As a nation Britain has a rich cinematic history, making many great movies like The 39 Steps, Lawrence of Arabia and Gosford Park and producing directors like Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott and Matthew Vaughn. But there is a dark side to British cinema, with many movies garnering controversy, whether it’s for sexual and violent content, religious satire or political commentary – so let us look at some of the most controversial movies from the UK, good and bad, and show that Britain is not just a land of country manors, tea and crumpets.
10. Sex Lives of the Potato Men
Kicking off this list is the 2004 ‘comedy’ Sex Lives of the Potato Men led by Johnny Vegas. On the surface, Sex Lives of the Potato Men is an appalling sex comedy about two potato delivery men in Birmingham who attempt to fulfil their sexual fantasies. The movie has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and ranked seventh on Empire Magazine’s The 50 Worst Movies Ever list. Many British and Irish critics declared it one of the worst movies ever made, with BBC and Observer film critic Mark Kermode describing it as “absolutely, indescribably horrible, vulgar, stupid, tawdry, depressing, embarrassing, filthy, vile, stinky, repugnant, slimy, unclean, nasty, degenerative and mind-numbing”.
Though Sex Lives of the Potato Men is an awful comedy with questionable views about women, the controversy comes from how the movie was funded, receiving £1 Million from the National Lottery via the UK Film Council. Or to put it another way, a third of the movie’s budget came from public money, raising questions about how British movies were funded and the overall quality of British cinema at the time.
Three and Out is a poor dark comedy from 2008 that is deservedly forgotten. However the movie’s premise that earned it notoriety following a tube driver who runs over two people in quick succession and then finds out if a third person dies in front of him within a month he gets a bonus pay-off. Consequently he goes on a mission to find a willing accomplice to achieve this.
The premise is a hard sell: suicide is generally not a good subject for comedy and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) protested the release of the movie – seeing it as offensive to its members who have been traumatized by these types of events.
Life of Brian is seen as the pinnacle of the works of Monty Python’s, and for good reason – it’s bloody funny. It was also very controversial when it was released, earning condemnation at home and abroad.
Life of Brian is about Brian Cohen, a man who born in the stable next to one Jesus was born in. As an adult Brian is mistaken as the messiah and is chased by religious fanatics and the Roman occupiers. But he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!
The movie was accused for being blasphemous due to it lampooning religion. The president of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVLA) and moral crusader Mary Whitehouse protested outside cinemas that showed the film, and 39 local authorities banned showing the movie or gave it an X-rating, effectively banning it. Internationally Life of Brian was banned in Ireland and Norway and picketed by protestors in New York City.
Torbay Council, Devon refused to allow any public showings of Life of Brian until September 2008 and Aberystwyth in Wales only lifted their ban in 2009. Officials in the German region of North Rhine-Westphalia banned a public screening on Good Friday in 2013.
The marketing team in Sweden took advantage of the controversy by advertising Life of Brian as ‘So funny, it was banned in Norway’.
7. The War Game
The War Game was a what-if documentary originally made for the BBC’s The Wednesday Play series back in 1965. It has the distinction for being the only fictional film to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
The premise of this 48 minute documentary is showing what would have happened if the Cold War turned hot and how the British government would deal with a nuclear war before, during and after a series of nuclear strikes on the South-East of England. Even now The War Game is a harrowing watch, showing how under prepared the UK was in the event of nuclear war. It was an unflinching portrayal of a nuclear strike on the civilian population and how law-and-order would break down. One of the most notorious scenes is when uniformed police officers shoot civilians accused of looting and also shoot civilians doctors deem they are unable to saved. Because of this the BBC refused to broadcast the film for twenty years, and only showed The War Game on the fortieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
The War Game is a very popular film for campaigners for nuclear disarmament.
With the title Killer Bitch is it safe to assume it is not going to be a subtle affair and that is what we get from this cheap, poorly produced straight-to-DVD release. Killer Bitch was a notoriously bad movie, having a 1.5 rating on IMDB and James Benefield from Eye For Film describing it as ” it looks like it’s been shot by a sexually starved 15 year old film student who is both untalented, and careless about rudimentary research.”
The plot of Killer Bitch focuses on Yvette (Yvette Rowland), a woman who witnesses her boyfriend being murdered and she seeks profile from local gangsters. However the gangsters will only do this if Yvette kills five men they want dead.
Killer Bitch has a cast of Z-list British celebrities, having the likes of cage fighter/Katie Price’s then boyfriend Alex Reid, former football hooligan Cass Pennant, former gangster Dave Courtney and Michael ‘King of the Chavs’ Carroll. The movie was particularly notorious for its rape scene which it is rumored to have made Alex Reid walk off the set and the movie struggled to be passed uncut by the BBFC.
