British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

The Red Triangle

Channel Four had, the IBA noted, ‘from time to time transmitted important but often difficult films – generally from abroad – which have occasionally pressed very close to the absolute limits of acceptability

The red triangle warning symbol experiment ran on Channel Four from 19 September 1986 to 7 February 1987, and was applied to ten films screened after 11.15pm.  It took the form of a white triangle with a red border and was shown in a corner of the screen throughout the entire film. The symbol appeared with the words ‘special discretion required’ before a film began and at the end of each advertising break. As David Glencross, chairman at the IBA, pointed out, ‘There was no intention that the symbol be used with material that would not otherwise have been transmitted by Channel Four’.[1]

A suitably measured press release of 21 August 1986 announced: ‘The channel is reluctant to cut the work of outstanding film directors, but it is equally concerned to alert viewers who might themselves be offended, or might wish to protect others in their families’.  Isaacs was quoted, maintaining that ‘viewers are capable of making informed choices themselves about what they watch.  This symbol will help them choose and will also serve to warn those who come across one of these films unawares’.[2] The fact that a film was to carry this warning was publicised in the press and in TV Times via Channel Four’s weekly press information packs, where the message was reinforced across press information, programme information and progamme listings sections  [[3] & [4]]. As it turned out, the channel was compelled by the IBA to make some cuts for graphic violence in three of the films shown, and it was felt in some quarters that the symbol served paradoxically to attract additional attention to some otherwise obscure art-house curiosities.

The ‘red triangle season’ began with Claude Faraldo’s critically acclaimed ‘surreal black comedy’ Themroc (France, 1972), ‘starring Michel Piccolo as a middle-aged worker who suddenly throws off all sexual, social and political inhibitions’.[5] Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers and Listeners Association described it as ‘One-and-a-half hours of unadulterated assault on the senses containing the glorification and enjoyment of mindless violence’.[6] The fact that the film runs to 110 minutes presumably indicates she found some moments of respite in this onslaught.  Subsequent films in the series garnered similar opprobrium from the self-appointed guardian of public morals, who presented her findings to the Parliamentary All Party Media Group on 17 February 1987 as part of an ongoing campaign to incorporate television within the Obscene Publications Act.  Shuji Terayama’s Sho o Suteyo, Machi e Deyo [Throw away your books, Let’s go into the streets] (Japan, 1971) was broadcast on 10 October 1986.  Adapted from his own stage play, Terayama’s first feature was screened by Channel Four the week after his 1974 film Denen Ni Shisu [Pastoral Hide-and-Seek]).  Both had been subjected to minor cuts for violence.  Such curatorial sensitivity cut no ice with Whitehouse however, who observed that this rite-of-passage drama ‘had the recurring theme of anarchy, both moral and physical, and contained the prolonged and graphic attempted seduction of a virgin teenage boy by a woman prostitute’.[7] Another kind of teenage angst was the focus of the Dennis Hopper-directed Out of the Blue (Canada, 1980), which was the penultimate offering in the season, screened on 10 January 1987.

As the Press Packs reveal, the imaginative schedule also included three films by the German director Helma Sanders-Brahms. Deutschland Bleiche Mutter [Germany, Pale Mother] (1980) and L’Avenir d’Émilie [Future of Emily](1984) were shown either side of Die Berührte [No Mercy – No Future] (1981), only the latter attracting the red triangle treatment for its stark examination of a female schizophrenic’s alienation and abuse. Institutional exposés of a different nature were provided by David Stevens’ comedy-drama set in an Australian VD clinic (The Clinic, 1982), and with the concluding film in a short season of work by the late Turkish director Yilmaz Güney:  Le Mur [The Wall] (Turkey/France, 1983) is a harsh indictment of the penal regime in Güney’s homeland.

