Video Nasties: Draconian Days is the second of Jake West’s films about the history of the ‘Video Nasty’ and censorship in the UK. Like the first one it’s amazingly accessible, but unlike the first one which dealt with the initial Video Nasty boom and told a well told story, this deals with what happened after the Video Recording Act (VRA) was passed and the post-1985 world for the horror/transgressive film fan.
For younger people reading this it’s hard to imagine how tough things were, but you couldn’t just go online and get an uncut version of Zombie Flesh Eaters or Story of O, but you had to hunt in often the most dubious places to get to see what is now, perfectly legal. but thanks to the VRA passed by a Tory Party (supported by a supine Labour Party) wanting to censor films it though was ‘harmful’ to the working classes we had the situation outlined at the start of this film.
Having lived through this time I can say it was extraordinary. This was open state censorship of a kind we’d never seen in peacetime, and for people like me born in the late 60’s and early 1970’s, it was something we’d never seen before at all. We were the generation a wee bit too young for Punk so we came in after the burst of energy Punk created was dying and was being diffused into 100 different ways, but we did it ourselves. In my own wee part in this, I organised the video room for Scotland’s first ever comic convention in 1986 which involved late night showings of some stuff (like Zombie Flesh Eaters) which went down well, on the whole. It wasn’t though until 1988 when I moved from Glasgow to Leicester that things started getting silly.
In the few years from 85 to around 87 or so, you could still find video shops where with a nod and a wink, you’d be able to access the good stuff, that was hidden away. However moving away from Glasgow meant that the gorehound in me could no longer walk down the road and get a dodgy video shop which would rent me a pre-certificate video from a stash well hidden in the back. Nope, now I had a few shops on the Narborough Road in Leicester which only had the hacked to peices versions of films that managed to scrape an 18 certificate. It was, frankly, fucking shite that adults couldn’t watch adult films legally in their own home because of some manufactured outrage over horror films. As skillfully pointed out in Draconian Days, there was, and never has been, any connection between horror films and violent crime. But there was a lot of lies and government spin which was published in the British press with virtually no counter-argument. It really was oppressive so no wonder kids were rebelling against the government of the day by organising ways to get these films seen via swaps/trades in the back of horror fanzines.
These fanzines varied in quality, but they were wildly enthusiastic & that’s all that mattered. Again I played a small part in this by helping fight their corner when I worked at Neptune Comics Distributors in the 80’s when my boss wanted to take them off our order forms. I wasn’t fully in the horror film scene but I skirted round it, and dived in every now and then and attended the odd all-nighter or late night double bill at the Scala cinema in King’s Cross in London.
I almost cheered when Draconian Days discussed the Scala days because even though I wasn’t a full part, they were immense. The documentary describes how you walk along the road from King’s Cross station and be offered sex, drugs and pretty much everything you can imagine. King’s Cross then wasn’t the shiny, sanitised metropolitan hub it is now, but it was fucked in every sense of the word. The area was falling to pieces and the Scala was slap in the middle of this tatty, filthy but somehow glorious part of London where police were often scarce. The Scala saved me from muggings or worse on those nights when I’d missed my last train back to Leicester, or I’d lost friends/partners so couldn’t get to, or even remember, where they lived. Rather than kip in a station, I’d take myself along to the Scala and stay til the wee hours. It was indeed like walking out into some post-apocalyptic landscape coming out of the Scala into King’s Cross.
The film also discusses the dealers who’d deal in getting banned films into the UK (normally from The Netherlands/Europe) and copy them for sale to fans starved of their fix in those pre-internet days when a film was a click away. Getting a good copy of a film was frankly, sheer fucking luck and depended on how much you’d trust the person selling it to you, and they’d be shady at best normally. Film conventions and comic marts used to have dealers who’d sell pirate videos , but few were actually reliable. Thankfully when I was working at a mart at the TUC building in London, I came across a dealer (who I think was a large black chap called Mike) who didn’t just have good quality stuff, but he had copies of films that had been taken from laserdisc! I got myself a nearly perfect Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Beyond, and as much as I could get my hands on. At a mart in Birmingham I got a preview copy of Peter Jackon’s Braindead months before it came out in the cinema in the UK because somehow, he managed to get a source who could supply him with preview copies.
Every now and then a mart would have the police sweep down, bust a few people (I remember hiding a box of porn comics during one such bust by sneaking them out the hall and legging it to the van to stash them there) and leave. Things didn’t get really tasty at the marts until after the murder of James Bulger and the tabloids were blaming his death upon violent videos, especially Child’s Play 3. The allegations were nonsense, but this is where the documentary becomes essential viewing as it details how the tabloids and MP’s combined to try to push through legislation that would have effectively banned every film in the UK over a U certificate.
It’s also worth putting this into a larger context as at the same time, there was a tabloid and government campaign to outlaw raves, and dance music with the Criminal Justice Bill which included a section to ban “repetitive beats” in an attempt to crush an inclusive youth culture. This is what I think scared the government and most of the media. It was young people going out doing things like dancing til dawn, or organising all night horror film shows off their own back and they didn’t care for authority. Of course nobody was hurt but it was threatening to the establishment, so it had to stop.
Draconian Days ends with the last days of former chief censor & head of the BBFC James Ferman in 1999. It ends on a fairly optimistic note as it reminds us how in the early days of Tony Blair’s government they were fairly reforming and liberal in places, but we didn’t know what they were going to do to civil liberties in a few years into the new century. We certainly couldn’t have predicted this new puritanism that’s bubbling up from not just the Tories, but also some so-called liberals and on the left. There’s now barely a day that goes by without some campaign popping up on my social media asking me to help someone from banning something. People seem to have an incredibly low tolerance of anything now in an age when we should be more informed and enlightened thanks to the internet.
I hope West does a third film to take in the internet era and the reform of the BBFC before it all comes crashing down when David Cameron comes to power. There’s still a lot of be told, but til then I heartily recommend getting both of West’s documentaries and wallow in those awful days of state censorship which we somehow made the best of. They were bloody great days….