JUNE SOUTHWORTH Profiles James Ferman

Article excerpt

JAMES FERMAN was paid more than [pounds sterling]80,000 a year to act as a buffer zone between what filmmakers try to get away with and what common decency allows to be shown on our cinema screens.

We don't always like to be told what we may or may not see.

But somebody has to draw the line somewhere, and that task fell to an American who would rather have a good night out at the theatre.

James Ferman is the son of a New York doctor. His mother was a teacher. He was inspired to move to England because we have, as he said, 'a nice comfortable culture here and we should protect that'. He has, nevertheless, retained his U.S. citizenship despite spending two-thirds of his 67 years in residence here.

In the Fifties, he took an English degree at King's College, Cambridge, where he met his wife Monica. He was playing Benedick to her Beatrice in a production of Much Ado About Nothing.

They have two children and live in a housing cooperative in Hampstead, stronghold of London's chattering classes.

After university he made educational films and lectured in community studies at Central London Polytechnic. He is involved in a drug rehabilitation centre called Cure and is chairman of the Standing Conference on Drug Addiction.

Armed with these credentials, he became secretary of the British Board of Film Censors in 1975, a title later censored to become the British Board of Film Classification.

His only previous experience of censorship was in 1961 when scissors were applied to footage he had shot for a religious documentary. On his arrival at the Board he found a ship sinking faster than the Titanic.

Many of its decisions had been overturned by local authorities and there were messy legal wrangles to sort out. He was given five years to rescue the board.

Billed by detractors as a control freak, Mr Ferman sorted out the legal problems and was to proclaim that nobody was ever sued over a film certified fit for showing by the Board under his management.

An autocratic patrician, he was less meticulous in the field of public relations.

By 1994 the examiners on the board were in open revolt.

After a purge, they were replaced by people of his own choice. One of the examiners he dismissed, Carol Topolski, observed that the board had 'deteriorated into one-man censorship'. …