The censors and British gangland, 1913–1990
The depiction of crime on the screen was, arguably, the most important reason why, in 1913, the British film industry set up the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC). However, it was not until the American gangsterism associated with Prohibition gave rise to films like Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1930), William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931), and Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932) that the BBFC was compelled to confront the issue of organised crime in Britain. During the 1930s the BBFC gradually accepted the American gangster genre, and when these films were cut-none was rejected outright-this was for either excessive violence or immorality. The BBFC’s chief fear was that the American gangster dramas would spawn equivalents set in Britain, even though no large-scale British organised crime on the American model seems to have existed. The BBFC was also concerned that the British police should not be seen carrying, let alone using, firearms in a British setting. In 1932, under a pre-production system of scenario censorship designed in 1930 and lasting until mid-1949, the BBFC received a scenario entitled When the Gangs Came to London. It was based on an Edgar Wallace novel and centred upon London in the grip of Chicago gunmen, with the Metropolitan Police unable to cope before it calls in an American top cop who cleans up the situation. The BBFC opposed this scenario, and a similar fate befell Soho Racket and Public Enemy in 1934 and 1935, respectively. In all three cases the films were never made (BBFC scenarios 34/1932; 420/1934; 488/1935; Richards 1981:106-7). No further such scenarios were submitted before 1939, but following a late 1938 House of Commons film censorship debate, the BBFC’s previously uncompromising stance was seemingly softened, for in the following year it allowed uncut John Paddy Carstairs’s The Saint in London, in which the suave Leslie Charteris anti-hero Simon Templar (George Sanders) outwits a London counterfeit gang. This represented a more significant BBFC shift than is immediately apparent, for the film itself was actually shot in London.