“The Queen of Clean”. “The Archangel of Anti-Smut”. Whatever you thought of the campaigner and activist Mary Whitehouse, she was hard to ignore. From her heyday in the 60s until her gradual decline in both relevance and physical faculties in the late 80s, she became the physical embodiment of social conservatism, loudly demanding that “family values” be placed at the heart of the national conversation, and that national evils (including pornography, abortion, swearing, homosexuality and the BBC in general) should be either tamed or dispensed with altogether.
Obituaries trod a fine line between acknowledging and denigrating her
Whitehouse died in 2001, and the obituaries trod a fine line between acknowledging her impact — even, at times, her importance — and denigrating her as someone who was almost driven insane by her campaign to clean up Britain’s screens. The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that one might have assumed was a natural ally, sighed “[she was] seemingly as concerned to eliminate the occasional ‘damn’ or ‘bloody’ as to prevent the worst excesses of pornography or violence” and the Guardian, a long-standing and probably inevitable bête noire, marked her passing by calling her “a self-appointed and much-derided guardian of public morals”, sneered at her “simplistic and nannyish” views and approvingly cited Ned Sherrin’s comment that “If she had been ignored for the last 30 years the world would have been a better place”.
It also, with some reluctance, admitted that “it was possible for many middle-of-the-roaders to think she was just possibly right”. The debate continues as to whether Whitehouse was an oddly prurient figure, whose apparently endless campaigning was dictated by some sort of strange mental imbalance (she boasted about her “direct line to God”, as if the Almighty were responsible for guiding her attempts to rail against the likes of Dennis Potter) or an ahead-of-her-time master of both media relations and social understanding. And now, for some reason, Whitehouse has once again returned to our screens and airwaves, two decades after her death.
The journalist Samira Ahmed recently presented a Radio 4 documentary, Disgusted, Mary Whitehouse, that attempted to ask whether Whitehouse had somehow anticipated the rise of the internet, social media and society’s concomitant, and doomed, attempts to preserve the nation’s innocence amidst the ready availability of virtually every human depravity imaginable at the jab of an eager finger. This was followed by another two-part documentary on television, Banned! The Mary Whitehouse Story, in which various luminaries debated whether Whitehouse was simply a bigot who should best be forgotten about, or if she had a salient point that has, if anything, become more relevant since her death.
Whitehouse was a proudly ignorant figure when it came to art
On the one hand, there is little doubt that Whitehouse was a proudly ignorant and even destructive figure when it came to arts and culture. She refused to watch most of the programmes that she organised campaigns against, announcing, “I have too much respect for my mind,” and declined to consider such things as artistic merit, creative intentions or context. For her, nudity, violence and sex were things that had no place in British public life, and she was happy to roll up her sleeves and lead well-organised campaigns against things that she disapproved of. It was partly because of her that Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange from exhibition in Britain for two decades, and her private prosecutions of Gay News and the director Michael Bogdanov for, respectively, blasphemous libel and staging a homosexual rape scene in The Romans in Britain, were vindictive and viciously closed-minded. The first was successful, the second was not, and its failure in 1983 saw the beginning of her decline from public relevance.
Yet Whitehouse (and her followers) were also treated with sneering condescension by the Establishment, even if she was eventually awarded a CBE in 1980 for her campaigning. Her nemesis was the BBC director-general Sir Hugh Greene (brother of Graham), who ensured during his tenure at the Beeb between 1960 and 1969 that she was unofficially banned from appearing on the corporation’s broadcasts. His personal loathing of her was such that he commissioned a grotesque portrait of her with five breasts, which he would then throw darts at. She described him as “the devil incarnate” and said in 1993, “He is the man I hold most responsible for the state of our country today. For eleven years hardly a week went by without a sniping reference to me. And he gave access to anyone who was prepared to say anything morally subversive. They censored me, while accusing us of wanting to impose censorship on television.”
She reserved an especial loathing for homosexuals and homosexuality
She had a point. Regardless of whether one agreed with Whitehouse, then or now, there was a sense in the higher echelons of society that this loud, demanding woman from Cheshire had to be silenced, for fear of causing embarrassment to the “talent” who were employed within broadcasting. She might have been an aficionado of Dixon of Dock Green, for its moralistic and gentle tone, but virtually everything else, from Dr Who to Eastenders, was criticised by her. She reserved an especial loathing for homosexuals and homosexuality, and would launch campaigns against anything that dared to present them as anything other than black-hearted deviants. But she acted in the confident certainty that her views were shared by millions, who would enthusiastically support her. As the cultural critic Richard Hoggart put it, “the noise of the enthusiastic crowd of followers was, literally, a sort of music to her ears”.
Whitehouse’s conservatism was a basic and unquestioning sort. For her, Britain had been ruined by the tide of progress — she would have been an ardent Brexiteer if she had lived — and it needed the likes of her to stand up against the so-called “liberal values” that only succeeded in poisoning the minds of those unfortunate enough to be exposed to them. She knew her audience, and played them like a Stradivarius. While she got some things spectacularly wrong — she continually extolled the wholesome virtues of Jimmy Savile, long beyond the point that it was generally known what a wrong ‘un he was — she was also prescient in her warnings against paedophilia and child abuse, ensuring that the Protection of Children Act was passed in 1978.
No doubt if Whitehouse were alive today, she would have a vast Twitter following, even as she would spend her days railing against the selfish and vile iniquities perpetuated by the platform’s very existence. She might also be amused by not only being the subject of earnest debate two decades after her death — and four decades after the point of her greatest relevance — but by her private papers being kept in store at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, alongside those of C.S. Lewis, Shelley and T.E. Lawrence, and treated with appropriate reverence by archivists and researchers alike.
She would have twitched with irritation at being kept alongside Lawrence — another homosexual — and would no doubt have been aghast at her inclusion near Philip Larkin, a fellow conservative and Thatcherite who nevertheless stood for virtually everything she hated. But at least it would have proved to her that, far from being a forgotten figure from a thankfully bygone past, she continues to hold an unpredictable but real relevance, whether we like it or not. “Whitehouse, thou should’st be living at this hour.”
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