5. 9 Songs
Director Michael Winterbottom has had an eclectic career making comedies, war and social dramas and documentaries. One of his most controversial movies is the romance 9 Songs – considered to be one of the most sexually mainstream movies ever made.
9 Songs focuses on Matt (Kieran O’Brien) and Lisa (Margo Stilley), a young couple who have a mutual love for rock music and explores their romantic and sexual relationship. 9 Songs was a very explicit movie with unsimulated sex scenes which included oral sex, footjobs and the use of sex toys. O’Brien is the only actor to ejaculate on screen in a mainstream British movie.
9 Songs earned an 18 rating in the UK, making it the most the explicit movie to earn that rating in the nation. It was the first movie with explicit sex scenes to receive a certificate in Ireland and a mainstream certificate in France. It was given an X-rating in Australia and the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards in New Zealand tried to lobby the Office of Film and Literature Classification to prevent the movie being released in theaters.
Due to the nature of movie, Stilley did not want her name credited and asked Winterbottom to only refer to her by her character name during interviews.
Peeping Tom was a great horror-thriller from 1960 and because of its subject matter of murder, psychological damage and voyeurism made the movie very controversial. The focus of Peeping Tom is on Mark Lewis, a camera assistant and aspiring filmmaker, who is also a serial killer that films his murders. Peeping Tom was ahead of its time for its portrayal of violence, nudity and POV filming style, even it is a bit tame by today’s standards. It makes for an interesting companion piece to the similar Psycho.
Peeping Tom was made by Michael Powell, a director who famously made movies like 49th Parallel, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes with Ermeric Pressburger. Peeping Tom was mauled by critics when it was first released, being seen and sold as low brow horror. Premiere magazine put Peeping Tom in its “25 Most Dangerous Movies” list, it was forced to be cut by the BBFC and it was banned in Finland until 1981. Fortunately Peeping Tom was reappraised in the 1970s for being the revolutionary piece of work that it is.
Because of the controversy Peeping Tom pretty end killed Powell’s career and he was forced to make low budget movies in Australia.
The youth prison drama Scum was originally conceived and made as a TV play for the BBC’s Play for Today, a dark story featuring racism, gang rape, instituted violence and suicide. The BBC demanded cuts before broadcasting the play – instead director Alan Parker and writer Roy Minton decided to remake Scum as a feature film, making Scum more explicit.
Scum gave Ray Winstone an early role as Catlin, a young man sent to a Borstal (a youth prison) for violent behavior and introduced to the facility with beatings from the guards and his fellow inmates. But this does not stop Catlin from being the ‘daddy’ of the Borstal and allows him to protect the younger prisoners.
Scum was a graphically violent movie – characters get hit with a variety of weapons, others attempt suicide and there is a causal use of racist language. One of the most harrowing is when a teenage boy is gang raped and commits suicide because of trauma and the lack of support he received.
When Scum was set to be broadcast on British television moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse brought a private prosecution to prevent the transmission. She initially won but that got overturned on appeal. Scum was considered one of the most controversial British movies on the 1980s, getting caught up in the Video Nasty controversy which also effected movies like Cannibal Holocaust, The Evil Dead and The Last House on the Left. In Australia the DVD sleeve stated “one of the most controversial films ever made in the UK and one which caused a furore when it was first screened on television”.
Ken Russell is renounced for being a Great British director and one of his most famous (or infamous) movies is the historical flick The Devils. Set in the 17th Century France, during a time of religious upheaval, a morally ambiguous priest (Oliver Reed) tries to protect the city of Loudun and ends up being accused of witchcraft by a sexually repressed nun.
Due to The Devils’ very sexual content Warner Brothers forced major cuts to the movie. These included nuns sexually attacking a statue of Jesus and a nun masturbating with a femur. The uncut version of the movie has never been released on DVD. The original cut earned an X rating in the UK and the MPAA forced even deeper cuts for The Devils‘ American release.
One scene that did make it into the final cut was one where a nun hallucinates having sex with Jesus. As you can imagine the Catholic Church are not fans of The Devils.
A Clockwork Orange is one of Stanley Kubrick’s most famous and popular movies. It is also his most controversial movie in his illustrious career and one of the most controversial movies from the UK – even though it’s a British-American co-production.
A Clockwork Orange is set in a then near-future where the youth are running amok and one gang leader, Alex (Malcolm MacDowell), enjoys stealing, drug taking, rape and a bit of the old ultra-violence. The scenes of violence and sexual violence were considered very explicit for the time, including a scene where the gang attack an old homeless man and a horrific home invasion.
The movie received an X-rating in the US and 30 seconds had to be cut. It passed uncut in the UK, but resulted in two copycat attacks. Though if someone is influenced by a type of media to commit a violent act they were properly not right in the head in the first place. In response Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange from release in the UK and it was not shown again officially until after the director’s death.