Was arch-prude Mary Whitehouse really ahead of her time?

TV review: A new documentary resists painting the moral crusader as a crank

You know you’ve gone through the cultural looking glass when arch prude Mary Whitehouse is considered a figure ripe for rehabilitation and even celebration.

And yet part one of Banned! The Mary Whitehouse Story (BBC Two, 9pm) argues persuasively that it is time to change the conversation around Whitehouse. This moral crusader felt sex was best kept behind closed doors and far, far away from our television screens. And for nearly 30 years, she was the bane of filmmakers and broadcasters in the UK.

But far from a moralistic reactionary, was she perhaps ahead of her time? She was, the documentary points out, an early voice against the corrosive dangers of pornography and of sexually exploitative mainstream cinema that demeaned both actors and audiences.

The key piece of evidence in her favour is Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci’s grubby art-house flick from 1973. Whitehouse, in her capacity as head of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, condemned the movie and the British censors who trimmed just 10 seconds from its notorious rape scene.

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She was at the time written off as a crank. However, as we have since become aware, Bertolucci and his appalling on-screen avatar Marlon Brando (48) did not inform 19-year-old actor Maria Schneider in advance of the rape sequence, which left her deeply traumatised.

"There is a moral case to be made against Last Tango in Paris," says Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw. "Her smoke alarm was set very high. That doesn't mean that on many occasions, there wasn't a real fire," agrees Whitehouse biographer Ben Thompson.

It is, of course, possible to be two things at once. If Whitehouse is to be lauded for speaking out against cinema that exploited and demeaned women, it is also beyond question that she was a crusading zealot opposed to sex education and driven by a distinctly English strain of muscular Christianity. And so it is to the credit of Banned! that it acknowledges Whitehouse as a complicated individual and resists crassly drawing a line between her and the #MeToo movement or crowbarring in a “Cancel Culture” argument.

Whitehouse is instead brought to life in light and shade. In the 1960s, she emerged from provincial Wolverhampton as a sort of avenging angel of Middle England. In her sights was a new generation of social-realist film-makers such as Ken Loach, whom she attacked as dealers in filth and licentiousness

“She waged a war against us,” says Loach. “She was by far the best publicity we ever got.”

A decade later, she had raised the ante once again. Whitehouse raged against the porn industry metastasising through London’s Soho district. And against blockbusters such as The Exorcist and Last Tango in Paris. And whether she was right or or wrong, Banned! stands slightly in awe of one woman’s ability to shape the conversation around what she attacked as the “permissive society”.

“How did a 53-year-old woman build a political movement in her own image?” says Ben Thompson. “When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing.”