It’s been 20 years since the BBFC introduced the 12A certificate after a lengthy public consultation, but not every decision has gone unquestioned.
The debate over an advisory 12 certificate in cinemas started back when the BBFC first introduced the compulsory category between PG and 15 as a solution to the influx of PG-13 Hollywood blockbusters in the 1990s.
Whether it was the James Bond films or Mrs Doubtfire, parents increasingly felt it should be up to them whether their under-12 children got to watch films with Pierce Brosnan in them. By the early 2000s, there was uproar about younger viewers being barred from films that were marketed to them, like X-Men and Spider-Man.
Read more: The most complained about age rating of 2021
The BBFC engaged in a public consultation on introducing a PG-12 certificate in Norfolk cinemas in late 2001 and the advisory 12A certificate came into effect in August 2002. The Spider-Man controversy squeaked out before then, but the certificate was also retroactively applied to still-playing 12 films.
But 12A remains quite a broad umbrella for content such as violence, bad language, and sex, and it’s been a long couple of decades of the BBFC trying to impress upon the public that 12 means 12, and it’s down to parents to make an informed decision.
Looking at complaints about 12A, maybe it’s progress that there were more in the first decade than the second. Taken altogether, the flare-ups do present a brief history of the newest category…
The Bourne Identity (2002)
The very first new release to get the 12A certificate in UK cinemas was The Bourne Identity, whose 'moderate violence and one use of strong language' was firmly in the 12 bracket. Examiners judged that the film 'relied on suspense and action to generate [its] excitement rather than violence' but some high-profile dissent came from the movie’s star, Matt Damon.
Speaking to BBC Radio Five Live in 2002, Damon cautioned against young people seeing the film. He also coined the now-common line for movie stars fielding this question: "I would urge parents to be very mindful, and maybe go see the movie first before they let a 12-year-old see it."
That’ll be two tickets sold then…
Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (2003)
The first big controversial 12A decision came the following summer when Terminator 3’s certification drew 54 complaints from members of the public. Some of these came before the film had opened, based on the higher certificates of the first two sci-fi actioners.
Read more: The most expensive movies ever made
The BBFC stated in its 2003 Annual Report that the violence was 'less detailed and realistic' than in the James Cameron-directed instalments, though there’s still some argument about Kristianna Loken’s nuclear bombshell T-X impaling a man with her metal hand.
Apparently, other correspondents were more upset about the movie’s three F-bombs.
War Of The Worlds (2005)
“Will War Of The Worlds damage our children?” spluttered the UK tabloids in a typical bout of moral outrage. Steven Spielberg’s take on HG Wells’ classic sci-fi novel is directly a response to the enormity of 9/11 and its 'sustained menace, threat, and moderate horror' accordingly intense.
This was the first major case of 12A being criticised in the media. However, the Board discerned that many of the 65 complaints were in response to the coverage rather than the film.
Read more: Tom Cruise's 10 best movies
A while later, Spielberg’s Ready Player One also drew 10 complaints about its extended homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining — now that gave more kids the wiggins…
Casino Royale (2006)
We’ve been expecting you, Mr Bond. Given the 007 movies’ influence on 12A, this was bound to happen. Die Another Day became the first 12A Bond movie in 2002, but Sony and Eon sought advice about Casino Royale in post-production and implement cuts in some violent scenes to avoid a 15 certificate.
Read more: Actors who could be the next 007
Nevertheless, 82 people complained after the film hit cinemas in November 2006, largely regarding the faithfully adapted nude torture scene. Each of the subsequent Daniel Craig Bond films drew some complaints about their 12A certificates, with Spectre exceeding 40 complaints for further torture scenes – again, the producers had toned these down on the BBFC’s advice.
Slightly cheekier than Bond’s brush with the wrong end of a knotted rope, Robert Zemeckis’ second motion-capture animated feature drew a total of 53 complaints for its 'animated nudity', specifically involving Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother.
