by Rogier van Bakel
Film editor is his official title, but Kenneth Locke (50) doesn't take
offense if someone calls him a defucker. In fact, the once ironic undertone
of the monicker has almost evaporated. His colleagues at the BBC now either
call him "our Ken" or without so much as a second thought
'our defucker.' It may not be the sort of title you'd print on your
business card. But nobody can contend that it is not an appropriate job
description for what Ken Locke has been doing for the past ten years.
WELL FUCK ME
With the aid of an old-fashioned Steenbeck editing machine, Locke deletes
offensive scenes and 'bad language' from films. Nonetheless, he's a film
buff, he says with a genuine enthusiasm that makes his bespectacled eyes
sparkle. His great pride and joy lies in restoring fiIms, not mutilating
them. But here the John Wayne credo applies: "A man's gotta do what
a man's gotta do." Censoring films is what Locke's employer, the British
Broadcasting Corporation, requires, because it's what the public wants.
Or is it?
Says Locke: "The decisions we make at the BBC are based on a feedback
of criticism and complaints. You quickly develop a feel for what the general
public gets upset about. Everybody here [at the BBC] tends to talk to neighbors
and friends to find out how they feel about the issue, and bring that information
to our meetings. Plus, the BBC has viewer panels alI over the country. So
we're getting opinions from what we think is a cross-section of the population."
He adds that if the BBC gets hundreds of complaints about a movie, "then
that film wilI be looked at again, and we may make a note that it has to
be adapted for possible future broadcasts."
But why would Auntie Beeb take a few hundred complainants more seriously
than the millions of viewers who apparently see no reason to fly into a
tantrum over a four-letter word, or over a scene with a little violence
or nudity? Patiently, Locke explains that a few hundred letters and phone
calls are "probably" representative of a multitude of distressed
viewers. And he once again refers to the panels. "It really is the
fairest way to do it."
Like all TV stations, the BBC has always had standards about what can
and cannot be aired, and is therefore no stranger to censorship. But those
standards, Locke points out, are looser today than ever before. Only recently,
the BBC showed unabridged versions of "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest"
(previously censored because of explicit language) and "Don't Look
Now" (from which, for an earlier BBC showing, Locke aborted the classic
love scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie).
"We don't want to get too far ahead of the public, but we do try
to push the boundaries a bit," explains Locke. Does that also mean
that the list of proscribed words is getting shorter? No, he says. For one
thing, there is no such list, no equivalent of the Seven Dirty Words that
American TV stations can't put on the air. "BBC guidelines suggest
that we 'take great care' when confronted with potentially offensive scenes,"
Locke confides, "and that we use 'judgement and discretion'."
Vague terms, and rightly so. After all, a possibly controversial sequence
in one film wil be found less offensive than a similar one in another, "Simply
because of how well the film was made."
FLIPPING HECK The same savvy applies to words. With the subtlest hint
of a smile, Locke muses about how "some actors, like Harry Dean Stanton,
can say 'fuck' so well. It comes out so naturally that you a most forget
to replace it. "
"Yes. What I usually do when an actor says 'fuck,' I look for him
saying 'screw' somewhere else, so I can slice out the fuck and drop in the
screw." Oh. And how about pardon my French cunt? "Ah.
I'l drop in a 'shit' instead. If I can't find a good 'shit,' I'll cut the
'cunt' into four little pieces: k-ur-n-ta. Then I'll rearrange them, so
that it comes out ike n-ur ta, or 'Nut."'
Locke notices my heroic effort not to lose my composure and smiles most
accommodatingly. "Oh yes, it's a weird and wonderful way to make a
living. I suppose I could have gotten a job in the KGB's confessions department,
skilfully twisting people's recorded statements to the point where you can
clearly hear them saying: 'Yes, I did it!"'
If an actor's bold expletives cannot simply be replaced by a less offensive
bit of the sound tape, Locke hires a professional voice imitator who helps
him clean up Mickey Rourke's or Jack Nicholson's language. At all times,
however, he tries to steer clear of verbal adaptations that have a ludicrous
ring to them. "In the American TV version of Alex Cox's 'Repo Man',"Locke
says, clearly amused, "somebody replaced the word 'motherfucker' with
'melonfarmer,' which is an insulting street term for Hispanics, I've been
told. In the same film, some punk says 'fuck you' to a police officer, but
the American censor changed that to 'flip you'. And then the cop works himself
into a frenzy and bellows: 'Don't you say flip you to me, punk!' Quite surreal,
Ken Locke is the last person on earth to expect gratitude from viewers.
He knows there will always be a minority of biblepounders who fear that
a talk show guest exclaiming 'Good God!', or a shot of a granny in a Victorian
nightgown, wil catapult the nation into new depths of depravity. At the
other end of the spectrum, Locke sighs, there are the film fanatics who
accuse him of having singlehandedly destroyed a cinematographic masterpiece.
"Every movie I've worked on, there's somebody who's treasured it since
childhood, and they get terribly indignant and write:'What you've done to
Curse of the Mummy is beyond belief'!"
NOT IN FRONT OF THE WIFE, OLD BOY
The Australian-born former projectionist came to England in 1962, at
the age of 23, "because I wanted to do serious work in the film business,
and there was nothing back there that even resembled a movie industry."
The BBC hired him as an assistant film editor in 1964.
It took Locke a considerable number of years to figure out exactly how
British social mores work. Such knowledge is, of course, indispensable in
the day-to-day business of a professional filth extractor. Locke especially
had to get accustomed to the difference in perception between private and
pub language. "I know lots of people who start swearing the moment
they set foot in a pub. They're drinking with the boys and they brag, 'So
I says to this fucking bloke, I says, fuck off!' You know? That's pub language.
Then they go home, watch a film and appear to be genuinely shocked when
they hear a four-letter word: 'I don't like that sort of talk in front of
women.' There's apparently a time and a place for everything."
Locke would like to mould public sensitivity to the point where virtually
any film could go on the air uncensored. Hang on wouldn't that make
him unemployed? "Not quite. I could then dedicate most of my time to
restoring old films, like the Eisenstein ones I recently did." Will
he Iive to see the day? "I have my doubts. For one thing, the connotations
of words change over the years. Nowadays, for example, 'piss' isn't the
perfectly acceptable Anglo-Saxon word it once was." New taboos, both
large and small, keep popping up, the defucker finds. "I think total
freedom only comes when people are truly grown up." He pauses for effect,
then strikes a friendly tone that contrasts nicely with the content of his
remark: "Considering the feedback we get from the British public, I
don't think they're quite ready for it yet."
Copyright Rogier van Bakel, 1989, 1996. All rights reserved
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