Thursday, 26 June 2008

The Evil That Men Do

Another mention of Teeth in yesterdays Guardian, this time in a feature by Kira Cochrane on rape-revenge cinema. Cochrane is left feeling uneasy by Teeth and goes on to discuss films such as Thelma and Lousie, Dirty Weekend, Ms 45 and inevitably, I Spit On your Grave.

Given her problems with Teeth I wasn't expecting her to enjoy I Spit On Your Grave, but she is surprisingly positive. She thinks cuts made by the BBFC may have improved the film by abstracting its long and difficult rape scene into shots of the assailants' and victim's faces, which is an interesting point. I've just ordered the uncut Region 1 version of the film, having watched the cut version on release here in the UK a couple of times, and am looking forward to seeing how different it is.

A few months ago Lionel Shriver, also writing in the Guardian, reviewed I Spit On Your Grave in a feature about the possible reviving of the Video Nasty list that I missed at the time. She took a less charitable view of the film, inexplicably describing it as the "Lamest Picture Ever Banned" (she obviously hasn't seen Night of the Bloody Apes), adding that "the film's quasi-feminist message of female empowerment is merely an excuse for prurience."

If nothing else, it's good to see that I Spit On Your Grave is still dividing critics after all these years.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The Warm, Rubbery Love of Video Nasties

Mark Kermode expounds on the delights of Video Nasties in the latest edition of the Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo Radio 5 Live podcast, while reviewing the interesting-sounding satirical horror movie Teeth. The film reminds the Good Doctor of the Video Nasty era, and he opines how nice it was of the BBFC to put all that wonderful, trashy horror on an easy-to-follow list - giving particular mention to The Witch Who Came From The Sea, which he reckons would have sunk into undeserved obscurity if it wasn't for the BBFC. It's nice to have your opinions confirmed by someone as brainy as Kermode.

Friday, 13 June 2008


"Filth", the Julie Walters biopic of Mary Whitehouse shown on BBC2 a couple of weeks ago, generated a fair bit of comment in the press and was warmly received. The dramatisation followed the early years of her campaigning, and didn’t stretch as far as the Video Nasty era.

A rehabilitation of sorts, “Filth” concerned itself with Mary Whitehouse the person, presenting a human side to the famously single-minded media campaigner, and her admittedly courageous confrontations with the then totally unaccountable BBC. She was portrayed as a plucky, slightly batty English eccentric with some rather old-fashioned beliefs.

To get a better insight into Whitehouse I went down to the BFI on London’s South Bank to make use of their new public access archives, where I found an earlier BBC film, an Everyman documentary from 1977 called “Blasphemy at the Old Bailey.” This impressively simple and informative film followed the trial of the British gay newspaper Gay News for its publication of the poem “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name”, famously the only work of literature still banned in the UK*, a prosecution brought by Mary Whitehouse.

“Blasphemy at the Old Bailey” reports on Whitehouse’s reasons for bringing her prosecution against Gay News in a series of short interviews. Here we see the Christian morals skated over in “Filth” explored, and they are frighteningly narrow and small-minded. She talks of the people involved in Gay News as “people who have turned their back on Christ” who strike at the very heart of the public, as “religious feelings are a person’s essence.” The trial was “somewhere where the great spiritual truths of Christendom are being fought out.” “I did what I did in the name of the Lord.”

The poem is about a Roman centurion who has sex with the dead body of Christ, an act through which he finds salvation. Although like most art its message is ambiguous, it is not a difficult piece of work. It juxtaposes its shocking content with love and spiritual ecstasy. Whilst technically necrophilic sex with the body of Christ is quite obviously blasphemous, in the poem that blasphemy is comprehensibly undermined by religious redemption.

That Mary Whitehouse didn’t understand this shows her disinterest in the subject she devoted her life to. Art was alien to her: all she saw were selected affronts to her values leaping from the page, their context lost. She completely misunderstood the things she read and watched. Yet Whitehouse dictated the censorship debate in Britain for decades, and was instrumental in the creation of the Video Nasty list - amongst much worse things of course, the sentencing of the editor of Gay News for Blasphemy being one.

In some ways Julie Walters’ affectionate dramatisation is fair enough. Now she’s gone, we can chuckle at Whitehouse’s crusade and be thankful things aren’t like that any more. But we shouldn't forget that through a mixture of arrogance, stupidity and hatred Mary Whitehouse did serious damage to the arts in Britain.


*The last piece of literature to be banned in the UK was the 1989 novel “Lord Horror” by David Britton, a gay sadomasochistic vision of an alternative Nazi-ruled UK which libeled the then Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, James Anderton. The ban was later overturned.