Over the years there have been hundreds of films and TV shows that have sparked controversy for one reason or another. Some just do it for the headlines, while others look to tackle societal norms.

This May, MAC in Birmingham will be hosting a series of screenings and special events celebrating some of the most controversial films and television programmes to grace our screens, starting as far back as the 1920s, right up to today. Some of the titles shown have been cut and even banned, but all have sparked debate and challenged attitudes.

Michael Cumming’s Box of Brass Toast
Sunday 12 May, 2pm
18 | 150 mins | 1997
Director: Michael Cumming
Cast: Chris Morris, Matt Berry
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No British comedy has ever come close to the controversy that the Chris Morris series Brass Eye kicked up in the late 90s. The original broadcast was postponed for six months due to legal concerns, hoodwinked celebrities were outraged they had been fooled into spearheading a campaign against a drug that didn’t even exist, and then Channel 4 head Michael Grade insisted that a sequence featuring a musical based on the life of the Yorkshire Ripper be cut out completely. Morris’s partner in crime during all this chaos was series director Michael Cumming, who will be joining us at the MAC this May to celebrate his work on the darker side of comedy.

This special evening will begin with a screening of Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes, a fascinating deep dive into the twisted world of Brass Eye that includes a number of never before seen outtakes and deleted scenes, plus the rare chance to see Chris Morris break character.

The second part of the screening will take the form of a Q&A with Michael, interspersed with a selection of clips from  the comedy work he directed after Brass Eye, which includes such cult favourites as Rock Profile, Toast Of London and the deliciously dark BBC sketch show Snuff Box.

Warning! Contains scenes of celebrities being embarrassed, Matt Berry chewing scenery and clips from a British Gas corporate video.

Queer As Folk + Russell T Davies Q&A
Saturday 18 May, 5pm
18 | 150 mins | 1999
Director: Charles McDougall
Cast: Aiden Gillen, Charlie Hunnan
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On 23 February 1999, Channel 4 broadcast the very first episode of a new drama from writer Russell T Davies, one which followed the lives of three homosexual men in the gay quarter of Manchester. It was the cultural equivalent of detonating a nuclear bomb. Prompting outrage from self-proclaimed moral guardians, a beer company to pull sponsorship and joy from a community that finally saw their lives celebrated on screen rather than denigrated, Queer As Folk was a coming out party for complex gay characters who weren’t embarrassing stereotypes and had active sex lives (the show’s original title being Queer As F**k). Whilst the show only ran for ten episodes, its seismic impact on British television is still being felt today.

Twenty years after its initial broadcast, we are delighted to welcome writer and producer Russell T Davies to MAC for a celebration of this seminal televisual work. Alongside rare public screenings of three episodes, Russell will be discussing the legacy of the series as well as the impact the show had at the time, which was broadcast when the UK Parliament was debating the age of consent for homosexual couples, eventually reduced to the age of 16.

Warning! Contains wanton hedonism, scenes of a sexual nature and lifestyles that might not be the same as yours.

Battleship Potemkin + live score
Saturday 25 May, 2pm
PG | 71 mins | 1925
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Incendiary images and striking words are often what cause the most controversy, but what about the power of ideas? Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 five act silent film Battleship Potemkin is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, the story of sailors on the titular battleship rising up against their superiors after being given rotten meat and inciting a civilian uprising, one which paved the way for the Russian Revolution. Yet Battleship Potemkin is also one of the most censored films of all time. For years, countries around the globe refused to allow Eisenstein’s film to be screened for fear that it might spread communism, including right here in the UK, the BBFC labelling it ‘Bolshevik propaganda’ and keeping it banned until 1954. It’s even alleged that French customs burned copies of the film upon arrival in the country.

Almost 100 years later, Battleship Potemkin is no longer feared for its political impact, but it’s still widely revered as an influential masterpiece, not least the infamous Odessa Steps sequence. For this special screening, acclaimed pianist Jonny Best will be performing a live improvised score to accompany the startling imagery.

Warning! Contains civilian unrest, subversive imagery and one of the greatest sequences ever committed to celluloid.

Sunday 2 June, 2pm
15 | 89 mins | 1962
Director: Luis Buñuel
Cast: Silvia Pinal, Francisco Rabal
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It takes a very special kind of film to receive the denunciation of the Pope. Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana was labelled ‘blasphemous’ by the Vatican upon its release in 1961, although that didn’t stop it winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes (it might even have helped). Buñuel’s irreverent vision of life as a beggar’s banquet focuses on novice nun Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) as she does her utmost to maintain her Catholic principles, whilst her lecherous uncle and a motley assemblage of paupers force her to confront the limits of her idealism.

