As a teenage Science Fiction fan in Germany, I came across a translation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange in the mid-1970s. The novel is a first person narrative, in which eighteen-year-old Alex, living in an unidentified European country of the near future, looks back on his life during the preceding years. The novel is written in the made-up slang of this futuristic teenager (which, to be honest, I found quite hard to read). Alex relates the series of brutal crimes he has committed, notably two murders and the rape of two ten-year-old girls, and the punishment he has received, which includes an experimental aversion therapy. Not knowing what he lets himself in for, Alex volunteers to be subjected to a drug treatment accompanying the screening of extremely violent films. As a result he gets violently ill whenever violent or sexual urges arise in him, or even thoughts of violent or sexual behaviour. When released from prison, he finds that his parents have rented out his room, and he encounters many of his former victims who take brutal revenge. He also gets caught up in political scheming by an opposition group and by the government responsible for the introduction of the aversion therapy. In response to public criticism after Alex has attempted to kill himself, the effects of the aversion therapy are reversed in hospital, and he gets a comfortable job in the public sector, resuming his violent, criminal life, but soon finding that he has grown out of it. At the end of the novel, he just wants to settle down with a wife and child.
A Clockwork Orange initially did not make much of an impression on me but this changed when I saw Kubrick’s adaptation a couple of years later. I remember my first viewing of A Clockwork Orange as one of the most exhilarating cinema experiences I have ever had – and I kept watching the film repeatedly on the big screen for years to come. From the outset, I wondered why A Clockwork Orange (and especially, I had to admit to myself, all the sex and violence) was so exciting for me, when the novel had left me rather cold. I re-read the novel and became much more engaged with its use of language this time; among other things, I noticed that language was used to keep me, as a reader, at a distance from the action (including all the sex and violence), often to such a degree that it was difficult to determine what exactly Alex did to his victims, and virtually impossible to empathise with their suffering (the same applied when Alex wrote about his own victimisation). I got so involved that I wrote a long essay on this issue in school, which, although it deals with Burgess’ novel rather than Kubrick’s film, I have come to see (in conjunction with my viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey around the same time) as the very origins of my later life as a film student and scholar.
It took several decades after that initial school essay on Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange for me to start writing about Kubrick’s film. Now living in the UK and working at a university, I was still thrilled and troubled by A Clockwork Orange, but I also found that there was a lot to learn about its very important place in British film history as the focus of what was arguably the biggest movie controversy this country has ever seen. In this article, I want to report some of my findings.
A Clockwork Orange and the BBFC
The British Board of Film Censors passed A Clockwork Orange on 15 December 1971, giving the film its most restrictive age rating (an ‘X’ which meant that no-one under 18 would be allowed to see the film), but not demanding any cuts. The ‘X’ rating for A Clockwork Orange was in line with the overall restrictiveness of the BBFC’s practice at the time. Both in 1971 and in 1972, about half of the around 500 films submitted to the BBFC per year were either given an ‘X’ or, much more rarely (in only about 5% of cases), rejected altogether. What is more, about half of the films receiving an ‘X’ only did so after the BBFC had demanded – often quite severe – cuts. Given the relentless violence of A Clockwork Orange’s opening sequence, the brutality of later scenes, the film’s sacrilegious dialogue and imagery, the frequent nudity and in particular the emphasis on simulated sex acts as well as highly sexualised violence, it was surprising that no cuts were demanded. Consequently, as soon as the BBFC’s decision was announced, it was criticised in the press for being too permissive. Here it is important to note that the BBFC had already been under enormous pressure from various sides for several years.
The BBFC had originally been set up in 1912 by the British film industry so as to facilitate the national distribution of films. This was felt to be necessary because, through control over the licensing of movie theatres, local authorities had the power to prevent individual films from being shown in their locality, or to impose age restrictions and demand cuts. As there were well over a hundred such authorities, their actions could make the distribution of films across the UK extremely difficult. However, if both local authorities and film production and distribution companies were to accept the decisions of the BBFC about age certificates, about necessary cuts and about withholding certificates from certain films altogether, then certificated films could circulate freely around the country.
