Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Portraying violence in BBC's drama

From The Doctor Who Cuttings Archive
Jump to navigationJump to search

1986-01-30 Stage and Television Today.jpg


The current concern about the effects of violence on television has acknowledged that the BBC and IBA have detailed guidelines for practitioners. Nevertheless, say their critics, these are either inadequate or too often not followed.

What do the BBC and IBA actually say? Here is the Corporation's note of guidance as it affects their own drama and also their purchased programmes — two areas of key importance in the current debate.

Below also is the IBA's code which is part of the Authority's extensive guidelines.


MANY of those who deplore the portrayal of violence on television accept that in factual programmes violence cannot be entirely avoided. It is the fictional treatment of violence that has given the most concern to some psychologists, sociologists, politicians and policemen as well as to many individual viewers.

A vital part of the BBC's role as patron of the arts lies in its employment of contemporary playwrights to provide a regular flow of new plays and freshly written serials. Their work inevitably reflects the violence of the present age. Many writers work both for television and for the contemporary theatre and cinema and we believe that constant editorial care on the pan of the BBC is needed to remind them of the different nature of the television audience. It is important that the best writers of drama in the country should go on writing for the BBC and this means that the BBC needs to earn their respect as a courageous publisher and a fair dealer. No writer, however distinguished, has the God-given right to confront his audience with a work of fiction in a form that most people will regard as unsuitable for transmission. The BBC has to retain the editorial right to control and monitor what it is broadcasting in order to make sure that the interests of the audience are borne in mind. As publisher and editor the BBC has to exercise its prerogative, which is to edit. This duty involves a balanced three-fold responsibility: to subject matter, to craft, and to the audience.

The BBC has a duty to support good and new writers and, when a script is accepted, the general presumption should be that it will be made into a programme and subsequently broadcast. If there is a change which makes this unlikely or if the BBC takes the editorial decision not to transmit a play that has been made, or to cancel an intended repeat, then immediate steps should be taken to tell the writer as


quickly as possible the reason for the BBC's editorial decision.

Plays and episodes in serials often take weeks to make. The production team comes to know the script practically by heart and they can sometimes forget the impact on the viewer who is seeing it for the first time. Obviously it is sensible for as much care as possible to be taken to get the initial script right before recording or filming begins. But it is easier to control language than to visualise the potential dramatic action of a story that may have to involve sex or violence or a mixture of both. All depends on the director's interpretation of the script on the location or studio floor. The most potentially horrific scene can be sensitively handled and can therefore be acceptable, while quite ordinary material, if handled clumsily and insensitively, can be too nasty for most people to take.

There has always been a powerful ingredient of violence in the theatrical tradition. but in the classical Greek theatre violence was concentrated in the language rather than in the action on the stage. Sophocles' Oedipus puts out his own eves, but the act itself is done off stage. By Shakespeare's time the theatre was more realistic. In his Titus Andronicus a hand is cut off on stage.

Television has a special problem, which has been dictated over the years by the small sire of the screen and the necessity to use close-ups to make the action clear. Drama directors constantly have to exercise judgement in deciding how such close-up detail is necessary. When a character's suffering is too great the director needs to show restraint in order to avoid overemphasising the horror of the blinded face or the severed hand. He may decide not to show the action but to concentrate on the reactions of other characters or to look elsewhere while the words or sound-effects convey what has happened.

All dramas tend to deal with fairly dramatic moments in human experience. Some of these maybe violent and


in swift story-telling they may be concentrated together in time. A television drama may have to compress the action into an even shorter time than it would take in the theatre, and the audience will not be viewing in the special atmosphere of a theatre but in ordinary domestic surroundings.

There are many different production techniques used in the making of individual television plays and serials, from the naturalistic to the stylised, and the technique used can make all the difference to the impact on the viewer. The implicit message of the stylised direction of a drama is to indicate that the story is out of the ordinary and is not likely to happen to the viewer; so it is possible to include incidents which in a realistic setting would be unpalatable.

An example of a stylised technique is Dr Who. The production tricks are so convincing that few people realise how they have been contrived and the illusion is certainly effective. We know that Dr Who can be a frightening programme for very young children, because they may not have learned to distinguish between reality and fantasy and are not sure if the monsters are real. But most children recognise the convention that, whatever perils he faces, the Doctor will remain safe at the end and they know that the dangers belong to another time and place.

The most disturbing space fiction stories are those which take place on the earth in the twentieth century and these present the director with special problems if they are likely to be transmitted in the early evening when children are watching. However, a fight in a space fiction setting in which people use ray guns or even bows and arrows is not likely to be as disturbing as punches and scratches exchanged between a quarelling father and mother in a naturalistic police series.

