Izzard

Until 1676 you could still be executed for blasphemy, but the offence came off the law books in 2008, opening the way for one of the strangest bans in the history of British cinema to be repealed. Now, 23 years after it was first submitted to the British Board of Film Classification, the British public will finally get the chance to judge for themselves Nigel Wingrove’s Visions of Ecstasy – a 19 minute short film banned because the BBFC judged that it was likely to be prosecuted for blasphemous libel.

So, if the release of Visions of Ecstasy marks the end of this long held taboo, it also affords us the opportunity to look at the history of how blasphemy has impacted on film censorship over the years.

The BBFC celebrates its centenary in 2012, but the first written guidelines for what was then the British Board of Film Censors were not drawn up until 1916. 43 prohibitions were laid down, covering everything from “Indecorous, ambiguous and irreverent titles and subtitles” to “Subjects dealing with premeditated seduction of girls“. Two of the prohibitions had to do with the appearance of blasphemy: “Materialisation of the conventional figure of Christ” and a specific prohibition of “The irreverent treatment of sacred subjects”. So we’ve come a long way.

Visions of Ecstasy

Depiction of the figure of Christ was cut from several films in the board’s first years of operation. It’s tough to find details of which films, because the BBFC site isn’t indexed like that, but DW Griffith’s Intolerance either slipped through the net or was given consideration as a more artistic work, because it seems not to have been censored for its 1916 release, despite featuring both the materialisation of Christ and nudity. In relation to Intolerance the BBFC did remark, in 1917, that they “objected to nude statuary when we have seen it in certain positions”. In addition the 1916 film Civilization was submitted in a shortened version for its 1917 release. The film apparently depicts Christ as an anti-war agitator. This was a very successful suppression by the BBFC. In 1931 the film came before the board again, this time in a full sound version, but it was rejected, probably because policy hadn’t changed on the depiction of Christ, and since then it seems to have been revived only very occasionally (probably in its shortened version) at the National Film Theatre. It’s not an official ban for blasphemy, but Civilization remains all but unseen here, because it depicts Christ.

At this time there wasn’t a real public outcry about blasphemy in the media, and in 1948 Secretary Arthur Watkins and President Sir Sidney Harris began presiding over a BBFC that abandoned the absolutes of the 1916 prohibitions for a board run by guidelines (which is still how the BBFC comes to its decisions today). The 50s and 60s saw the board struggle with cinema’s depictions of sex and drugs and rock and roll. It was really in the 1970s, with the rise of Mary Whitehouse and the Festival of Light (subsequently the National Viewers and Listeners Association, now Mediawatch) that blasphemy started to rear its head again as an issue in censorship, and indeed in the courts.

Ken Russell’s The Devils came to the board in 1971, and had a rough ride. Board secretary John Trevelyan wanted to protect the film, which he considered a great work of art, and there were a number of viewings of incomplete prints and letters back and forth with Russell as he fought to keep as much of controversial film intact as possible (as the cuts were made from unfinished prints there is no record as to how much went missing, but it seems likely to have been several minutes, some of that footage has since been restored to an occasionally shown Director’s Cut, though it will be the 1971 cinema version that comes to DVD in March). Blasphemy was, in fact, not one of the issues quoted by the BBFC, but it certainly was by the Festival of Light, whose campaign against the film was led by Peter Thompson, who had members mount a letter writing campaign, first to Trevelyan, who apparently replied to each letter saying “…go and see The Devils (it won’t corrupt you)”.

Having been comprehensively rebuffed by the censor, Thompson and his cohorts turned their attention to the councils (though few ever use it in practice, all local councils are entitled to change or withdraw a BBFC certificate in their area of control). The local authority targeted was the GLC, who did screen the film, but refused to repeal the BBFC certificate, saying it was their policy “not to take action against individual films” otherwise “we would end up having total chaos“. However, seventeen councils did ban the film (though, again, blasphemy was not specified as grounds) and three councils decided, going forward, to review all BBFC X certificates.

In 1979 the Festival of Light’s battle with ‘blasphemers’ continued on two fronts, one of which would have an important impact of the Visions of Ecstasy case. The better known case was that of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the press kicked up a fuss, and there was the famous televised ‘debate’ between Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark and Pythons John Cleese and Michael Palin. Several councils did ban the film, but it still achieved a reputation as one of the great British comedies, and most people seem to have seen the fuss as rather silly.