After many initial problems, the BBFC did indeed fulfil that role for several decades. By the late 1960s, however, generational turnover in the film industry and in the British cinema audience, as well as the increasing polarisation of public opinion and political debate in the UK (ever more liberal views on legal, cultural and moral issues encountering a conservative backlash) made the work of the BBFC extremely difficult. New generations of filmmakers and critics in the UK, the US and Continental Europe demanded more artistic freedom, and film companies saw a growing market for taboo-breaking films, especially among youth audiences. As a result, an ever larger percentage of films submitted to the BBFC contained elements that required the organisation’s highly restrictive intervention.
At the same time, the BBFC’s decisions became less acceptable to film companies, which could directly approach individual local authorities so as to get an exhibition licence for a film the BBFC had refused to certificate, or to get a less restrictive age rating or to reduce the number of cuts. Most notably, the Greater London Council did indeed overturn several of the BBFC’s decisions in this ‘liberal’ manner for the capital’s huge cinema market. At the same time, more conservative local authorities rejected some of the BBFC’s certifications for being too liberal; hence, they might raise the age limit for certain films or demand additional cuts, or they might ban a film altogether.
Furthermore, there was a wide-ranging and intense public debate, involving journalists, politicians as well as representatives of many other professions and social groups, about a number of issues which were seen to relate to the BBFC’s operations. These issues included the following: rising crime rates (especially for violent crime and indeed for rape) and the prominence of violent working-class youth subcultures (most recently so-called ‘skinheads’); legal changes in line with value changes across society, perceived by many as a process of moral decline and social disintegration; the potentially harmful impact of media products (most notably films and television programmes) especially on youth audiences, which was the subject of major research efforts focusing on representations on violence and on pornography. In this context, the BBFC as well as liberal local authorities were frequently accused of failing in their duty to protect the public from harm by allowing the exhibition of films which, it was argued, were not upholding cherished (artistic and moral) values and instead fostered anti-social attitudes and behaviour, notably among young people.
A Clockwork Orange, the Press and Moral Crusaders
Both within the general debates about social change and within specific attacks on the BBFC, right wing pressure groups, such as the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVALA), founded in 1965 by the evangelical Christian activist Mary Whitehouse, were highly visible. In September 1971, Whitehouse was centrally involved in launching the so-called ‘Festival of Light’ with a mass rally in Trafalgar Square; like the NVALA, the Festival of Light soon became a national organisation with numerous chapters around the country.
In addition to public activities, both the NVALA and the Festival of Light also operated behind the scenes, directly lobbying politicians and key organisations like the BBC, and also organising letter writing campaigns. Members were encouraged to write letters of complaint, presenting themselves not as representatives of their organisations but as private citizens, so as to create the impression that there was a groundswell of opinion about the issue at hand among the general public. Among the targets of such campaigns were local authorities who were warned about the forthcoming release of ‘harmful’ films or attacked for allowing such films to be shown in their locality. The aim was to get more and more local authorities to ban such films, and eventually perhaps to introduce an official national censorship body (replacing the industry-controlled BBFC) .
Both the public debate and the behind-the-scenes campaigning about harmful films intensified towards the end of 1971 after the release of the highly controversial British productions The Devils in July and Straw Dogs in November, both featuring graphic depictions of sex and violence and indeed sexual violence, with The Devils also being widely perceived as being extremely sacrilegious. It is against this backdrop that criticism of the BBFC’s decision to pass A Clockwork Orange without cuts was to be expected, especially since the film dealt with violent youth in a futuristic Britain which was closely modelled on current developments; in other words, the film was uncomfortably close to contemporary social realities and existing working-class youth subcultures.
Stephen Murphy, the BBFC Secretary (who in effect ran the organisation), publicly defended the Clockwork Orange decision with reference to the film’s serious intent and artistic achievement. Like his predecessor John Trevelyan, whom he had replaced only a few months earlier in July 1971, Murphy refused to formulate and implement strict rules about what could or could not be shown in a film receiving a particular rating. Instead the acceptability of individual elements would depend on the overall quality of the film in question.
