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.