Making sense of the Mary Whitehouse experience

From the Sixties to the Nineties, one woman’s relentless letter-writing caused fear and irritation among BBC bosses. But what was the legacy of her crusade to clean up TV?

James Howell

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Whipping boy and effigy for the satirical left? Or spokeswoman for a disgruntled, moralistic British public? The debate around the importance, impact and legacy of moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse began long before her death 11 years ago last week. Sadly, Ban This Filth!, a collection of Whitehouse’s letters alongside some commentary by editor Ben Thompson, offers little serious reflection on this debate. Instead it mostly has a mocking, almost joking tone to it.

The letters collected here span the whole of Whitehouse’s career, starting with her Clean Up Television (CUT) campaign, where she initiated what would turn out to be a long and staunch battle with then BBC director general Sir Hugh Greene. Whitehouse’s moral views were informed by her membership of the evangelical Christian Moral Re-Armament movement. Her beliefs formed the basis of the moral outrage she directed at the BBC, ITV, playwrights, pop stars, DJs, pornographers, film directors… the list of her targets seems almost endless.

A schoolmistress from Nuneaton, Whitehouse was raised in the West Midlands, eventually becoming an art teacher in a school in Shropshire. There, she also took on responsibility for teaching sex education. Shocked by the reaction of her pupils to issues of sexual morality, she unleashed a tirade upon the establishment, most notably the BBC. In a career that spanned four decades, Whitehouse became a contentious figure in British society. Her campaigns with CUT, and her formation of the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVLA) in 1965, were based on a belief that the license-fee paying public were like shareholders of the BBC – an opinion still held by many people today.

Bombarding anyone and everyone with letters of outrage at the ‘filth’ being pumped into British homes by the BBC, Whitehouse took issue with almost everything – whether she had witnessed it herself or not. She branded Doctor Who ‘teatime brutality for tots’; she organised rallies against a performance on Saturday Spectacular by The Doors because the band had used ‘obscene language’; she even accused BBC Nationwide presenter Michael Barratt of flicking the V-sign at the camera at the end of a show. Her complaining was ceaseless.

Ban This Filth! fails because it can’t seem to decide whether to ridicule Whitehouse as an old-stick-in-the-mud in the midst of the Swinging Sixties or to elevate her as culturally important. In the end, it does neither.

Whitehouse made herself an easy target for attacks by left-wing writers and comedians. She was often the focus of satire, especially during the wave of 1980s alternative comedy and on the satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image. But even in the early years of her campaigning, the satirising of her was brutal. She was attacked on Sixties comedy shows such as Swizzlewick and ‘Til Death Us Do Part. Thompson seeks to join in this relatively easy satirising of a prim schoolmistress from the West Midlands.

But elsewhere, Thompson does sometimes take his subject seriously. Highlighting in the introduction a correspondence between Lord Hill and Whitehouse in 1972 about The Rolling Stones album, Exile on Main Street, Thompson acknowledges early on that while Whitehouse is frequently viewed as an ‘indefatigable seeker after offence where none need have been taken’, it was also the case that there was much about the period that was indeed degraded. The ‘superficial absurdity’ of her critique, says Thompson, ‘did not preclude the possibility that her hypersensitive moral smoke alarm had detected a real fire’.

In his concluding chapter, Thompson says that ‘as much as we might have complained about her when she was alive, we sort of miss her now she’s gone – like a wobbly tooth or Fabio Capello’. After a 400-page breakdown of her career and activism, by the end of it all even the editor of this collection is unsure how to view her.

However, Thompson does rightly note that the arguments and tactics deployed by Whitehouse are still around today, in various forms. He says ‘the Mumsnet campaigners trying to encourage “girls to be girls” march to the beat of Mary’s drum in a slightly different direction… Where would the frontier anti-tax-avoidance campaigners of UK Uncut be without Whitehouse’s core strategy of making people at the helm of large private or public corporations personally accountable for their decisions?’

These are interesting parallels. But Thompson goes too far when he claims that Mary Whitehouse’s only mission was to be Mary Whitehouse, the embodiment of a tireless, persistent prude in a rapidly changing world. This rather suggests that her outrage was not sincere, that it was simply a reaction to social flux. Yet the fact is that Whitehouse did predict the future correctly sometimes. She seemed to foresee the career of TV chef Gordon Ramsay when she said: ‘Unless something is done and done quickly, we’ll have four-letter words littering our programmes in future, just as “bloody” does now.’ But other things seemed to pass her by. Her skills of perception were clearly lacking when she gave Sir Jimmy Savile an NVLA award for best children’s programme.

Many Whitehouse-style sentiments live on today. For example, there was recently a campaign to remove DJ Nick Grimshaw from his high-profile morning slot on BBC Radio 1 over his apparently late-night, partying lifestyle. There was also Whitehouse-esque moral outrage when this scripted joke was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz: ‘The Tories – putting the N in cuts.’

What seemed to run through both of those cases was a view of licence-fee payers as shareholders in the BBC who should have a say in what is broadcast. Of course, some would argue that insinuating the word ‘cunt’ on a 6.30pm radio show is going too far, but actually, in general the BBC has become more susceptible to censorious pressure and makes increasingly cautious and conservative choices about what to broadcast. For one, it has taken to shifting anything that might be deemed risqué over to its testing-ground TV channel, BBC3. Beyond BBC3, there is very little that is adventurous or daring in the BBC’s output. Perhaps that is something that Whitehouse, and her various, sometimes unwitting heirs, can take credit for.

Whitehouse may be 11 years dead, but it seems she did leave a mark – it’s just that nobody is quite sure what it is. Thompson’s collection seems to have no conclusive answer, either, on the question of whether Whitehouse was a genuine reshaper of society or just a real-life caricature of the archetypal, provincial, postwar Christian right.

Ban This Filth! takes a long look at Whitehouse’s career, and is a useful guide in many ways. But the debate about the true significance of Mary Whitehouse, and how her arguments have been repackaged and re-promoted by new constituencies, will have to continue.

James Howell is a writer living in London. View his website here.

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