The BBFC files: The Killing of Sister George
‘By far the most explicit scene of lesbian physical love that has ever been submitted.’ BBFC senior archivist Jen Evans unearths the extensive censor report on Robert Aldrich’s boundary-pushing drama.
The BBFC file for The Killing of Sister George (1968) is one of the largest in our archive, and is a testament to how contentious the film’s subject of homosexuality was in the 1960s, and to contemporary sensibilities about some aspects of its portrayal of lesbian characters. While lesbianism had never been illegal in the UK (male homosexuality had only been decriminalised two years earlier), the subject remained very much taboo.
Examiner reports from February 1969 indicate that the BBFC considered the representation of lesbian relationships as an acceptable subject for filmmakers to tackle even though it may be “distasteful for many audiences”.
The document published here notes several cuts proposed by the BBFC but it was the last of them – which focussed on the film’s penultimate scene in which Mrs Crofts (Coral Browne) seduces Childie (Susannah York) – that caused the Board considerable pause for thought. John Trevelyan, the then BBFC Secretary, described the sex scene as “by far the most explicit scene of lesbian physical love that has ever been submitted [for classification].”
BBFC principal officers judged that the sex scene would not be harmful, in that it was unlikely to corrupt adult cinemagoers, but were concerned that the public was not ready to accept such a detailed lesbian scene.
Proposed cuts for ‘X’:
Remove the American censorship certificate.
Remove ‘With 50cc buzzing away between your legs.’
Remove ‘Go screw yourself; or, better still, why don’t you try Mrs Croft?’
Remove the whole scene in which Alice and Mrs Croft are together on a bed.
The BBFC asked the distributor – Cinerama – to remove the sequence before it would issue a classification certificate to the film but Cinerama argued against the cut. A modified version of the scene was considered, and then another version with further modifications.
The distributor fought hard to retain the kiss between Mrs Crofts and Childie, citing a similar kiss in The Fox, passed by the BBFC in 1967. But the BBFC was adamant that the scene be removed in its entirety. Trevelyan stated that the BBFC was “not prepared as yet to accept lesbian sex to this point.”
The BBFC classified The Killing of Sister George as ‘X’ in February 1969, with the encounter between Mrs Crofts and Childie deleted. Nevertheless, a number of local authorities across the UK banned the film even in this version. The Greater London Council allowed the film to be shown within its authority area with minor edits. The increase in the age bar for ‘X’ films from 16 to 18 in 1970 saw some local authorities relent on their previous decision and allow the film to be shown under this higher age restriction.