How The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Were Almost Banned In The UK

This week, audiences ranging from the young to the young at heart will be making their way to the local multiplex to see the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated blockbuster, Mutant Mayhem.

Produced by Seth Rogen, the Spider-Verse inspired family animation has already won over critics, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 96% at the time of writing. That easily makes it the best reviewed outing for the pizza loving reptiles to date, and the biggest rival to Barbie as the family film outing of the summer.

But, in the UK at least, this almost wasn’t to be for the adventures of Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo, as the franchise first arrived on British shores at the same time as a moral panic against violence in entertainment.

The Hero Turtles

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As 80’s kids will know, when the animated series first aired on BBC One in January 1990, it was under the moniker Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. The reason for the name change was the culmination of several years of different moral panics – not just the violence of the Video Nasties era, but a sincere worry that ninja weapons would fall into the hands of young children.

Yes, really. Due to concern that martial arts equipment such as throwing stars was being used inside football grounds, the UK government teamed up with the Martial Arts Commission to set new guidelines for the sale of equipment, ensuring it wouldn’t be sold to minors.

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Surely that was the end of that? Of course not – both Conservative and Labour MP’s continued to argue in parliament that this legislation didn’t go far enough, citing stories about eight year olds buying knuckledusters to ensure no child would ever dream of being a ninja.

In the 1987 election, the Conservative Party even went as far as adding a section to their manifesto stressing that they would strengthen the law about the sale of weapons in response to these stories. A year later, 14 ninja-style weapons were banned, although Nunchucks managed to escape this fate, something which would cause considerable controversy when it came to their depiction onscreen in the hands of four teen turtles.

From Heroes To Ninjas

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By 1990, the BBFC had a long history of censoring these “chain-sticks” in the movies, even attempting to cut out any sight of them in a 1979 rerelease of Enter The Dragon. But the Christmas 1990 release of the first TMNT movie caused the censorship board even more sleepless nights.

After demanding the movie be significantly cut to remove any sight of the weapon, there was internal controversy at the BBFC. One of the board’s examiners protested the decision based on the response of his sons, who felt the cuts ruined the movie – and, more importantly, meant that scenes in the movie didn’t match trading cards of the film they owned, which weren’t subject to the same censorship.

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But this didn’t stop then-BBFC chair James Ferman from continuing his war on Nunchucks. When the sequel, Secret Of The Ooze, was sent to the censorship board for approval, he demanded a scene of Michelangelo swinging sausages around his head like the weapon be cut if they wanted to release the film in UK cinemas.

One curious thing, however, is that as the big screen was held to different standards than broadcast TV, the turtles were titled Ninja Turtles there, while the animated series was still dubbed Hero Turtles.

Other Turtle Controversies

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Around this time, the press ran several other sensationalist headlines about how the series was warping the minds of the youth. One Daily Telegraph article even stated that countless children across the country had to be rescued from sewers, as they’d ventured down there to emulate their heroes.

The Daily Express even started a campaign telling kids to cut out eating pizza, as they felt the series was kicking off a junk food epidemic.

As the new film arrives in cinemas at a time when the franchise has long been beloved by generations of fans, it remains pretty surreal to look back at how they were initially greeted upon release.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is now in UK cinemas.

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Alistair Ryder

Alistair Ryder


Alistair is a culture journalist and lover of bad puns from Leeds. Subject yourself to his bad tweets by following him on Twitter @YesItsAlistair.