Ban This Filth! Letters From The Mary Whitehouse Archive
Edited by Ben Thompson, Faber and Faber, 406pp, £16.99
Was Mary Whitehouse right? She who believed that libertarians were the new tyrants, that the British airwaves were being polluted by permissiveness, and that the right-minded should be able to go to important persons and keep large numbers of people from the programmes of their choice. Yes and no, many might now reply to that question. Ben Thompson has produced a bumper book of clippings from the Whitehouse archive, linked by a smart, media-wise, Jack the Lad commentary that knows enough to recognise it’s right to ask: was she right? Yes and no is an answer – his, I think – that would not have pleased the late Mary, for whom black was black and white white.
Her struggle was launched at a Birmingham meeting of early 1964, calling itself the Clean Up TV campaign, which was then joined by the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association. Her main target was the BBC, and her major feud was with its liberal director general, Hugh Greene. The coming of independent television and of Margaret Thatcher raised her hopes but proved a disappointment, so far as an enforced purity was concerned.
The Whitehouse campaign was cunning and resourceful, and she herself was likeable as well as phobic: for some the Wicked Witch of the West, for others Joan of Arc. At the end of the three and a half decades of her crusading life, British television was as “dirty” as ever and still more tiresomely sweary. It can look as if the call for restraint had never been heeded. Some of the best efforts of the age – Till Death Us Do Part, the film version of Nell Dunn’s Cathy Come Home, Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective – were fought and blackguarded. She had the sense to admire Yes Minister, but would have done well to behave as if she knew the worth of BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour.
More than one of the BBC’s directors general have been ill-equipped and ill-omened, some of them editors-in-chief who wouldn’t or couldn’t edit. Greene was certainly editorial, and was the most humane and imaginative of them all. I say so as someone who served him as editor of the corporation’s weekly journal, the Listener. But he was not altogether happy in his attempts to deal with the threat of intolerance he saw in this militant schoolteacher. The broadcasting bigwigs to whom she wrote spent a good deal of time fending off her cries: elements of fear, truckling, liking and disdain crept into their responses. Greene did not truckle. Instead, he tried to censor the censor by forbidding her the microphones.
When Charles Hill was put in by Harold Wilson as chairman of the BBC’s board of governors, having earlier been a Tory minister and chairman of its rival, the Independent Television Authority – and, earlier still, the “Radio Doctor” – it was supposed that this was a pressure on Greene to resign. Whitehouse supposed as much and seems to have taken credit for assisting in the cause. Greene resigned. He was much disliked by members of the Labour government of the day: I remember Tony Benn inveighing against him, with unusual loss of composure, as an enemy who had taken the trumpeted independence of the BBC to intolerable lengths. A director general was permitted by statute to be in some sense an editor, but he had overdone it.
Years later, Greene wrote that Whitehouse’s approach to freedom of expression “would have been at home” in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, softening this afterwards by saying that he hadn’t meant to imply she was a fascist sympathiser. He offered to publish the letter making this clear, but she was not assuaged. He had done nothing to remedy the offence she’d complained of, successfully, in court. An Observer deputy editor had expressed his surprise at the writ, in the light of the “pleasant association” they had enjoyed. She chopped his head off with, “We have met only once – in a corridor when we exchanged ‘good mornings’ and passed on”.
This was a real fight, with real blood. The libertarian bishop Mervyn Stockwood was outed as a hypocrite by Peter Tatchell’s gay-rights group OutRage! The bishop died not long after, “and there was little doubt”, writes Thompson, “that this painful and embarrassing coda to his outspoken career would have given Mary Whitehouse a certain macabre satisfaction”.
She was at times a skilful controversialist, not above dicing with blasphemy: “‘Where were you when they crucified my Lord?’ Busy counting the collection and signing the latest petition in favour of easier divorce or abortion.”
She seems at one stage to have chosen Jimmy Savile’s Jim’ll Fix It as top of the form for children’s programmes. Elsewhere she appeared to claim that a gay lobby was in receipt of cover at the top level of the BBC hierarchy. She did not mind the camp of Barry Humphries’s performance as Dame Edna Everage, thought to embody an impersonation of herself, but she was capable of objecting to the mere presence in a play of someone evidently homosexual. This prevented her from seeing the point of an excellent series whose very title could be interpreted as obscene, Are You Being Served? It has to be said that she worked for the passage of the 1978 Protection of Children Act – while objecting to the findings of Bernard Williams’s obscenity report, which she would have seen as a danger to the young.
In the 1960s, says this book, the Listener “was habitually cited as the in-house journal of the secular communist pre-marital activity conspiracy”. Most of her communications were sent to television’s top brass, among whom she wanted to make friends. But she did once telephone me. “Mr Hardcastle,” she genially began, mistaking me for a colleague, and went on to register some grievance, some “explicit innuendo” perhaps, heard by a disciple or by her. By the end of the conversation I almost felt that she and I – or Bill Hardcastle – were friends.
I was sent for by Lord Hill when he was chairman of the BBC’s governors. A concerned member of the public had found a blasphemy in a poem by Ted Hughes. Hill listened civilly to my attempt to elucidate the poem, and the only sanction Hughes suffered was the subsequent award of the poet laureateship. The blasphemer became a friend of the Queen Mother. He was not all black.
An anonymous young man wrote to Mrs Whitehouse to say that he very likely disagreed with her on most matters, but on some he’d been won over: “I believe that people should not be subjected to violence and sex that they find offensive.” An interesting letter, from a man who would not have deserved to be told (a stock response) that he could always switch off when the bad stuff loomed.
The Whitehouse campaign brought changes, and raised consciousness – with regard, particularly, to the celebrated “sex’n’violence” of the period. But violence is worse than ever now on television, and obscenity has long been a fashion. A whole channel is devoted to murder and detection. The days are gone when suited executives would take to the screen to explain that no statistical proof had established a connection between the display of violent acts and their commission. Few people would believe that “no connection” claim any more, but not many can hope, even at this time of “crisis”, that something serious will soon be done about the sexual exploitation of women and children and the popularity of crime as spectacle.