Less discussed now, but perhaps more important, is the case of Whitehouse v Lemon, in which Mary Whitehouse brought a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against Gay News for publishing the poem The Love That Dares to Speak its Name by James Kirkup, which concerned the sexual fantasies of a Roman soldier as he took Jesus’ body from the cross. Publisher Denis Lemon said that he published it as “the message and intention of the poem was to celebrate the absolute universality of God’s love“. Gay News was found guilty in a 10-2 majority verdict, and Lemon was sentenced to pay a £500 fine and 9 months imprisonment (suspended and subsequently quashed on appeal). This was the very last successful prosecution for blasphemous libel.

The Gay News case fundamentally and directly influences the banning of Visions of Ecstasy. The film came before the board ten years after that case, about five years after various obscenity trials of the so-called Video Nasties (some won, some lost) and only two years after the massive backlog of already released videos had to be certificated, so the board was not at its most liberal, had been used to cutting and banning video works, and was now faced with a controversial film which could be liable to prosecution.

Visions of Ecstasy (which, for the record and for obvious reasons, I have not seen) is a 19 minute film about St Teresa of Avila. In a fantasy scene, St Teresa (Louise Downey) imagines herself caressing and apparently having sex with the crucified Jesus. The BBFC took legal advice, but considered that the film would be liable to be convicted under the blasphemous libel laws, and that cuts to avoid this eventuality would amount to the removal of about half of the film, and so it was rejected. That, however, was far from the end of the story. The Video Appeals Committee was established under the Video Recordings Act in 1984, and acts as the first stop in any appeal against a BBFC decision. Derek Jarman testified on Nigel Wingrove’s behalf at the hearing for Visions of Ecstasy, but the appeal was denied, with the committee again referring to Whitehouse v Lemon.

The next, and final, stop for the film was at the European Court of Human Rights, which Wingrove petitioned under his right to freedom of expression to consider whether a blasphemy law was consistent with that right. The court concluded that:

Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society. As paragraph 2 of Article 10 expressly recognises, however, the exercise of that freedom carries with it duties and responsibilities. Amongst them, in the context of religious beliefs, may legitimately be included a duty to avoid as far as possible an expression that is, in regard to objects of veneration, gratuitously offensive to others and profanatory.

There, since 1996, the matter had rested.

There was no movement on the film until 2008, when the blasphemous libel law was repealed (having been replaced in 2006 with the Racial and Religious Hatred act, which extended certain protections – though not that from offence or ridicule – to all religions). With blasphemy itself no longer an issue, BBFC examiner Craig Lapper invited Nigel Wingrove to resubmit Visions of Ecstasy, assuming that it would pass without issue. In 2008 Wingrove didn’t submit the film, telling The Guardian:

If I made the film now I would make it very differently… I was exploring areas of dark eroticism, but I had worked chiefly in prints, not films. People say I should put it out, but on a personal level I have reservations. If I did release it, I would need to put it into context and perhaps release a documentary to accompany it.

It remains to be seen whether that documentary will form part of 4Digital’s release strategy following the film’s passing on January 31st 2012, or indeed what form that release will take, but it is unlikely that a 19 minute short will support a DVD release on its own.

So, does the passing of Visions of Ecstasy mean that blasphemy is no longer an issue in terms of censorship? Yes and no. Certainly it means the last – indeed really the only – casualty of the law has been reclaimed, but by no means does this suggest that people like Mediawatch or Christian Voice will stop trying to make it an issue. If anything, it has the potential to make the battle more pernicious, because now the law is defined in terms of hatred, and that’s what the campaigning groups will likely want to suggest films that flirt with the sort of content found in Visions of Ecstasy, and latterly Jerry Springer: The Opera, are.

It has never – yet – been argued that Visions of Ecstasy demonstrates or argues for hatred directed towards either the Christian Church or the figure of Christ, and so it seems to me that what the reactionary element mean when they react against this and many other films is that they feel offended. The trouble (for them) is that there is no protection either under the BBFC’s guidelines or in common law against offence taken from art. In the opinion of this critic that is entirely proper (though it seems the Daily Mail’s comments section disagrees with me there). All art has the potential capacity to offend, because when it comes to art offence is not given, it is taken. For me, the bottom line is this: you have the right to be offended, but what you don’t have is the right not to be offended, because if we suppress something because it offends you, then we have to suppress things that other people are offended by, and soon there’s no TV, no music, no computer games and no movies.

At the end of the day the Visions of Ecstasy battle is over and it seems the good guys won (or lost, if you’re Stephen Green), but there are others – newer and older – to be fought on grounds other than blasphemy. One taboo is gone, but it is by no means the last one.