Featuring intimations of sexual assault along with a scene where a group of profane beggars parody Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Viridiana sees Buñuel settling a score with the Catholic Church, largely for their support of the fascist dictator Franco, who made sure the film was banned in Spain.

The screening will be preceded by an introduction from University of Warwick lecturer and Spanish cinema aficionado José Arroyo, who hosts the Eavesdropping At The Movies podcast and has taught film studies across the globe, including Barcelona and Cuba.

Warning! Contains incestuous lechery, perversion of religious imagery and ideas that offended a dictator.

Behind The Scenes at the BBFC
Wednesday 12 June, 7pm
18 | 90 mins | 2018
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The British Board of Film Classification are at the very heart of the censorship debate in the UK, a non-governmental organisation set up by the film industry in 1912 that has been deciding what audiences can see ever since. But how do they reach decisions on age ratings? What makes the difference between a 12A and 15 scene? What material might possibly need to be cut – and why? And how has the wild west of the internet age changed how they operate?

This behind the scenes look at the work of the BBFC details both the history of the British Board of Classification and how modern Classification Guidelines are interpreted when applying age ratings to films. BBFC Education Officer Emily Fussell will discuss the legal and ethical considerations of BBFC Compliance Officers, and illustrate her talk with clips from feature films, trailers, DVD and digital works across the age ratings, as well as answer questions after the presentation.

Warning! Contains sex, violence and decisions you may not agree with.

Scum + Mick Ford Q&A
Thursday 20 June, 7pm
18 | 98 mins + Q&A | 1979
Director: Alan Clarke
Cast: Ray Winstone, Mick Ford
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Alan Clarke’s original version of Scum, a brutal and bloody look at the failings of the British borstal system, was originally produced for the BBC as part of the Play For Today series in the mid-70s. It was so shocking that the BBC banned it for over fifteen years. Undeterred, Clarke and writer Roy Minton decided to make it as a theatrical film instead, and the result prompted moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse to take Channel 4 to court when they eventually broadcast it in 1983.

It’s rare that something made decades ago still has the power to shock, but Scum most certainly does. Whilst a young offender named Carlin (Ray Winstone) kicks, punches and stabs his way to becoming the ‘daddy’ of a terrifying borstal full of similarly damaged young men, a more intellectual denizen named Archer (Mick Ford) uses his wits to beat the system. Clarke and Minto’s film features gang rape, racism, suicide and unflinching violence, but never gratuitously – it’s all in service of showing just how broken the young offenders’ system was in the 1970s.

We’re thrilled to welcome actor Mick Ford along for this screening of Scum to talk about his work on the film, his relationship with Alan Clarke and the legacy of the film since it first burst onto screens and helped abolish the broken borstal system.

Warning! Contains strong language, sexual assault, bloody violence and the power to help dismantle the entire borstal system.

A Clockwork Orange
Saturday 29 June, 5pm
18 | 136 mins | 1971
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee
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‘That was a real kick, and good for laughs and lashings of the old ultra-violence…’ So declares Alex DeLarge, the disaffected ‘droog’ at the heart of Stanley Kubrick’s controversial adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel about violent teenagers in a future dystopian Britain. For years, A Clockwork Orange was the cause célèbre of controversial cinema. The film’s depiction of nihilistic violence contributed to the inaccurate sense that Kubrick was determined to corrupt young minds, even though both the film and novel are clearly a satire about the conflict between the individual and the state, as Alex finds himself forcefully re-programmed (read: tortured) by the government. It’s a long-held misconception that the ban placed on Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in the 1970s came from the UK government. In fact, it was Kubrick himself who banned his own film in the UK, tired of being blamed for copycat violence and the continued attention of protestors, who even sent the Kubrick family death threats. The ban was lifted once Kubrick passed away. No season of controversial and censored cinema would be complete without this enduring masterpiece.

Warning! Contains bits of nasty ultraviolence, some of the old in-out, in-out and the institutional destruction of dangerous young minds.

About The Author

Editor at large of Polaroids and Polar Bears, PR bod and not-so-secret geek. Chris established Polaroids and Polar Bears in 2013.