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Mary Whitehouse, a useful counterweight

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

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)

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide