Hull City Council has decided that it will not adhere to the British Board of Film Classification’s (BBFC) decision to award Sean McAllister’s feature documentary A Northern Soul a 15-certificate.

northern soul doc fest

Source: Sheffield Doc/Fest

‘Northern Soul’

Instead, the council will allow the film to be shown in the city at a 12A rating, granting anyone from the age of 12 upwards the option to view the film, while those under 12 can do so if accompanied by an adult.

The BBFC’s original certification has caused controversy in the UK since the decision was made on August 11, with many viewing the certificate as not appropriate for a feature doc that spotlights everyday working-class Britain.

The rating was awarded due to the film’s ‘strong language’. It contains the word “fuck” or variations on up to 20 times.

The BBFC said, ”There is no formal numeric limit on the number of uses of strong language permitted at 12A, in practice it is unusual for us to allow more than four uses of strong language at 12A in a film of normal feature length.”

Director McAllister said that the film contains no violence, no sexual content, and no aggressive swearing, with the only use of profanity being within the confines of everyday language.

He noted that the rating now restricts their outreach opportunities. “[The decision] prevents school screenings of this film (for kids under 15) which is so necessary in the communities across this divided nation,” he commented when the BBFC classified the film.

Hull City Council had originally granted the film a 12A certificate for a short theatrical run in the city prior to its official release (which begins on Friday, August 24), but had informed the filmmakers that it would be implementing the 15 rating for further screenings. This decision has now been reversed, and three further screenings at Vue Hull this week will carry the 12A rating.

UK cinema ratings

In the UK, a local council is responsible for what is shown in the cinemas of its constituency (dictated by the 2003 Licensing Act) and is able to overrule a BBFC rating decision for its locale, though this doesn’t happen often.

Following today’s hearing, the council said that its Licensing Sub-Committee had determined the film would be classified 12A for “showings, at any time, at premises within the Licensing Authority’s area where the premises licence authorises the exhibition of films”.

It gave its reason for the decision as being: “Strong language was only used by the subject of the film to express emotion in interviews with the filmmaker, was never directed at an individual, or used in an aggressive manner”

Director McAllister said on the council’s decision: “It has always been in the character of Hull, to do things their own way, so again today they stand on their own, supporting a local film and rightfully standing by their original decision to give the film a 12A against the BBFC’s judgement to classify the film a 15.”

The film is set to receive its official UK roll-out this weekend (from Friday, August 24), in cinemas including London’s Prince Charles Cinema and Dochouse Curzon Bloomsbury, the Bristol Watershed, and Manchester’s HOME. As things stand, all screenings outside of Hull will carry the 15 certificate.

Producers 10ft Films is self-distributing the title, having also handled the UK release of McAllister’s previous film A Syrian Love Story - and the title’s release is being supported by the Joseph Rountree Foundation. A Northern Soul has also been programmed into Picturehouse’s Discover Tuesdays strand, meaning it will play in Picturehouse venues across the UK on September 18.


Since the original BBFC classification, numerous industry figures including I, Daniel Blake filmmaker Ken Loach have expressed their solidarity with the filmmakers over the decision, which they say will restrict the film from reaching young audiences and will limit its theatrical potential.

The film premiered as the opening film of this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, and the festival’s director of film programming Luke W Moody expressed his disappointment at the BBFC rating: “Sean’s film is a rare story of hope and change in the lives of young people. Unfortunately this rating denies the young generation represented in the film a chance to see their own story on screen, which is a vital part of cinema’s cultural impact.”

Lisa-Marie Russo, head of Doc Society, added: “We need accurate and complex portraits about real life across the UK, and the characters in A Northern Soul are well rounded, empathetic and inspiring people. This film deserves to be seen by a wide audience - including young people.”

Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Kingston Upon Hull North, said on Twitter that she was “surprised” by the BBFC’s decision, adding that she didn’t understand why the film would be a 15 while a title such as The King’s Speech, which contains similar language, would receive a 12A.

A Northern Soul producer Elhum Shakerifar remains disappointed by the decision but called on the resulting fallout to open up a debate about the classification of documentary films.

“As a documentary producer, I hope that this does bring into question the matter of representation, particularly of working class realities on screen, but also the reality of documentary filmmaking versus fiction. Our characters aren’t scripted, they’re real people that we spend time with to build bridges of confidence, respect and communication with - and we don’t want to take words out of their mouths, just as we don’t put words into them,” she said.

Shakerifar added that they are now intending to apply for local certificates with further local councils, and have already begun the process in Beverley, which is seven miles away from Hull and will be hosting screenings of the film in a few weeks’ time.

A BBFC statement defended the decision: “While some people are less bothered by strong language than others, our own research shows that a substantial portion of the public, especially parents, do feel limits should be placed on the amount of strong language permitted at the 12A level.

”The distributor and film maker are welcome to reduce the quantity of strong language in the film in order to obtain a 12A classification”.