The 1920s saw the birth of sustained film production in Northern Ireland and by the mid 1930s cinema-going was a popular leisure activity. As audience attendances peaked cinema attracted more unwelcome attention from the Home Office, local government, and particularly from various religious organizations, who routinely protested against films that they viewed as politically sensitive or otherwise ‘undesirable’ in character.
Early controversies surrounding cinema in Northern Ireland followed the anti-cinema campaigns waged in Britain and Ireland, where censorship policies were already in place.
The British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) had laid down rules for moral guidance on film exhibition, prohibiting among other things ‘situations accentuating delicate marital relations’, ‘indecorous dancing and ‘scenes suggestive of immorality’. The Irish system of state censorship was renowned for a strict film policy.
Film censorship in Northern Ireland was quite distinctive, however, since anti-cinema campaigns were led primarily by the inter-denominational Protestant Churches.
Catholic Churches were mainly guided on matters relating to cinema from the Irish Censor and they preached their anti-cinema stance from the pulpit at Sunday Mass.
The United Council of (Protestant) Churches admired the Irish state censorship but called for ‘the meshes of the net’ to be drawn more tightly, not only to protect Northern Ireland from cinema’s perceived pernicious effects, but from the growing tide of secularism that was gaining support in Britain.
Film censorship in Northern Ireland became a focus for moral and religious campaigns that were based in a unionist political culture committed to protecting its Protestant community from ‘impure’ external influences. This desire to maintain Northern Ireland’s distinct religious and cultural identity determined the unique quality of local debates on film.
In 1930, church campaigners approached the Home Secretary, Sir Dawson Bates, to call for the imposition of state censorship in Northern Ireland. In Belfast, the Police Committee of Belfast Corporation was the official body responsible for issuing cinema licenses. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s the Committee was called upon repeatedly to mediate disputes over cinema between anti-cinema campaigners and local cinema exhibitors. Initially these disputes centred on cinema licensing and film classification, but soon individual films were singled out for attention.
In the late 1920s the Protestant churches formed the Film Committee of the Churches in Northern Ireland, ostensibly to protect young people from the evils of undesirable pictures.
The Film Committee exerted pressure on the Police Committee to uphold the Cinematograph Act of 1909 which gave it power to prohibit ‘objectionable’ films. This led to the first case of film censorship in Belfast in years. In 1932 the Police Committee banned Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein in Belfast on grounds of blasphemy. The decision was upheld despite overwhelming public opposition and ridicule voiced in the mainstream press in Northern Ireland. This notorious case nevertheless focused public opinion around the issue of contentious films in Northern Ireland.
In many respects Northern Ireland’s public argument on Frankenstein echoed Britain’s generalised concerns about the rising wave of low-grade gangster and ‘sex’ films apparent in popular cinema. By the mid-1930s however, Northern Ireland’s pro-censorship bodies gave these concerns a specific local inflection.
At the time, the British film industry was producing substandard ‘quota quickies’ for general exhibition. Northern Ireland unionists were concerned that without measures to control the number and type of films shown in Northern Ireland, an influx of ‘degrading’ or ‘decadent’ pictures would create a negative impression of the British to local audiences.
Adding to their impulse to prohibit such films was the knowledge that proponents of the Irish ‘clean films’ drive were commenting upon the ‘immoral trash’ of British cinema. The Irish Catholic cautioned against Ireland’s cinema industry becoming ‘the dumping ground for … anti-Christian poison that flows in a constant stream from the majority of American and British studios’.
Northern Ireland’s licensing authorities were now under pressure to put into effect stringent measures that could claim an equally high moral ground. Many films were banned or made subjects of controversy on the basis of hearsay alone.
Warners’ Green Pastures became the catalyst for renewed calls for a uniform film censorship in Northern Ireland when it was banned by Belfast Corporation and several local authorities in March 1937. This story of the Old Testament, as told by an elderly black preacher to a group of children was deemed ‘blasphemous’ for depicting God as a black Southern gent.
Northern Ireland’s religious campaigners were outraged and their campaigns against the film began to imitate an imperial crusade as they campaigned against films depicting a ‘semi-civilized’ spirituality, instead of glorifying the forward march of white Christianity for local audiences.
The unregulated use of local authority powers, and their placatory approach towards religious and moral campaigners created anomalies that the Northern Ireland government could not avoid.
The Home Secretary generally encouraged the Churches Committee and their supporters to leave the Police Committee alone in regulating religious and matters relating to cinema. Films that posed a political threat to public order were another matter. In May 1930, Bates extended the Special Powers Act of 1922, giving the Northern Ireland authorities’ power to prohibit politically undesirable films.
‘Communist propaganda’ was officially the subversive material under scrutiny, but this soon extended to include the ‘Sinn Fein propaganda’ perceived in films with an Irish theme. Such films included Ourselves Alone, directed by local filmmaker, Brian Desmond Hurst. This story of a doomed love affair between an IRA man on the run and the sister of his police captor was banned by the Home Secretary throughout Northern Ireland in November 1936.
This decision opened the floodgates for other local authorities to voice objections to various films. These included John Ford’s The Plough and the Stars, banned in Belfast in April 1937 despite the fact that, like Green Pastures and Frankenstein, it had already been enjoyed as a stage play by Belfast audiences. The hypocrisy of such decisions was clear, exposing the extent to which cinema was being used as a scapegoat for other religious, political and moral agendas.
Belfast: Approach to Crisis – A Study of Belfast Politics 1613-1970 (1973) by Ian Budge and Cornelius O’Leary; Church, State, Industry in East Belfast 1827-1929 (1960) by Rev John Redmond; Cinematograph Act of 1927: Report of a Committee appointed by the Board of Trade 1936 (Moyne Committee Report); The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in Britain 1930-1939 (1984) by Jeffrey Richards; The Force of Culture: Unionist Identities in Twentieth-Century Ireland (1999) by Gillian McIntosh; The Political Censorship of Films (1929) by Ivor Montague.