Birth of the debate on censorship in cinema

By Kay Lockett on February 22, 2011 5:41 PM |

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The birth of the debate on censorship of the moving image in Britain is thrust into the limelight by an event at BFI South Bank this week.

The fact the drowning of 38 people at the bungled launch of warship HMS Albion at Blackwall in 1898 was caught on film and then subsequently screened just days after the tragedy caused considerable controversy.

The boat's release into the water had started a mini tidal wave that collapsed a gangway, drowning onlookers in what was to become one of the worst peacetime disasters in the Thames' history.

And the scenes were recorded by early film makers RW Paul and EP Prestwich.

David Somerset, education curator at BFI South Bank, said: "The films were made at a time when there was no cinema and they became highly controversial.

"Film maker RW Paul - a pioneer of the moving image - caused an uproar as he showed his film of the drowning just three days after the disaster.

"He was criticised for sitting in a boat filming, just watching as the disaster unfolded. His film raised issues surrounding what should be allowed to be shown in films - it began the whole debate about censorship.

"But the film showings helped raise money for relatives of the dead who couldn't even afford suits for the church services.

"The event is very much about British Maritime history but also looks at social and cinematic history too."

The BFI will be showing the surviving film accompanied by talks from historian Chris Ellmers and curator of ship history at the National Maritime Museum John Graves.

The public launch of the warship was attended by more than 30,000 spectators. The Duchess of York (later Queen Mary) tried three times to break a champagne bottle on the steel hull, but it just bounced off.

When the launch finally went ahead, the ship rumbled into the water and the wave that caused the gangway to collapse, sweeping spectators into the river.

The talks will lay out the wider historical context of the tragedy and social significance of this momentous tragedy.

A speaker from the British Board Film Classification will consider the wider debate around regulations that would kick in more than a decade later. The event is part of the BFI's season of shipbuilding films.

This Working Life, Tales from the Shipyard: The Tragic Launch of HMS Albion, Feb 19, 11am, £5, bfi.org.uk