However, animation should be understood as a medium first and not just a family-friendly genre. Within the bounds of 12A/PG-13, Beowulf is more Game Of Thrones than How To Train Your Dragon, and the extended home-release cut pushes the envelope further.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Here’s something to put this year’s 15 classification of The Batman in perspective — The Dark Knight is by far the most complained-about 12A decision in the last two decades. Next to the Bat-exploits of the 1990s, Christopher Nolan’s intense crime epic pushes things further with its 'violence and sustained threat'.
Largely zeroing in on the scene involving Heath Ledger’s Joker and a disappearing pencil, 364 members of the public criticised the film for being 'too dark and too violent' for children, making up 42% of all BBFC complaints in 2008.
Read more: Every upcoming DC movie
While the decision rightly stands, this response seems to have informed the development of 12A as a category more than most.
The 2008 Annual Report cited media coverage as a driver of Dark Knight complaints, rather than unwitting family cinema trips. On a funnier note, 2010’s Burlesque popped up in the Board’s report two years later. Starring Christina Aguilera and Cher, the film was criticised for its raunchy content.
The BBFC clarifies that 'none of the correspondents had seen the film itself', but they had seen Aguilera’s raunchy performance on ITV’s The X Factor and felt moved to skip Ofcom and go straight for her film career.
Won’t somebody please think of the children???
The Woman In Black (2012)
In its 10th-anniversary year, several 12A decisions caused a kerfuffle with audiences. Most notably, The Woman In Black both made a case for 12A horror and almost immediately ended its commercial prospects with the backlash in the UK press.
Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe had gone through progressively darker jaunts to Hogwarts, but this was much scarier than some young fans and parents expected. Having received more than 130 complaints about the film in 2012, the BBFC significantly tightened its guidelines on horror below 15-level in 2014.
The same year, the sequel The Woman In Black: Angel Of Death was duly certified as 15.
The Hunger Games (2012)
Primarily covering a televised junior deathmatch, The Hunger Games has some fairly wince-inducing violence. Pre-release, the BBFC advised Lionsgate to make cuts to the initial skirmish of the 74th Hunger Games, where the tributes draw weapons and attack each other.
This provoked another debate in the press, with one side railing against censorship but also 43 complaints to the BBFC about the film being too violent for young children. In any case, the film doesn’t glamourise violence, hence the 12A. The uncut 15 version was also released in cinemas and later on home media.
Jack Reacher (2012)
Based on Lee Child’s novel One Shot, this has an incredibly disturbing opening scene from the point of view of a sniper selecting a target. It’s harrowing stuff for a 12A film, but this is definitely more on the Bourne end of things.
Jack Reacher drew 26 complaints to the BBFC, with other correspondents citing Reacher’s 'vigilantism'. Far louder was the dissent about Tom Cruise bearing little resemblance to Child’s character as written.
Mr Turner (2014)
Things calmed down thereafter, and by 2014, the most complained-about 12A was Mr Turner, Mike Leigh’s biopic of the painter and future star of the £20 note, played by Timothy Spall. You might expect this from a romantic, but it was unusually it was a sex scene that drew controversy.
During a sex scene, “Turner’s clothed buttocks are seen clenching vigorously before the scene cuts to a close-up of his face and his thrusting head and shoulders”, which the complaints deemed too strong for 12A. Oo-er…
Flash Gordon (1980/2020)
Let’s finish on an oldie but a goody. 1980’s Flash Gordon was elevated from PG to 12A for its 40th-anniversary re-release in 2020, based on its “moderate violence, language, sex references and discriminatory stereotypes.”
Probably spurred on by culture-war press coverage about content warnings, 27 people (probably just men, with men’s courage!) complained that the certificate for the perennially horny cult classic was too prescriptive.
2020 wasn’t a busy year for new releases, but if this was the most complained-about decision, perhaps the filmgoing public has finally acclimatised to what the certificate actually means.
Watch: Flash Gordon is 'the Queen's favourite movie'