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A red triangle of this sort preceded broadcasts, warning viewers that special discretion was required.

The red triangle was a content warning system employed by mainstream terrestrial British TV broadcaster Channel 4 for a brief period in 1986. The channel showed a number of 18 certificate art films in the early hours of the morning as part of the "red triangle" series, gaining unexpectedly large audiences. After lobbying from newspapers and pressure groups the series was quickly discontinued.


The red triangle broadcasts

The channel, which had been launched only a few years before, hoped to garner a reputation as a relatively avant-garde alternative to the existing terrestrial stations. It compiled a list of provocative films, generally art-house and mostly in foreign languages, and entered into negotiation with independent TV regulator the IBA with an eye to showing them. The films, all of which had been theatrically exhibited under British Board of Film Classification "18" ratings, had never been shown on British television until that point. Their content transcended that which had hitherto been permitted by the UK's TV censors, although by the standards of later decades their depictions of sex and violence are largely unexceptional.

The series began in September 1986 in a very late slot (with most films beginning after midnight). Broadcasts were preceded by a warning, saying "Special Discretion Required" and displaying a full-screen logo of a red triangle with a white centre (the standard scheme used for warning signs in the UK). To prevent viewers who missed the warning at the beginning from later being unwittingly exposed to the adult content of the film, a smaller red triangle was continually displayed in the top left corner of the screen throughout the broadcast. This quickly led to the broadcasts being informally known as the "red triangle films".

The broadcasts proved to be controversial even before they began. Several newspapers branded some of the films to be shown "video nasties", and once broadcasts began battle was joined by veteran "anti-filth" campaigner Mary Whitehouse. Condemning the films as pornography, her National Viewers' and Listeners' Association campaigned vociferously against the broadcasts and lobbied parliament and the IBA, calling for the broadcasts to be ended.

The outcry over the red triangle series had entirely the opposite effect than the objectors had intended; the opening film, the grisly surrea-comedy Themroc, garnered over two million viewers (Whitehouse apparently among them, later saying of its broadcast "It's not good enough to slap on a warning symbol and then indulge in sadistic madness of this kind."). Later films (mostly those whose TV Times synopses sounded racy) gained viewerships of over three million, figures which dwarfed those of the other channels still broadcasting that late (which carried fare of very limited appeal and educational programming from the Open University). Some critics contended that the whole series was a cynical attempt to wilfully stir controversy, and in practice many viewers discovered that "softcore porn" against which campaigners had railed was in fact genuine art cinema (and not the titillation for which they'd stayed up late). With viewing figures latterly sagging, and press opposition remaining strong, Channel 4 quietly discontinued the broadcasts the year after they had begun.

The films

Transmission date Title Year Country of origin Language(s) Director Writer Notes
19 September 1986 Themroc 1973  France No dialogue Claude Faraldo A surreal tale of a disgruntled labourer who degenerates into an urban caveman. The film's cannibalism scene earned the film its 18 certificate (although the corpse of the policeman who is eaten is quite clearly that of a pig, an obvious joke on the director's part).
3 October 1986 Pastoral: Hide and Seek 1974  Japan Japanese Shūji Terayama (寺山 修司) Also known as Death in the Country, original title: 田園に死す (Den-en ni shisu)
10 October 1986 Throw Away Your Books; Go out into the Streets! 1971  Japan Japanese Shūji Terayama (寺山 修司) Original title: 書を捨てよ町へ出よう (Sho o Suteyo, Machi e Deyo)
17 October 1986 Identification of a Woman 1982  Italy
Michelangelo Antonioni Michelangelo Antonioni,
Gérard Brach
Original title: Identificazione di una donna
24 October 1986 Pixote 1981  Brazil Braz. Port. Hector Babenco Hector Babenco,
Jorge Durán
A chilling account of the lives of street children in São Paulo, including harrowing scenes of torture and sexual assault. Original title: Pixote: A Lei do Mais Fraco
31 October 1986 The Clinic 1982  Australia English David Stevens Greg Millin
14 November 1986 Montenegro, or: Pigs and Pearls 1981  Sweden
Dušan Makavejev Dušan Makavejev,
Branko Vučićević
28 November 1986 No Mercy, No Future 1981  West Germany German Helma Sanders-Brahms Rita G,
Helma Sanders-Brahms
Original title: Die Berührte
10 January 1987 Out of the Blue 1980  Canada English Dennis Hopper Leonard Yakir,
Brenda Nielson
17 January 1987 The Wall 1983  Turkey
Yılmaz Güney Original title: Duvar


BBC Two commissioned its own strands of late night screenings of controversial or censored arthouse cinema 'Film Club' with an introduction by Derek Malcolm and Moviedrome that featured horror and cult cinema introduced by Alex Cox.

Several years later, Channel 4 instituted a late-night programming slot (entitled "The Red Light Zone") in which it showed a variety of adult-oriented programmes with more overt sexual content, mixing avant-garde material such as the works of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe with more unabashedly salacious content. By this time Whitehouse's influence had declined, and the general moral panic over "smut" and "video nasties" had largely subsided, such that the Red Light Zone proceeded without great controversy.

More generally, the experiment showed there was a considerable appetite in the British viewing public for adult, sexually themed programming beyond the double entendre comedies of the preceding decades (e.g. Are You Being Served?), and the following decade saw Channel 4 increasingly resorting to more blatantly sexual programmes to attract viewers. By showing that it was possible for TV to get viewership of several millions after midnight, the red triangle experiment (along with late-night comedy programme Who Dares Wins, which notably parodied the red triangle films) went some way to establishing a late-night "after the pub" slot. This continues (particularly on Channel 4 and its competitor Five), although the content is more inclined toward the bawdy and laddish than to the red-triangle series' arty goals.


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