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The ‘puritan punk’ with perm and specs

05 June 2015

Angela Tilby remembers Mary Whitehouse, and introduces a look at her prophetic legacy


Swinging Sixties? Mary Whitehouse outside the House of Commons in 1965 with her petition from "The Residents of Bromsgrove & other places" praying that "The BBC be asked to make a radical change of policy and produce programmes which build character instead of destroying"

Swinging Sixties? Mary Whitehouse outside the House of Commons in 1965 with her petition from "The Residents of Bromsgrove & other places" prayi...

MARY WHITEHOUSE's long campaign to fight "the propaganda of disbelief, doubt, and dirt" that she believed was ruining Britain was based on her extraordinary and tireless ability to use words to fight her corner - words that were often as explicit, shocking, and unwelcome as those she frequently criticised on the BBC and elsewhere. This skilfully edited collection of her correspondence reveals the relentless verbal pugilism that drove her opponents to despair.

Feminists would not count her as one of their own, and yet she took on the men who ran the BBC in the 1960s and '70s. Regarding themselves as the guardians of culture, and anxious to push boundaries, they had nothing but contempt for this middle-class housewife with her perm and specs and collections of protesting signatures from "ordinary" people.

Yet she challenged them relentlessly, always prepared to write 12 letters when one would do. As a humble radio producer in the 1970s, I remember the shock of answering the phone one Sunday lunchtime to the words "This is Mary Whitehouse". Panic! It took the BBC a decade to come to terms with Mary, and eventually a reluctant truce emerged - perhaps significantly, at about the same time as women were beginning to take on senior responsibilities in broadcasting.

Ban this Filth!, Ben Thompson's portrait-through-letters, is even-handed, even when he plays the correspondence for (not always funny) laughs. My favourite letter is from Martin Esslin, in 1971 Head of Drama, Radio, who defends the dialogue of a controversial radio play with the argument that it was just what you would expect from "rough and ready northerners". No cultural elitism there, then.

Of course, in Mary's world, sex lurked everywhere. Homosexuality was a catastrophe waiting to happen in every home. The young deserved protection. Most of them, she believed, really wanted to live "clean and straight"; but what chance was there when television poured filth into their homes every night?

In her career of campaigning, at first through the "Clean Up TV" campaign and then through the National Viewers and Listeners Association, Mary developed remarkable political and leadership skills, and ended up as something of a celebrity - even a gay icon. It is now possible to see that some of those who took issue with her - such as Doreen Millington, who was persuaded to change her name to Mary Whitehouse in order to launch a porn magazine - were themselves victims of the tidal wave of pornography about which she protested so stridently, and which now engulfs our children through the internet.


AS THE letters make clear, Mary never had the unqualified support she wanted from the Churches. There is some mildly gushing and flirty correspondence with individual church leaders, but on the whole the Churches preferred to keep out of it. One of the most painful exchanges quoted here is with John Oliver (subsequently Bishop of Hereford), who had, with other clergy, refused to sign up to Mary's anti-pornography ("Stoporn Now") campaign in 1980.

What liberal churchmen hated was her lack of nuance and unashamed populism. They were probably also affronted that a lay woman presumed to speak for the Christian majority, and in such a militant tone. She never got much official church support for her campaigns against blasphemy, although her victory over Gay News in 1977 was one of her greatest triumphs.

Hindsight and distance have allowed secular critics including Ben Thompson to see her as a more interesting and rounded figure than the familiar caricature.

Although her cultural critique was often narrow and prejudiced, she had an almost feral instinct for the self-destructive tendencies that the liberalisation of society has unintentionally encouraged.

She was, in fact, a superb tabloid communicator: a puritan punk. She believed that society had betrayed itself by rejecting Christian moral standards. The fact that she was mocked in her time is one of the ironies we live with; for, as Thompson hints, those who rant against "filth" and blasphemy today are much more dangerous, and possess more terrifying weapons than words and letters.


The Revd Angela Tilby was a BBC producer for 22 years. She is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford. 

Ban This Filth! Mary Whitehouse and the battle to keep Britain innocent, edited by Ben Thompson, is published by Faber at £9.99 (£9); 978-0-571-28151-0.



Has Ban This Filth! changed your opinion of Mary Whitehouse?


To what extent do you think that Mary Whitehouse was "an anti-establishment figure" (page 5)?


What did you make of the tone with which Ben Thompson dealt with Whitehouse's battles? 


At the Birmingham Town Hall Meeting, Mary Whitehouse said that "we get the television . . . we deserve" (page 40). Do you agree? 


What part, do you think, did Mary Whitehouse's gender play in her career as a campaigner?


Did the book lead you to appreciate "the Poetry of Prurience" (page 194)? 


How convincing did you find Thompson's description of Mary Whitehouse's career as "a kind of Evangelical Christian performance art" (page 172)? 


Mary Whitehouse wrote: "On the question of taste and morality there is surely a close relationship" (page 327). How far do you think this is true?


Did you share Thompson's impression that "Mary Whitehouse's campaigning activities were an expression of her own creativity as much as of deeply held religious convictions" (page 318)?


Mary Whitehouse accused the Church of "abdication in the face of intellectual/humanistic control of the media" (page 313). What part do you think the Church should play as a critic of culture? 


What did this book make you think about "the capacity to be enriched by someone you disagree with" (page 400)?


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 July, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. It is published by Vintage at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-09928-566-3.


Book notes

Cider with Rosie is "a wonderfully vivid memoir of childhood in a remote Cotswold village, a village before electricity or cars, a timeless place on the verge of change". It evokes the characters and countryside, sights, sounds, and smells of the author's infancy and adolescence; and conjures up a world that was about to vanish for ever.

Cider with Rosie has never been out of print since it was first published in 1959, has sold more than six million copies, and is widely regarded as a classic of English literature.


Author notes

Laurie Lee was born in Stroud in Gloucestershire in 1914, and educated locally. When he was 19, he walked first to London and then through Spain (as described in his second volume of autobiography, As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning). A poet, journalist, and author, he died in May 1997.


Books for the next two months:

August: Acts and Omissions by Catherine Fox

September: The Way of Tea and Justice by Becca Stevens

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