Victim was a controversial 1961 film by the UK director / producer partnership of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph that dealt with the then-taboo subject of homosexuality. The film-makers were working in a ‘social realist’ tradition that had emerged during the late 1950s in British cinema; a movement that attempted to bring social issues (class distinctions, racism, industrial relations etc.) to the attention of an often naive and conservative cinema going public.
In making Victim, Dearden and Relph deliberately set out to challenge their audience and decided to push the boundaries of social acceptability and tolerance. It’s important to place the issue into historical context – homosexuality was illegal in the UK and remained an imprisonable offence until 1967. Also the film was produced on the back of the 1957 ‘Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution’ (better known as the ‘Wolfenden report’, after Lord Wolfenden, the chairman of the committee). The report recommended that "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence" and that "homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease”. The recommendations caused a great deal of public debate and eventually led to an amendment of the Sexual Offences Act (1967) and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. However, Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government of the late 1950s saw the report as politically risky and subsequently disregarded it.
The narrative of Victim follows the story of Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) – a prominent middle class, married barrister who is being blackmailed for previously having an assumed sexual relationship with a young working-class youth called Boy Barret (Peter McEnery). Although the relationship was platonic, Farr’s repressed homosexuality causes him feelings of guilt and fear that his successful career and marriage will be destroyed by the allegations. In an act of selflessness, Barret commits suicide in order to save Farr’s reputation. However, this act provides the impetus for Farr to challenge the existing laws against homosexuality in the hope of bringing his blackmailer to justice. The film ends with Farr and his wife coming to terms with his homosexuality after the public exposure he faces in the blackmailer's trial.
The daring of Dearden and Relph in tacking such a contentious theme was matched by that of Dirk Bogarde – a UK matinee idol who was secretly homosexual. Bogarde took on the role of Farr in a work that he claimed “very few of the actors approached to play in it accepted; most flatly refused”.
The BBFC was first made aware of the film when Dearden, Relph and script-writer Janet Green submitted a rough script to Board in May 1960. During this period the BBFC offered film-makers and studios the option of submitting scripts for approval before a film was shot – the idea was to save film-makers time and money by advising them in pre-production what would and would not be permissible in their work. The advice given by Audrey Field, one of the Board’s chief censors, was that the script may be a problem because it featured “a world peopled with practically no one but ‘queers’; and there are precious few other characters in this synopsis”. She also commented that for the film to pass without cuts “the ‘queerness’ must not be laid on with a trowel. The more we can see of various characters going about their daily life in association other people who are not queers, and the less we need have of ‘covens’ of queers lurking about in bars and clubs, the better.”
When a final shooting script was submitted to Field again in June 1960, disparaging comments were made regarding the elements of implied violence included in the dialogue – mainly references to East End ‘vice gangs’ – that were not previously included. Field also suggested that further opinions were needed within the BBFC before further comments could be made. This advice was swiftly followed by letter to Janet Green from John Trevelyan, the then Director of the BBFC, who whilst acknowledging the significance of the Wolfenden report, stated that the majority of the British public were against the very idea of homosexuality. He outlined several lines of anti-homosexual dialogue that were problematic (e.g. “filthy unnatural things they are, all of ‘em’”), called for a reduction of the emphasis on homosexual practices and “nasty violent elements”, and an urge to “keep teenagers completely out of the film since I do not think they belong in this situation at all”.
Trevelyan also suggested that the script should be looked over by Lord Morrison, the BBFC’s new President, following which further comments were made again regarding the general publics reluctance to accept homosexuality and that the filmmakers “should be careful also not to give ideas to potential blackmailers”. It was no secret that Morrison was a forceful vocal disapprover of homosexuality and would probably ask for further cuts to the script.
The completed film was submitted to the BBFC in May 1961. In order to achieve an X certificate (adults only) Trevelyan insisted on the deletion of four lines of dialogue; one of which pertains to Farr’s confession to his wife of having homosexual urges. Dearden and Relph strongly opposed the changes and surprisingly managed to convince Trevelyan to remove only one line of dialogue; clearly the Director of the Board had bypassed Morrison and it seems highly unlikely that he would have been invited to view the film (the BBFC have no records of him attending the initial screening).
There is no doubt that the BBFC contributed significantly to the final shape of Victim and by cooperating with the producers of the film, displayed a liberal sensibility to the topic that was perhaps out of step with the attitudes and beliefs of the general public. Once the film was released Janet Green wrote to Trevelyan, thanking him for his support and encouragement.
In 1986 the film was submitted for video classification and was reclassified at 15 – an indication that although attitudes to homosexuality had changed, it was felt that the theme of the work was still best placed at a higher category. In 2003 Victim was resubmitted yet again for DVD and reclassified 12 under the 2000 Guidelines. The examiners who viewed the work argued that the sex references contained in the work were “mild by current standards” and that “in addition the film's stand against repressive laws of the time give it some educational value”.
In 2005 the film was resubmitted for theatrical release but this time came with a PG request from the distributor. During the interim period between this and the previous submission a new set of Guidelines had been published and the examiner who viewed the work argued that under the new Guidelines PG was the most appropriate category for the work. The examiner report reads - “it seems that the main reasoning behind the higher categories awarded previously was the fact that the film deals with homosexuality. Our guidelines explicitly state that we treat homosexual and heterosexual relationships equally and I would therefore suggest this be reclassified at PG, as requested”.
In July 2005 Victim was released in theatres with a PG classification, accompanied by the Consumer Advice ‘contains mild language and sex references’.