You’d have to shoot really, really hard to say anything good about Britain’s ghastly wannabe morality watchdog, Mary Whitehouse, who for several decades was an unpleasant thorn in the side of the BBC in particular and liberal causes in general.
he best that Forbidden! The Story of Mary Whitehouse (BBC2, Tuesday) was able to highlight how she was ahead of the curve in her view that pornography is a male-dominated industry that exploits women and children.
Twenty years after Whitehouse’s death, with the Internet saturated with porn far more misogynistic than anything found in the erotic magazines, blue movies, and seedy Soho sex clubs of the 1970s when its public notoriety was at its peak, one has to to admit that she was right.
But even a stopped clock is correct twice a day. As the first episode of producer-director Hannah Berryman’s superb two-part documentary has shown, the tiny positives of Whitehouse are far outweighed by the many negatives.
The smug self-confidence. The narrow-mindedness. The intolerance. The homophobia. The anti-feminism. Anti-intellectualism.
A teacher by trade, Whitehouse has been ridiculed her entire life as a prudish and meddlesome busybody, and there’s no doubt she’s earned both titles.
A few former students recalled how she once gave her class a sex education class without ever using the word sex.
But beneath the dowdy hats and severe horn-rimmed glasses was something truly sinister at work: a particularly pernicious strain of Christian ultraconservatism trying to turn back the clock of social progress.
In the pre-war years, long before she became a central England icon and a punching bag for liberal comedy writers, Whitehouse was heavily involved in the right-wing moral rearmament movement.
Forbidden! drew on Whitehouse’s vast personal archive (she never threw anything away) at the University of Essex, a wonderful collection of old clips and an excellent cast of talking heads to trace her rise from being an ordinary Midlands housewife, like writer Ben Thomas put it: “the avenging angel of central England”.
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If there was a notable lack of dissenting voices, it’s probably because there’s only ever been one true voice: Whitehouse’s own.
The original Clean Up TV campaign, which it launched in 1963 and later grandly renamed the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, attracted a following of middle-aged to older biddies and fokeys, as well as some retired establishment types with letters after their names.
But Whitehouse was ruthless in getting rid of anyone who might steal her limelight. It was always, as one contributor put it, just “Mary and her typewriter” that incessantly fired off letters of complaint to the BBC about the “smut” it was broadcasting.
That filth included the controversial piece Up the intersection. Its director, Ken Loach, recalled that Whitehouse’s outraged squeal before it aired “was by far the best publicity we’ve ever had.” Ten million tuned in.
Whitehouse’s main opponent in the 1960s was the brilliant BBC director-general Hugh Greene, a modernizer who insisted that the BBC should reflect changes in society.
After seeing totalitarianism first-hand during World War II, he loathed anything that represented the repressive White House. He handles their complaints about everything Until death do us part for the 1968 Christmas broadcast of The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour (She requested the I am the walrus Poetry ‘Boy you’ve been a naughty girl you put your knickers down’ was cut out with contempt, refusing to let her within a mile of a BBC studio. That changed after Greene retired in 1969.
Forbidden! has depicted all of this in fantastic detail, as well as Whitehouse’s involvement in the Festival of Light – a mass rally of conservative Christians including Malcolm Muggeridge and Cliff Richard which was hilariously disrupted by the Gay Liberation Front – and her association with the absurd Lord Longford for one War on Pornography, which included a surreal fact-finding mission in the sex clubs of Denmark.
Whitehouse deserved to be laughed at, but there was nothing funny about her despicable agenda.
More next week.
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/television/tv-reviews/meddling-mary-whitehouse-gets-a-deserved-demonising-41500153.html Mary Whitehouse’s interference is deservedly demonized