Many drama series and serials create their own stylised conventions. Crime series are often in the tradition of cops and robbers films of the 1930s and the audience appears to enjoy these glossily-made action films in which the goodies are rewarded and the biddies get their come-uppance. There has, however, been some difficulty since the "antihero" came into existence.

The distinction between heroes and villains has become much more blurred than it used to be, and conventional morality may be replaced by a tacit acceptance of brutality as a necessary part of "winning". But makers of action adventure series and of single plays need to remember that violence is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Excessive violence may rob the audience of its capacity to concentrate on anything else in the programme, either at the time of its use or later. Any competition between directors in the use of violence for effect could eventually result in its dramatic point being lost. "To go one better" may


produce the opposite effect. The clampdown in the United States on the portrayal of violence affecting human beings, in the late 1970s, led to the injection of action and excitement through destruction of property. Thus, in many factional programmes cars are no longer just driven over cliffs; they are seen to fall on rocks and burst into flames. The effect of this hardware violence can add to the visual images of violence paraded before the viewer – and to the assault on the ears of screeching brakes and crunching metal. It is merely a substitute for direct man to man violence and such acts of violence can never compensate for a lack of quality in the writing. A sequence involving violence should arise naturally from the story and not be used simply to bolster a flagging plot or give an added dimension to slender characterisation.

Some violence has to be expected in stories set in war-time like The Secret Army, and some violence may be unavoidable in fight or battle scenes in a


historical story. On the other hand it is essential that the direction of a moment of violence should not appear to be indulgent: the viewer at home should never feel that the director has been enjoying what has been portrayed on the screen.

The intention behind violence always has to be carefully assessed. For most people violence towards defenceless objects is more disturbing than violence towards, for example, a man who can defend himself. Children and domestic animals can generally be regarded as defenceless and there are times when women and old people fall into this category.

Violence in conjunction with the supernatural can be very frightening especially to immature people and a degree of promotional sign-posting should be designed to give proper warning to nervous viewers.

In selecting library film for a production, the producer must consider not only the content of the film, but the significance which the pictures may have for some sections of his audience. He should not assume that the emotional response of members of the audience will be the same as his own. For example, shots of concentration camp victims have a special force for viewers who lived through the period from 1933 to 1945.

They do not have the same resonance for younger viewers who may be sensitive to more recent images, for instance in films showing terrorism in Africa. These differences do not mean that library material cannot be used, but they should never be overlooked when the producer is calculating the effect of his programme. Other rules already exist on the use of library film, with particular reference to the mixing of fact and fiction.

When violence forms a legitimate element in a production, the way it is presented must be carefully considered. In many cases the details of violent action should be avoided, although it is important not to diminish the significance of violence by treating violent episodes too summarily. There may be occasions when the consequences of violence should be shown at some length, in order to make its hideousness clear and perhaps arouse a compassionate response from viewers.

Although the general tendency to exclude unnecessary violence from programmes is essential for reasons which may often be aesthetic as much as moral, there are occasions when authors and directors must use violence to make a substantial point about society and human relations. it cannot be overlooked that violent situations sometimes evoke qualities of courage and leadership which are admired by the majority of people. When producers make use of violence with integrity, their right to portray violence should be upheld.

Drama set in some rough or outspoken environment may need to reflect violence of language. Special care is needed when violent words and actions are used together because the accompanying language can sometimes overemphasise a moment of violence. The skill of the director is all-important and he should keep constantly in his mind the kind of ordinary home into which his drama is being projected.

It is also essential that production staff should know if the programme is to be placed before or after the 9.00pm watershed or at weekends and that the intended placing is not altered. Guest directors, guest producers and writers, who so often come into television from the feature film industry and the theatre, where different standards apply need to work to BBC standards and keep constantly in their minds the realisation that their work is intended to be seen at home by a mixed audience.

THE range and variety of entertainment which the BBC can offer the public is increased by the availability of feature films originally made for the cinema, television series trade by other broadcasting organisations and se seen films.

All these purchased programmes have to be judged by the BBC to the same standard as its own originations, although the process of choice is slightly different because the range of subject matter and dramatic situation in purchased material may extend beyond the area of possibility for the BBC's own productions.

Decisions have to be made in the light of the different production techniques used when the film was first made. Westerns and Americans cops and robbers series, for instance, can be judged according to a general standard of expectation. There is a convention of violence built into a Western which is not likely to shock the viewer because it is suitably distanced from him in both era and experience.

The broadcasting research evidence suggests that films like the more realistic Clint Eastwood "spaghetti Westerns" are liked by the majority of the audience and have created relatively little public anxiety.

Nevertheless, great care is needed in the placing of films of this kind in the schedules, particularly on public holidays, and it may be necessary to precede a particularly tough film of this kind with some kind of descriptive declaration in Radio Times and in the opening announcement.

