Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen is a powerful piece of social realism about life in urban western Scotland in the early twenty-first century. It focuses on Liam, a young man on the cusp of his sixteenth birthday. Liam's attempts to deal with the overwhelming pressures of an imprisoned mother, domestic abuse, zero legitimate employment opportunities and the consequences of addiction lead him to make a series of decisions which have tragic consequences.
After forty years as a film director, Sweet Sixteen was the first Ken Loach film to receive an 18 certificate from the BBFC - this effectively shut out young people like Liam, who are rarely the subjects of feature films, from seeing the film in cinemas. The BBFC justified its decision not based on violence or sex, but solely on the grounds of language, citing persistent 'aggressive' swearing as justification for the certificate.
Loach was dismayed by this decision, and wondered "what message the BBFC sends to the people in the film by telling them they are fit only to be rated with the work of pornographers. ... The problem is that the censors live in their own little ivory tower and are playing to their own middle class gallery."
The censors live in their own little ivory tower .... playing to their own middle class gallery - Ken Loach
The film's screenwriter, Paul Laverty wrote a stinging open letter to Sir Quentin Thomas, head of the BBFC at the time. (the names refer to characters in the film)
"....I am not blind to the predicament and the difficulty you now confront. But I do ask you to be bold and imaginative in the exercise of your discretion. There are tens of thousands of fifteen and sixteen and seventeen year old Liams out there. (And Chantelles with young children and self destructive desperate Pinballs.) For me they are more important than any critic or jury, but as usual, without clout. I hope you will give them a chance to see themselves, for once, as protagonists."
The controversy over Sweet Sixteen was particularly intense in Greenock, where the film is set. Local cinema owner Robert Gilmour successfully appealed to Inverclyde Council to grant the film a 15 certificate, using Local Authorities' discretionary powers to overrule the BBFC's original decision.