Throughout the second half of the 20th Century Mary Whitehouse fought relentlessly against the coarsening of society. She battled against sex on TV, violence at the cinema, nudity in the newsagent and homosexuality everywhere she saw it. Her targets were varied if not always well chosen. And her weapon of choice was the letter.
Without the aid of a computer Whitehouse marshalled the morally-anxious in their tens and hundreds of thousands, and called in aide the few celebrities and public officials who would write in support. Her technique was to concentrate the anger of her supporters like a laser on the individual at the helm of a corporation. In this way, without a hint of violence and barely a raised voice, she burnt holes in the in-trays of politicians and broadcasting executives on a daily basis for over three decades. The letters reproduced here are long, detailed and demanding. If they were dignified with a reply she would write again. In due course this middle-aged housewife from the Midlands had a public profile that couldn’t be ignored. Prime Ministers and BBC Directors-General from Harold Wilson to Margaret Thatcher were forced to pay her homage. Meanwhile left-leaning journalists excoriated her and satirists mocked her ruthlessly.
A key part of her strategy was to flatter the broadcasters she approved of and praise the programmes she liked. She invented spurious awards to garland the content she admired. She contrived opportunities to engage in person with her enemies, be they broadcasters, politicians or pornographers. The campaigning strategies she developed have become the templates for contemporary protest.
The motives of the Christian right in the 1960s and 70s were hopelessly confused between politics and prudishness, religion and nationalism. They always are. Mary was on a crusade and nothing short of a theocracy would really have satisfied her, though when the institutional church proved non-committal she was happy to make broad alliances outside it. At least the conservative Christians she led were mainly concerned with what they took to be the welfare of the nation’s morals. Equivalent groups today are mostly concerned with the preservation of the rights and privileges of Christians.
Ban This Filth! is written in the mode of a rock star biography. It consists of letters and ephemera from the Mary Whitehouse archive strung together with a self-indulgent commentary by comedy critic Ben Thompson. Thompson would have done well to declare an interest as the son of one of the liberal Anglican Bishops who was deprecated by Whitehouse. But his tone is not that serious. As a biographer he lacks context; as a social commentator he lacks objectivity. There are few hints that the editor, described in the sleeve notes as “one of Britain’s most respected cultural critics”, has the least understanding of what motivated Mary Whitehouse’s concerns. His tone is dismissive and sneering. He laughs at the eccentric characters who rallied round her and cheers whenever a public official sends her a smart reply.
Mary Whitehouse would have been frustrated but not surprised by the lack of understanding revealed here. The quote in the title isn’t even from her. She was unfailingly temperate in the face of opposition from those for whom she symbolised everything that was illiberal and regressive. And the hatred ran deep. Even the BBC fought dirty in the early days, commissioning an episode of The Goodies in which “Desiree Carthorse” destroyed the TV industry through her prurience, and even a whole series called Swizzlewick that was laden with thinly disguised caricatures of Whitehouse, her family and her supporters. Sometimes the level of threat must have been terrifying. At a rally in Trafalgar Square in 1978 gay rights protesters chanted “Whitehouse Kill! Kill! Kill!” But this book fails to explore the human cost. There’s a hint, when she writes (in an anonymous article) that “I’ve failed, and suffered terribly from a sense of defeat and failure.” But most of what we learn about Mary Whitehouse is incidental. Read between the lines and you discover an extraordinary family who had five children (of which two died), adopted another and took in evacuees and an unmarried mother. It becomes clear that her constant round of travelling, speaking and writing were conducted in spite of (or perhaps caused) extended ill-health. Through all of this they were subjected to a level of relentless intrusion and tabloid malfeasance that would have made Lord Leveson blush. The slightest stain on her integrity or the least hint of profiteering would have been the end of her…but none was found.
Mary Whitehouse wasn’t always right, but the mocking tone of the commentary from Ben Thompson doesn’t do justice to her prescience. Whilst suburban viewers guffawed at Benny Hill chasing scantily-clad models round a park, Mary upbraided a newsreader for using the word “birds” to describe women. She was instrumental in the development of the 9 o’clock watershed for adult content on TV, which is only now losing its usefulness with the advance of digital viewing. And she was the driving force behind the 1978 Protection of Children Act which still stands as the main legal line of defence against child pornography.
On a grander scale, she campaigned against the sexualisation of broadcasting at a time when the tide of liberalism was in full flood and cultural leaders were self-consciously dismantling the defences. We have many reasons to be grateful to those who pioneered the social and artistic liberties we enjoy. But this was also the era when Jimmy Savile was in his pomp and Gary Glitter topped the charts. Whitehouse couldn’t have known what we are only just beginning to discover about the dark undertones of the culture of the entertainment industry. But in the light of recent discoveries she deserves a better reappraisal as a courageous whistle-blower in a gale of unqualified free-thinking.
Ban This Filth: Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive edited by Ben Thompson is published by Faber, £16.99, 406pp
This review first appeared in Third Way magazine