Murphy’s judgment about the outstanding quality of A Clockwork Orange was shared by the vast majority of film reviewers in the United States, where the film had been given a limited release in December 1971, a month before it came out in the UK on 13 January 1972, and also by almost all London-based critics. Here it should be noted that throughout 1972, A Clockwork Orange was only released in London; indeed until September that year it was shown in a single cinema. Kubrick had argued for this highly unusual release pattern because he felt that a narrow release would limit the impact of the controversy the film would cause – as we will see shortly, however, it arguably had exactly the opposite effect.
Despite the fact that A Clockwork Orange was not widely shown in the US and the UK for several months, the critical acclaim it received in both countries, where many declared it to be among the best films, if not the best film, of the year, was matched by a very impressive performance at the box office. The commercial and critical success of A Clockwork Orange in turn intensified the controversy surrounding it, because the film’s detractors interpreted this success as a clear sign of slipping artistic and moral standards, not only in the film industry but in British society (and indeed in Western societies) at large. Furthermore, the film’s popularity with London audiences suggested that it would also find a vast audience in the rest of the country once it went on general release from January 1973 onwards. This, the film’s opponents feared, increased the likelihood that audiences, especially working-class youth, would be negatively affected by it. More fundamentally, the extremely high profile of A Clockwork Orange made it a very attractive target for commentators of any kind, because whatever their cause was, they could gain tremendous publicity by linking it to this film.
Already in the weeks preceding and immediately following the film’s London release in January 1972, several commentators had expressed concern about its likely impact on youth audiences, especially on skinheads. And throughout the remainder of the year, there were occasional newspaper reports linking the film in very general terms to the (apparent) increase in certain kinds of crime in London, and also to specific acts of violence in the United States. Towards the end of 1972 and at the beginning of 1973, many journalists reviewed the year that had just passed, and, for some, two important developments stood out: there had been certain crime cycles (so-called ‘muggings’ as well as, for example, gang rapes) which could be connected to the violent acts of the young protagonists of A Clockwork Orange; and, under the influence also of glam rockers such as David Bowie (an avowed fan of A Clockwork Orange), many working-class youth had adopted the costumes and make-up of the young ‘droogs’ in A Clockwork Orange. There was considerable anxiety that these young people would also start to mimic the droogs’ violent behaviour.
A Clockwork Orange, Local Authorities and Criminal Cases
At the end of 1972 and the beginning of 1973, local authorities outside London had to decide whether they would go along with the BBFC’s decision to show A Clockwork Orange with an ‘X’ rating but without any cuts, or whether they would depart from this decision by either demanding cuts or banning the film altogether. Not surprisingly, the public debate about A Clockwork Orange intensified once again, with Mary Whitehouse, among many other people, speaking up against the film’s release, and local newspapers commenting (often rather anxiously) on the forthcoming appearance of A Clockwork Orange in town. It also seems that the NVALA and the Festival of Light launched an extensive letter writer campaign at this time. And as a result of both public controversy and private correspondence, six local authorities banned the film in the first few months of 1973. While I have not yet been able to determine the exact dates when these local authorities took the decision to ban A Clockwork Orange, it is very likely that they did so before the first sustained discussions in the press about specific copy-cat crimes in March, April and May 1973.
Although there were some cases involving young people dressed up as droogs, the alleged connections between criminal acts and A Clockwork Orange were in most instances extremely tenuous. Even when no perpetrators had been identified for a particular crime, the very fact that A Clockwork Orange had recently opened in town or that local teenagers had been seen buying make-up was used by the press, and even by the police, to suggest that the film had somehow influenced, even caused the crime. As some of the crimes in question involved murder, these allegations were very serious indeed.
