The Mary Whitehouse Effect
Africa Make Some Noise!
For her account of the public career of the anti-permissiveness campaigner Mary Whitehouse (Archive on Four, 5 June, 8pm), Joan Bakewell adopted the tone of a cultural warrior commemorating a redoubtable and worthy opponent. Whitehouse was "resolute and passionate", Bakewell said. "She inspired fear," said Geoffrey Robertson, QC. "She could have been a great Hollywood star," said the former BBC producer Anthony Smith. Which might be rather pushing it.
“God's Rottweiler" was a schoolmistress from Nuneaton, Warwickshire, who set up the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association in 1965 to campaign against "the propaganda of disbelief, doubt and dirt that the BBC projects into millions of homes". Among the agents of this propaganda were Jimi Hendrix ("He slid his hands up and down the long neck of the instrument for no apparent reason"), Doctor Who, Alf Garnett and The Wednesday Play. Any programme that attempted to represent the spirit of the times was countered by haranguing letters from Whitehouse and her supporters ("I counted 40 bloodies, 11 bloody hells, five buggers, one bugger off, two arses, one pig's arse, two ballses, four bastards . . .").
I'm as much a fan of doubt, disbelief and dirt as the next man, but all the same I was surprised to find myself warming to Whitehouse during the first part of the programme. Perhaps this was because most of its contributors seemed to belong to the same class as those 1960s Oxbridge-educated BBC mandarins who thought, as the journalist Mary Kenny put it: "Who's this common little woman from the Midlands telling us what to think or what to say or what to put out?"
Kenny was the only one to give any sympathetic insight into Whitehouse, which was when this listener's warmth abruptly chilled.
If Whitehouse had done nothing - if she had not listed examples of "bad" language in BBC programmes, not launched a blasphemy lawsuit against Gay News for publishing a poem that imagined a homosexual Jesus, not tried to ban the Alice Cooper song "School's Out" - she would have been, she believed, a guilty bystander to Christ's crucifixion.
In the latter part of her career, Whitehouse became both a celebrity and an institutional figure of fun. But, as Bakewell glumly pointed out, her old adversary had many successes, some of them posthumous. The Religious Hatred Act 2006 proscribes utterances that cause religiously aggravated alarm or distress. And, in a bizarre echo of those slightly mad tallies of bloodies and bastards and ballses, all BBC producers now have to fill out a five-page compliance form listing every offensive word in their programmes.
Whitehouse mourned the post-1960s BBC as having fallen away from its high Reithian mission to educate and inform. So she may have approved of DJ Edu's overview of contemporary African music (7 June, 9pm). It is, as Edu admitted, impossible to make any general remarks about a continent that contains a billion people and more than 1,000 languages. Nonetheless, his programme gave a useful taste of some fine artists (K'naan, Emmanuel Jal) and did reach conclusions, if at times implicit ones.
“You can feel the love when you come here, man," said the Senegalese-American rapper Akon. "Not only that, but the money's really good, too . . . you get paid three times more."