The Movie Critic Brian Viner Argues that It’s Absurd to Rate Mary Poppins as ‘PG’ When Many Films in the Same Category Contain Swearing, Sex, and Violence

Bintano
10 Min Read

Dick Van Dyke’s notorious assault on the Cockney accent, for years considered the only jarring element in the beloved 1964 film Mary Poppins, has been upstaged. For the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has found something even more offensive than Bert the chimney sweep’s iffy vowels.

The BBFC has decreed that the Disney classic — one of the most popular and successful children’s films ever made, and soon to be re-released to mark its 60th anniversary — must shed its long-held ‘U’ rating and be raised to a ‘PG’.

Which means our little cherubs can now sit down to enjoy the adventures of Jane and Michael Banks and their magical nanny, immortally played by Julie Andrews, only under the constraints of ‘parental guidance’.

The source of the board’s concern is the word ‘Hottentot’. For the BBFC, to quote Mary Poppins herself, the sound of it is ‘something quite atrocious’.

Yet it pops up just twice in the film and passes almost unnoticed . . . at least it did until this latest example of ‘woke’ lunacy, which shines the beam of publicity on an archaic expression the Board would, presumably, rather no one heard.

The BBFC has decreed that Mary Poppins ¿ one of the most popular and successful children¿s films ever made must shed its long-held ¿U¿ rating and be raised to a ¿PG¿

The BBFC has decreed that Mary Poppins — one of the most popular and successful children’s films ever made must shed its long-held ‘U’ rating and be raised to a ‘PG’

Censored: Admiral Boom (Reginald Owen)

Censored: Admiral Boom (Reginald Owen)

Julie Andrews with Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber

Julie Andrews with Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber

If we didn’t know before this entirely unnecessary brouhaha, we know now that Dutch settlers in southern Africa used the word ‘Hottentot’ to refer to a nomadic tribe called the Khoekhoe.

It came to be used pejoratively, but even by 1964 it had become dated, and that’s precisely the point: the absurd Edwardian Naval veteran Admiral Boom (played by Reginald Owen) mistakes sooty-faced chimney sweeps for ‘Hottentots’ purely to illustrate what an idiotic, out-of-touch old duffer he is.

Like the deluded Admiral Boom, the BBFC has chosen the wrong battle. There is a strong case for adjusting the classification of certain children’s films, but while self-important bods on the board — presided over by the former newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky — tiptoe around their own liberal sensibilities, they miss much more grievous examples of what might genuinely scar the under-12s.

Take Robert Helpmann’s terrifying Child Catcher in another 1960s children’s classic, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It’s a charming film (in which the great Van Dyke, mercifully, gets to keep his Midwest drawl) but, recalling my own boyhood nightmares about the pointy nosed kidnapper, I for one wouldn’t quibble if they raised its U classification to PG.

Yet there is a strange anomaly. Images likely to scare children — not to mention scenes containing sex, violence, swearing and blasphemy — don’t seem to matter nearly as much to the BBFC as the odd word that might be construed as racist.

This is true even if the word’s very presence in a script is intended to lampoon the character who utters it, like Admiral Boom — just as the addled Major in the 1970s sitcom Fawlty Towers was satirised as an antediluvian racist.

Among films with U certificates — in other words, those now deemed more appropriate for young children than Mary Poppins — are Steven Spielberg’s monumental 1982 hit E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and the fourth film in the Star Wars series, Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace (1999).

The film's new 'PG' rating means children can now sit down to enjoy the adventures of Jane and Michael Banks and their magical nanny, immortally played by Julie Andrews, only under the constraints of ¿parental guidance¿

The film’s new ‘PG’ rating means children can now sit down to enjoy the adventures of Jane and Michael Banks and their magical nanny, immortally played by Julie Andrews, only under the constraints of ‘parental guidance’

The Disney classic is soon to be re-released to mark its 60th anniversary

The Disney classic is soon to be re-released to mark its 60th anniversary

Yet the latter contains stabbings and decapitations, while there are words in E.T. that in a family newspaper can be quoted only with asterisks, including ‘s***’.

And Elliott (Henry Thomas), the boy who befriends an alien, refers to his brother as ‘penis breath’, while his sibling cracks the inevitable ‘Uranus’ joke.

A U film, just to remind you, is considered suitable for viewers aged four years and over. The U stands for ‘Universal’.

Another film with a U classification is the 2004 Pixar animation The Incredibles. By any measure it’s wonderful, a dazzlingly entertaining story about a family of superheroes trying to live a quiet suburban life.

But in what world is it more appropriate viewing for little children than Mary Poppins? There’s an attempted suicide, references to genocide and numerous depictions of violence.

In the U.S., the film is duly rated PG. Here, the BBFC is content to let unsupervised four-year-olds watch it. The hypocrisy would be breathtaking if it weren’t so dispiritingly predictable. With new releases, the censors are much more tolerant than with older films, because there’s a commercial imperative involved.

So the BBFC routinely errs in the opposite direction, not risking the wrath of powerful movie corporations by slapping a 15 certificate on a film its distributors see as a potentially much more lucrative 12A.

Until about ten years ago, 15s were more common than 12As (films designed for the over-12s, which can be seen by younger children only when accompanied by an adult).

But that has changed as the BBFC — feebly citing a changing society — has become more and more compliant.

As we wait, interminably, for the new James Bond to be announced, consider Daniel Craig as 007 in Spectre (2015).

That film contained some genuinely sickening violence: one evil henchman gouges out the eyes of another with his thumbs, and Bond himself is tortured with a robotic drill. But it was a 12A. In adult company, a six-year-old could have gone to the cinema to see it.

All we ask for is consistency. There’s no reason why the BBFC shouldn’t scrutinise the long-held certificates of children’s films, as they have with Mary Poppins, but why should a perceived (and somewhat dubious) instance of racism be considered any more dangerous or damaging than graphic violence?

Twenty-odd years after my friends and I were scared witless by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher, a scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) — Robert Zemeckis’s accomplished mash-up of live action and animation — did the same to the next generation.

When Christopher Lloyd’s evil Judge Doom murdered an anthropomorphised cartoon shoe by dropping it screaming into a drum of acid, kids everywhere were traumatised.

Today, I have no doubt that their children would be, too. Yet the film has retained its PG classification. So, too, has the Oscar-festooned movie Kramer vs Kramer, which is unsettling in an entirely different way.

The 1979 legal drama stars Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman as a couple going through an acrimonious divorce and custody case, and its devastating impact on their young son, can be deeply upsetting for children, especially those who have suffered similar experiences.

I have a divorced friend whose vulnerable teenage daughter stumbled upon it on television a few years ago, and was so distressed that she needed counselling. But Kramer vs Kramer stays a PG — in the same category as Mary Poppins. 

Other PGs include Grease (1978), with all its implied sex, teenage pregnancy and strong innuendo, and the 1973 Woody Allen sci-fi comedy Sleeper, which features a machine called an ‘orgasmatron’.

As for the ‘Hottentot’ furore, of course racism is a scourge on society and inflammatory language on screen should be carefully policed.

Although I generally disapprove of today’s sensibilities being retrospectively applied, I can understand why the N-word (the name RAF hero Guy Gibson gave his black labrador, which was killed in a road accident on the very day Gibson led the ‘bouncing bomb’ raid) has been carefully edited out of the 1955 epic The Dam Busters.

But common sense has to apply. To change a film’s classification on the basis of a word that is not in modern usage and holds no meaning for children today is itself inflammatory.

It exposes the BBFC to the charge that it is as hopelessly out of touch with reality as daft old Admiral Boom of Cherry Tree Lane.

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