Between May and July several of the cases which allegedly had a Clockwork Orange connection went to court. And, indeed, the young perpetrators, their parents and their defence counsels claimed that exposure to the film was (largely) responsible for the criminal behaviour at hand; in other words, it was argued that under the powerful influence of A Clockwork Orange, the defendants had not been in control of their actions and therefore could not be held responsible for them. Expert witnesses such as psychiatrists were willing to support this argument, and even prosecutors and judges started holding forth in court about the evil influence of A Clockwork Orange – their speeches being dutifully reported by the press, thus giving the prosecutors and judges an unusual amount of publicity.
There were very obvious problems with all this. For example, in the most notorious case – the killing of David McManus by 16-year-old Richard Palmer – it was very doubtful whether the defendant had ever seen the film, although he seemed to have read Anthony Burgess’ novel. Indeed, the claims made by defendants, lawyers, experts and judges did not go wholly unchallenged in the press – although it has to be noted that by and large these claims were accepted. Only very occasionally did someone point to the fact that blaming A Clockwork Orange was obviously a defence strategy to shift blame, or perhaps a ploy by publicity-hungry prosecutors and judges.
The film’s distributor, Warner Bros., as well as John Trevelyan, the former BBFC Secretary, argued that even if a young perpetrator was affected by A Clockwork Orange, this was unlikely to be the main reason for his behaviour and all the attention paid to filmic influences definitely detracted from the true causes of violent crime. What is more, it was reported that there was some statistical evidence that there had been a general decrease in violent crime since the film had been released. Now, it is rather obvious that Trevelyan and Murphy, both of whom cited a decline in violent crime, did not intend to attribute this decline to the release of A Clockwork Orange and similar films. Instead they wanted to undermine the arguments of those who claimed that ever more violent media products were somehow responsible for rising crime rates as well as for specific criminal acts.
At the same time, I am not at all sure whether the people who argued for such connections really believed in them either. Young defendants, their parents and defense counsels saw an opportunity to deflect blame and get a milder verdict through claims about the evil influence of A Clockwork Orange. Prosecutors, judges and right-wing moral crusaders gained a lot of press attention by talking about the film’s alleged impact. And both the leaders and the members of organisations such as the NVALA and the Festival of Light were able to move at least some local authorities to take a very public stance on what were perceived to be important moral issues by banning A Clockwork Orange. Thus, various organisations and individuals were able to pursue their different objectives in the Clockwork Orange controversy. The film’s release and its reputation were a welcome opportunity for them to make an intervention into public debates – irrespective of whether they really believed that it was directly responsible for crimes.
One of the consequences of the intense controversy surrounding the film was that, in 1976, when Warner Bros. prepared the international re-release of A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick asked the distributor not to re-release the film in the UK – neither in cinemas, nor on television, video or DVD. As a consequence, A Clockwork Orange was not legally available in the UK between the mid-1970s and the year after Kubrick’s death in 1999.
Luckily, this did not apply to other countries, so that in Germany I was able to watch the film in movie theatres over and over again, the most important effect of which was that I turned into the kind of person who would want to write the history of the Clockwork Orange controversy.
For further reading, see, for example, some of my other publications:
- A Clockwork Orange, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011
- ‘”Movies that make people sick”: Audience Responses to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in 1971/72’, Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, vol. 8, no. 2 (November 2011), pp. 416-30,
- ‘”Rape, Ultra-Violence and Beethoven”: The Transgressiveness and Controversial Success of A Clockwork Orange (1971)’, Film and Ethics: What would you have done?, ed. Jacqui Miller, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, pp. 11-28
- ‘”The ugly tide of today’s teenage violence”: Revisiting the Clockwork Orange Controversy in the UK’, Moral Panics, Social Fears and the Media: Historical Perspectives, ed. Sian Nicholas and Tom O’Malley, London: Routledge, 2013, pp. 210-29
- ‘”What’s it going to be, eh?” Stanley Kubrick’s Adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange’, Stanley Kubrick: New Perspectives, ed. Tatjana Ljujic, Peter Krämer and Richard Daniels, London: Black Dog, 2015, pp. 218-35