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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
BAN THIS FILTH! - SOME
Has Ban This Filth! changed your opinion of Mary
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
At the Birmingham Town Hall Meeting, Mary Whitehouse said that
"we get the television . . . we deserve" (page 40). Do you
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"
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
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.
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.
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
September: The Way of Tea and Justice
by Becca Stevens