The Da Vinci Code's publicists have had afield day, lapping up the outrage of some members of the Church. But, when the film is released next week, how will British audiences react? William Hall meets the censor who ruled that the film was suitable for unaccompanied children A• few days ago an A•
middle-aged man Ii a sports jacket and open collar was escorted under close guard into the private cinema of the Sony film company in central London. There, flanked by two colleagues, he was given an advance view of the most eagerly awaited, hugely hyped and potentially explosive film of the summer: The Da Vinci Code, what else?
Following a brain-storming session afterwards David Cook decided how much of the movie you and I would be allowed to see — and braced himself for the backlash from outraged churchgoers, whatever his decision.
The film of the phenomenal best-seller —40 million copies sold in 44 languages — opens next week. It stars Tom Hanks as the Harvard professor who stumbles on a conspiracy involving a secret society allied to the Catholic Church to cover up the "true story" of Jesus.
David Cook, 50, is the British film censor. Official title: Director of the British Board of Film Classification, based at No 3, Soho Square in central London.
"The buck stops with me," he acknowledges. "I know there may be things about the subject matter of this film which will upset or offend some people. Sometimes we walk on eggshells."
Many people suspected that the movie of The Da Vinci Code would be more like walking on hot coals. Which is why film insiders have been taken aback to learn that the Board has given it a 12A certificate, meaning that children as young as 12 can see it—and even younger, if accompanied by an adult.
The Board posts the verdict on its website simply as: "Contains flagellation and other moderate violence." Suitable for 12 year olds? Apparently so. But with such a media frenzy some are wondering if the result may be overkill and (whisper who dares) a turkey at the box-office.
Whatever the takings, behind the scenes David Cook and his colleagues agonised about the potential problems that the controversial theme might bring to Catholic audiences throughout Britain.
"Yes, Da Vinci is difficult,"
he admits. "But at least it's a known quantity, a hugely well-known and successful book, though I have to confess I haven't read it yet. But I intend to.
"There arc films that people want to ban, and Da Vinci may well be one of them. There is still an ancient criminal offence of blasphemy, you know, which is very seldom prosecuted these days but can still come into play. So this was something we kept in mind, and have to watch.
"It's very hard to judge what the reaction will be. We looked at it and asked ourselves if there was a legal issue where we would have to bring the lawyers in — blasphemy being the most obvious one. Potentially we could still get that happening."
Only last month the preacher of the papal household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, in a sermon in the presence of Pope Benedict, denounced both the film and the book as "pseudohistoric". Dan Brown's original novel had of course provoked uproar, with opponents calling it heretical and anti-Christian.
With the film adaptation the problem has been a particularly knotty one for the Board. Not for violence — although the opening scenes feature a grisly murder in the Louvre in Paris — but this could still be a hot potato for censor and film-makers alike.
Cook has been the censor for just 18 months but recalls the controversy — before his time — over Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, where "there could have been an obscenity issue with the flagellation scene". In fact, despite the uproar, no cases were brought before the courts.
Cook is a deceptively quiet man who wields enormous influence in an industry that deals in billions, and where the difference between a 12A,15 and an 18 rating can mean boom or bust at the box office.
With piracy creating unprecedented paranoia among studio chiefs, movies like Da Vinci and Mission Impossible: III never leave head office vaults until the day of their public release.
Which is why the trio last week were looking at Da Vinci in Golden Square, instead of Soho Square. Normally the precious cans of 35mm film are delivered to the classification offices to be viewed in the private cinema by two of the 30 examiners under his control. But with The Da Vinci Code the team had to play away.
"It does happen, though very rarely and only with films that are particularly sensitive," explained Cook, without rancour.
"The companies don't
want to let the actual product out of their sight, and I can't blame them. Feelings are running high in the industry over piracy. I'm very sympathetic to their position, because I know it costs them billions of pounds. The
scams are absolutely massive, with major organised crime cartels behind them."
The chief censor's examiners are made up of lawyers, doctors, teachers, probation officers — even novelists — all of whom must remain anonymous. Between them they pass judgment on an amazing 17,000 products a year, including television programmes, DVD, video and playstation games as well as mainstream movies. Often films are submitted for re-classification, adding to the work load.
A new category of R18 has been introduced to cover specially licensed cinemas or licensed sex shops.
