SURELY she can’t have been right all along? Banned: The Mary Whitehouse story (BBC 2, Tuesday of last week, first episode of two) described an astonishing arc. For most of its 60 minutes, it clearly sided with her opponents, and then concluded by opening the door to the most damning (for the BBC) possibility: might she possibly have been a far-sighted prophet?
It is fascinating, documenting a far-off time whose social and moral convulsions continue to echo in our lives today. In 1963, respectable women naturally turned up to popular meetings in village or town hall, wearing hat and gloves; an organisation with huge national membership was in no need of a constitution or properly elected officials.
But Mrs Whitehouse was the only secondary-school art teacher to galvanise and lead a UK-wide movement. Her achievement probably had the opposite effect from that intended: seeing her explicit crusade as a rally against everything “belittling or destroying a Christian way of life” reinforced the polarity against which evangelisation still struggles. She encouraged popular thinking that Christians set themselves up against everything that is popular, contemporary, and pleasurable. Hers was a matrix of confrontation and condemnation.
Perhaps, though, this stance was forced on her by the enemy: the BBC under its then director-general, Sir Hugh Greene, who deliberately fostered a policy of broadcasting challenging and uncomfortable programmes. He was determined to reflect the “new morality” of the 1960s, using the BBC as a tool to force change — and treated her with patronising contempt.
She tried to strengthen censorship, to ban pornographic magazines and films that she believed promoted violence and promiscuity — doing so out of care for the children and vulnerable, whom she considered greatly damaged by such productions. At the time, this seemed laughable, reactionary; today, in our hyper-sexualised society, far more aware of how pornography destroys women’s lives, we might thank this programme for its unfashionable re-evaluation.
What could be more appropriate for Lent than a series promoting radical Giving Up? In Channel 4’s The Simpler Life (22 March, first of six episodes), two dozen British urbanites, used to every modern comfort, relinquish gas, electricity, and mobile phones, and take over a Devon farm to live the Amish life under the tutelage of a genuine family from Ohio. The glaring gap is that the Amish base themselves entirely on Christian faith — and this element is entirely missing. But, despite that, it is well worth watching, as we follow those who thrive under the severe discipline — and those finding the challenge of community living unbearable — and imagine how we would measure up to the challenge.