The radical Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev (WR: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971) was represented in the series by his anarchic Anglo-Swedish comedy Montenegro (1981), starring Susan Anspach and Erland Josephson, notable for its use of Marianne Faithfull’s bittersweet anthem of liberation, ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’.  But Mrs Whitehouse was more preoccupied by a ‘prolonged scene where a woman is entertaining everyone by singing and gyrating naked while a radio controlled model tank, with an erect plastic penis sticking out of the barrel, is driven around her while she gyrates’.[8] The press packs reveal that the red triangle films, which included the celebrated Antonioni’s Identificazione di una Donna [Identification of a Woman] (Italy/France, 1982), were interspersed with other international offerings of equal stature which did not require the warning: Yaky Yosha’s Ha’ayit [The Vulture] (Israel, 1981), Bergman’s Persona (Sweden, 1966) and Yannick Bellon’s L’Amour Viole [The Rape of Love] (France, 1977), though the latter presumably avoided the triangle only because a gang rape scene was cut for television broadcast.  And in the Press Packs, the Movie Notes provide ample evidence of the critical plaudits they all shared.

The finer points of well-informed scheduling, however, failed to avert criticism, not only from those of the Whitehouse persuasion, but from advertisers too.  The Times reported that ‘Bank of Scotland, Kelloggs, Hill Samuel and Sainsbury have … banned their products being advertised during the screening of such films’.[9] To liberal opinion the application of the symbol seemed equally ill-judged.  The majority of complaints received by the IBA and Channel Four concerned the intrusiveness of the on-screen symbol to the viewing experience.  And, ironically, the symbol may well have been responsible for The Clinic and Montenegro (both sex comedy-dramas and the ‘lightest’ films in the selection) attracting viewing figures of 2.7million each.

In keeping with the self-consciousness that attended seemingly every innovation and controversy at Channel Four during the 1980s, the red triangle was debated on Right to Reply.  It was first raised on 27 September 1986, when Jeremy Isaacs contributed a written statement requesting that viewers ‘be patient and tolerant as we try to demonstrate that contemporary work that portrays life, honestly and explicitly, and that has previously been thought by everyone else unsuitable for screening on television, can successfully be included in our schedule’.[10] Not perhaps Isaacs’ finest diplomatic hour, it was left to channel controller Paul Bonner to appear on an hour-long Right to Reply Special on 7 April 1987 to explain the experiment, to present the audience research conducted by Channel Four and the IBA, and to hope it all might be quietly forgotten.

By August 1987 The Guardian reported ‘a Channel 4 spokesman’ conceding that while ‘the symbol would be retained throughout at the top left-hand corner of all films whose sexual content, language or violence might offend some viewers, the triangle would not be shown in the TV Times, or on the screen until immediately before the film started’. And although ‘Channel 4 would still do its best to describe such films in pre-publicity’, it had ‘no plans for screening any such late night films in the current year’s schedules’.[11] In the event, temporary self-censorship was the best remedy for unwarranted extra attention.  The ‘damned red triangle’ was one of Channel Four’s more ignominious innovations ‘which fortunately’, Isaacs recalls, ‘we could get rid of fairly soon’.[12]

[1] Glencross, David, The Channel Four Red Triangle Warning Symbol, IBA Paper 112 (87), 17 July 1987, p. 3. ITA/IBA/Cable Authority Archive (Bournemouth University).

[2] Channel Four Press Office, ‘Channel Four Introduces Warning Triangle for Late Night Films’, 21 August 1986.

[3] Channel 4 Press Packs, Press information: 1986 week 38 page 3; (Accessed 04 Feb 2013)

[4] Channel 4 Press Packs, Programme news: 1986 week 38 page 82; (Accessed 04 Feb 2013)

[5] Channel 4 Press Packs, Programme listings: 1986 week 38 page 73; (Accessed 04 Feb 2013)

[6] Screening notes presented by the National Viewers and Listeners Association to the Parliamentary All Party Media Group on 17 February 1987.  ITA/IBA/Cable Authority Archive (Bournemouth University).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Angella Johnson, The Times, 21 October 1986.

[10] IBA internal memo, 29 September 1986.  ITA/IBA/Cable Authority Archive (Bournemouth University).

[11] Dennis Barker, ‘Channel 4 stops trailing the red triangle’, 5 August 1987.

[12] Jeremy Isaacs, interview with Justin Smith, 9 November 2010.