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 Wednesday, 31 July, 2002, 12:40 GMT 13:40 UK
Whittam Smith: From cinema to church
The Exorcist
The Exorcist was banned on video until 1999
BBC News Online profiles Andreas Whittam Smith, former president of the British Board Of Film Classification, made a CBE in the 2002 New Year's honours.

When Mr Whittam Smith stepped down from the BBFC it marked the end of an era which saw the relaxation of censorship guidelines.

He left the board to take on the role of First Church Estate Commissioner and keeping an eye on Church of England finances could not be further removed from the sex and violence which he viewed on a daily basis at the BBFC.
My greatest desire has always been to be cosmopolitan

Andreas Whittam Smith

But the clergyman's son has always taken his religion seriously.

However he has always been keen to shake the "bishop" image that has dogged him since his days as editor of The Independent.

"My greatest desire has always been to be cosmopolitan," he admits.

"I don't want to go round looking like a bishop."

He founded The Independent in 1986 and was its editor for eight years. To this day he remains a non-executive director.

Colleague Sebastian Faulks recalls him as an "inspiring" boss - others remember him being both puritanical and flamboyant.
Andreas Whittam Smith
Whittam Smith: "I don't want to look like a bishop"

His move to the BBFC came as a culture shock - Mr Whittam Smith admits to having never seen a pornographic film before becoming its president.

Yet many of the 7,000 videos he watched on a yearly basis as president were for the specialist R18 market, which are distributed only to licensed sex shops. It was an eye-opening experience.

He recalls: "If we say to the distributors ,'There's not a shred of plot here', they say: 'No there isn't. We didn't intend there to be.'

"And that's one of the things I like about this job - it just seems so refreshing."

Mr Whittam Smith showed his liberal colours after just two months when he passed the controversial remake of Lolita uncut for cinema release.
A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange had been banned for 27 years

The press immediately condemned the move, but Whittam Smith was delighted with their reaction.

"The Daily Mail described me as this urbane liberal, and I was so pleased with the 'urbane'," he recalls.

"That's the only thing I can set against the wretched bishop image."

He also passed a number of films which had been rejected by the BBFC in the past.

These included The Exorcist, Abel Ferrara's notorious Driller Killer, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which went on to enjoy a successful cinema re-release.

Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange was passed following the death of the director in 1999.

Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs was finally given a video certificate in July of this year.

Mr Whittam Smith's decision to revise the BBFC's guidelines also met with some opposition - but many welcomed the move.

Films such as Intimacy benefited from liberal censorship
This led to the relaxation of restrictions on sexually explicit or violent content in 18-certficate films, while tightening up the rules governing films aimed at younger viewers.

It meant that a string of sexually explicit arthouse films - such as Intimacy, Romance and The Idiots - could be released uncut.

However, not all of his decisions were greeted with enthusiasm.

He was widely criticised for giving Billy Elliot a 15 certificate, meaning younger viewers could not see it.

However, he claimed the Board would have been overwhelmed with complaints about the film's strong language had it been given a lower rating.

Billy Elliot
Whittam Smith ran into trouble over Billy Elliot
Others are less convinced of his achievements.

London Evening Standard film critic Alexander Walker says: "Andreas Whittam Smith was rather too liberal, and he has left the BBFC exactly as he found it - too close to the pockets and predilections of the film industry.".

However, as a parting shot, Mr Whittam Smith suggested that censorship may become even more relaxed in years to come, with age restrictions on films vanishing completely.

"In the very long term, all ratings will become advisory," he said earlier this month.

"There will be a long pause before the next relaxation, but it will all happen in a 10-year period."

See also:

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