Away from the secluded darkness of the cinema, David Cook remains a face in the crowd and likes it that way.
"I prefer to stay anonymous to the general public," he insists. "Though I'll do a certain amount of television and radio if the occasion arises."
Born in Basingstoke, Hampshire, the son of a laboratory engineer, David went on to study history at Oxford before entering the Civil Service "and going through the mill in a variety of jobs".
Be rose through the ranks for 27 years before he decided to leave Whitehall and spend more time in the cinema.
As a senior negotiator he found himself up close and personal with the religious issues besetting Northern Ireland: in two tours in Belfast (1990-1993 and 2002-2004) Cook was involved in direct talks with both sides of the political divide, which meant face-toface meetings with Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley — "but never in the same room!"
Useful for judging the contentious issues in The Da Vinci Code? A wry chuckle. "I was brought up Protestant," he explains, "but now I think I'm a don't-know. My experiences in Northern Ireland might have given me a slightly greater sensitivity to other people's religious beliefs, but that's all. It certainly wouldn't affect my opinion on this film.
"We are well aware of the outcry among Catholics when the book first came out. But we are also aware that even if the film had presented more difficulties for us, there's the weight of public opinion to consider.
"Once you're 18 you can say: `We've got the right to choose whether to see this or not, provided it's within the law'."
There is a standing joke about two censors sitting in a screening room. One says to the other: "Let's run it through again before we ban it!" An old chestnut, but David Cook doesn't appreciate the humour.
"We don't ban anything any more, unless we really have to." He frowns briefly. "Times have changed. A lot of things we see can be pretty strong stuff, but we have to decide: how scary is scary?
When does a film with explicit sexual content spill over into porn? These are judgment calls, and they can be very difficult.
"There's a checklist of laws we run through. Is there an animal cruelty issue? Anything that might infringe a blasphemy law, or an incitement to racial hatred? Obscenity? Indecency in a public place, which quite frequently arises in a porn film?
"But to those who take strong objection to a particular film, I'll give them the same reply I give to everyone: I understand and respect the strength of your opinion. But we have to act within the law and within our guide
lines." In fact Cook can recall only two films that he banned outright since taking over the hot seat. One was called Terrorists. Killers and Other Whackos, which purported to be a serious documentary showing beheadings and torture across the world.
"It was very difficult to watch," he recalls, still uncomfortable at the memory. "We concluded it was purely exploitative, and rejected it."
The second was another so-called documentary showing audiences the techniques of committing suicide, cultivating drugs and growing pot in their back garden. "We had no choice. It was promoting illegal activities."
Cook's interest in cinema was sparked at university, with films like 'Visconti's Death in Venice, Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries and Builuel's Los Olvidados making a big impression on the young undergraduate.
"Actually my mother tells me the first film I ever saw was Dumbo. And like so many kids, I was terrified by Bambi," he admits with a self-deprecatory chuckle.
Today, he sees around four films a week, and also vets difficult snippets "where you only need five minutes to decide what you're going to do with them".
"Difficult" often means scenes of appalling violence or brutal sex which an unscrupulous producer will try and sneak under the fence.
On the positive side, David mentions two personal favourites: "I found the French suspense thriller Hidden one of the most powerful films I have seen recently. There was no music throughout, but it was quite an extraordinary piece of work. And David Cronenberg's A History of Violence was riveting."
Cook's wife Kate is a civil servant. They have no children. "But 1 do have a brother with two daughters aged 18 and 14, a good age for me to get a certain amount of feedback."
Away from the cosy atmosphere of Whitehall, he is operating in totally different territory.
"It can be lonely in the sense that nobody else is doing what I'm doing. I see things that are disturbing and
horrible," he responds.
"Also, if we don't watch out, there could be people dying because they've been imitating dangerous suicide techniques they've seen on the screen, or glamourising details of drug-taking. Whether you like it or not there are sickos in the world who make these kind of films.
"For me, I have to be objective. I don't always like
what I see, but I have to live with it. And I'm always being caught in a crossfire."
Cook grins suddenly. "Just like Northern Ireland, come to think of it."
The Da Vinci Code opens in Britain on May 19. Reviews of the film by a Catholic
priest, a member of Opus Dei and an expert on sects. cults and alternative religions will appear in our May 26 issue.