Some violent films of artistic merit made in the 1970s are only acceptable if they are accompanied by warning announcements and provided also that great care is taken in the way they are promoted in Radio Times and on the screen.

In the promotion of feature films it is not helpful to refer to certificates which were awarded by the British Board of Film Censors at the time they were first shown when the general climate of public opinion was very different from today.

These certificates were entirely related to the screening of the films in a public cinema and some films have had their original basic category changed at least once in their history of being screened.

It may sometimes be interesting in promotional material to mention such a cinema category, if the point is of historical interest, but in general it could lead to misunderstanding — especially in cases where cuts made by the BBC (or by the distributor of the television version) would have led to a different category in the cinema.

All purchased programmes should be carefully described and presented in billings, promotions, on-semen trailers and introductions so that the audience is given a fair and full indication of the style and content.

All feature films shown on both BBC networks, even those shown after the 9.00pm watershed, should be adequately and carefully described in Radio Times. The aim should be to give the viewer enough information to indicate what he or his family may expect if they watch the film.

Although feature films should not be cut for timing purposes, the practice of cutting extreme language should continue.

The trend for families to view together is more pronounced on holiday occasions and she fame of a film that has been placed at a prominent position in a schedule will probably lead to its being watched by a family audience, including old people, children and teenagers. Before scheduling, all films placed on such occasions should have been viewed by a senior member of the programme acquisition department and any violent content edited if it is thought necessary. The shortage of feature films suitable for family viewing before 9.00pm restricts the choice available, but the presence of very large numbers of young children in the audience makes careful planning and scheduling throughout the year a necessity, in order to continue to avoid bunching together too many violent films.

ALL concerned in the planning, production and scheduling of television programmes must keep in mind the following considerations: People seldom view just one programme. An acceptable minimum of violence in each individual programme may add up to an intolerable level over a period.

The time of screening of each programme is important. The IBA policy of "family viewing time" until 9.00pm entails special concern for younger viewers. There is no evidence that the portrayal of violence for good or "legitimate" ends is likely to be less harmful to the individual, or to society, than the portrayal of violence for evil ends.

There is no evidence that "sanitised" or "conventional" violence, in which the consequences are concealed, minimised or presented in a ritualistic way, is innocuous. It may be just as dangerous to society to conceal the results of violence or to minimise them as to let people see clearly the full consequences of violent behaviour, however gruesome: what maybe better for society may be emotionally more upsetting or more offensive for the individual viewer.

Violence which is shown as happening long ago or far away may seem to have less impact on the viewer, but it remains violence. Horror in costume retrains horror.

Dramatic truth may occasionally demand the portrayal of a sadistic character, but there can be no defence of violence shown solely for its own sake, or of the gratuitous exploitation of sadistic or other perverted practices. Ingenious and unfamiliar methods of inflicting pain or injury – particularly if capable of easy imitation – should not be shown without the most careful consideration.

Violence has always been and still is widespread throughout the world, so violent scenes in news and current affairs programmes are inevitable. But the editor or producer must be sure that the degree of violence shown is essential to the integrity and completeness of his or her programme.

Scenes which may unsettle young children need special care. Insecurity is less tolerable fora child – particularly an emotionally unstable child – than for a mature adult. Violence, menace and threats can take many forms – emotional, physical and verbal. Scenes of domestic friction, whether or not accompanied by physical violence, can easily cause fear and insecurity.

Research evidence shows that the socially or emotionally insecure individual, particularly if adolescent, is specially vulnerable. There is also evidence that such people tend to be more dependent on television than are others. Imagination, creativity or realism on television cannot be constrained to such an extent that the legitimate service of the majority is always subordinated to the limitations of a minority. But a civilised society pays special attention to its weaker members.

This code cannot provide universal rules. The programme maker must carry responsibility for his or her own decisions. In so sensitive an area risks require special justification. If in doubt, cut.

Bought-in material

Caption: Clint Eastwood in his "spaghetti Westerns" are liked by the majority of the audience and have created relatively little public anxiety, according to the BBC.

Disclaimer: These citations are created on-the-fly using primitive parsing techniques. You should double-check all citations. Send feedback to

  • APA 6th ed.: (1986-01-30). Portraying violence in BBC's drama. The Stage and Television Today p. 19.
  • MLA 7th ed.: "Portraying violence in BBC's drama." The Stage and Television Today [add city] 1986-01-30, 19. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: "Portraying violence in BBC's drama." The Stage and Television Today, edition, sec., 1986-01-30
  • Turabian: "Portraying violence in BBC's drama." The Stage and Television Today, 1986-01-30, section, 19 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Portraying violence in BBC's drama | url= | work=The Stage and Television Today | pages=19 | date=1986-01-30 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=31 March 2023 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Portraying violence in BBC's drama | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=31 March 2023}}</ref>