Mary Whitehouse, a useful counterweight

Ban This Filth! Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive - review.

Mary Whitehouse in 1972
Mary Whitehouse in 1972. Photograph: Getty Images

Ban This Filth! Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive
Edited by Ben Thompson
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £16.99

Twenty years ago, the hippest programme on British television was called The Mary Whitehouse Experience. It had no connection with Mary Whitehouse but its title was inspired. In 1992, the mere suggestion that this prim school - mistress might disapprove of a TV programme was enough to make it trendy. How times have changed. Now that every conceivable depravity is only a mouse-click away, you can’t help wondering if Whitehouse was on to something. Was the liberal intelligentsia wrong to mock her? Do we owe her a posthumous apology? Would an online version of her National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association actually be quite a good idea?

Rather than writing a standard biography of the Boadicea of the “Clean Up TV” campaign, Ben Thompson has hit upon the bright idea of annotating the letters (and various other documents) from her extensive archive, held at Essex University. Along the way, he cracks some good jokes, pays several visits to Pseuds Corner and uncovers some wonderful Freudian typos (“appealling” – presumably a conflation of “appealing” and “appalling”’). The result is a netcurtain-twitching cultural history, from the wide-eyed advent of the “permissive society” to the jaded pornotopia of today.

As the storm surrounding Jimmy Savile reminds us, there was plenty to complain about on TV in Whitehouse’s heyday. Unfortunately, her ire was mainly directed at programmes that were really rather good, such as Dennis Potter’s plays, Till Death Us Do Part and, er, Doctor Who. She didn’t approve of Benny Hill but she called The Black and White Minstrel Show “delightful”.

Even so, this fascinating book shows she was no fool. She had a coherent philosophy – that the moral values of the BBC (and other broadcasters) were out of step with the silent majority whom she presumed to represent. Before cable and satellite, a handful of terrestrial channels set the agenda for the nation. For her generation, TV wasn’t a matter of choice. A lot of her protests were wrong-headed and deserved to be rebutted but it was fitting that these trendsetters were challenged to justify their output. It’s just a pity her complaints always came from the right, rather than the left.

As Thompson illustrates, Whitehouse was a consummate campaigner. Her opinions were reactionary but her grasp of PR was profound. Ironically for someone who found so much to disapprove of in the mass media, her manipulation of modern communications was masterly. She played the no-nonsense Everywoman to perfection, a rebel in a twinset fighting a guerrilla war against a metropolitan elite (Thompson draws some intriguing parallels between her suburban agitprop and the DIY ethic of punk). Her criticisms of art-house movies were often comical but her concerns about pornography were progressive. By the time her provincial doppelgänger Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, radical feminists had adopted her as an unlikely heroine.

What drove Whitehouse wasn’t conservatism or feminism but Christian fundamentalism. She believed in chastity before marriage and fidelity within it. Her attitude to homo - sexuality was similarly puritanical. “Hers was homophobia in the literal sense – not hatred, but fear,” writes Thompson. These beliefs were central to her faith and she believed that the state broadcaster should promote them, rather than airing material that undermined them. “I was doing what I believed God wanted me to do,” she writes.

With hindsight, her private prosecution of Gay News for blasphemous libel has acquired a prophetic quality, anticipating the religious revival that’s gathered momentum since her death in 2001. A plaque in the foyer of Broadcasting House reads, “This temple of the arts and muses is dedicated to Almighty God.” As Thompson observes, Whitehouse expected the BBC to take this dedication literally. It was an unfashionable point of view but it had a blinkered logic.

A writer on modern music and comedy, Thompson is hardly a natural ally of Whitehouse but he presents both sides of the debate with a (fairly) straight face. As exasperated TV execs parry her endless complaints, his book almost ends up reading like a collection of spoof letters written by the twin sister of Henry Root. Looking back, Whitehouse seems more like a work of fiction – the Dame Edna Everage of the West Midlands Bible Belt.

Yet although she was a nuisance, she performed a useful function as an ideological counterweight, especially at the BBC. All her objections to BBC programmes, however irrational, were underpinned by an entirely rational manifesto: that the licence fee makes us all shareholders and that BBC staff should be accountable to the viewers, who are forced to pay their wages. Far from nurturing a left-wing bias, the BBC is an intrinsically conservative institution. When, for a few brief years, the left was on the rise, it probably needed a right-wing busybody to keep it on its toes. Now the right has resumed control, it needs a Whitehouse of the left.

William Cook is the editor of “Kiss Me, Chudleigh: the World According to Auberon Waugh” (Coronet, £19.95)