The first time I interviewed Mary Whitehouse was for the Evening Standard in 1965. She
seemed to me a narrow-minded schoolmarm, and after our encounter I wrote a teenagerish attack on her. I was thrilled by the satire boom that had been launched by That Was The Week That Was, and I
loved other shows that she opposed, such as Till Death Us Do Part.
In the event, Charles Wintour, then the Standard’s editor, spiked my article. ‘You haven’t understood the point about Mrs Whitehouse,’ he said. ‘She’s challenged
the system. She has annoyed the hell out of the Director-General of the BBC, [Hugh Carleton Greene]. But she’s got a constituency behind her and she’s making an impact.’
Charles Wintour was a Roy Jenkins liberal who supported the social changes that so dismayed Mrs Whitehouse during the 1960s – the abolition of theatre censorship, the Abortion Act of 1967,
the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 (decriminalising homosexuality), and the Divorce Act of 1969. Wintour in fact adored everything that the 1960s presaged. He sent me off to do to the first interview
with Richard Neville, editor of the magazine Oz, who boasted that ‘the weapons of revolution are obscenity, blasphemy and drugs’. He was also excited by Anthony Burgess’s A
Clockwork Orange (1962), which he serialised in the Evening Standard (Mary Whitehouse excoriated the novel –and the movie – for its gratuitous violence.)
Nevertheless, Wintour possessed journalistic vision to see that Mrs Whitehouse should be taken seriously. Indeed, he believed that Sir Hugh Carleton Greene had made the greatest mistake of his
career in showing nothing but contempt for this puritan crusader on behalf of traditional English values.
As Filth, the entertaining television drama-documentary of Mary Whitehouse’s life, demonstrated, for 20 years after launching her ‘Clean-Up TV’ campaign in 1963, she was
mercilessly tormented by the liberal establishment. She was banned from entering Broadcasting House; indeed her name could not even be mentioned on the air without prior reference to senior
management. The only other person considered so dangerous was Enoch Powell.
A pointed TV skit, ‘Mrs Swizzlewick’, was based on her character. A book she wrote was ritually burned in an episode of Till Death Us Do Part. The Director-General adorned his office
with an obscene painting of her, with a multitude of naked breasts at which he would aim darts. A mocking comedy show, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, was named after her.
Supporters of Gay News organised demonstrations in which posters presented Mary Whitehouse in company with Adolf Hitler, while the mob yelled ‘Whitehouse – Kill! Kill! Kill!’ She
received threats to her life, was repeatedly called a ‘fascist’, and was described as ‘a prostitute’ by the late Ned Sherrin. A porn star changed her name by deed poll to
‘Mary Whitehouse’. (She subsequently committed suicide, lending credence to Mrs Whitehouse’s thesis that the exploitation of sex leads to personal misery.)
And what did Mary do to deserve this persistent calumny? She objected vociferously, and often with a phalanx of viewers and listeners behind her, to the way in which the values of a Christian
Britain she cherished were being undermined by what we would now call ‘a metropolitan elite’. She protested that this country was acquiring an ‘alien’ character, by which
she meant that it was being subverted not by foreign influences, but by a minority cultural elite. There was a class element to her clashes with the BBC, as she led the unsophisticated and
provincial against the elite sophisticates of Oxbridge.
Mary Whitehouse has often been represented as prejudiced, intolerant and homophobic. Yet her attitudes were rather archaic than malicious. She believed, like Sir John Reith in the 1920s and 1930s,
that it was the duty of the BBC to ‘edify’ the nation, rather than to roll back the boundaries of decency. Similarly, she attacked the Royal National Theatre for producing a play like
The Romans in Britain, which included a scene of anal rape, which Sir Peter Hall rather pompously said was necessary to symbolise the penetration of Britain by Imperial Rome.
She claimed repeatedly that she was not hostile to homosexuals; she was unable, however, to accept that they were morally equivalent to heterosexuals. Equally, she protested against premarital
intercourse and the sexual exploitation of children. In public entertainment she crusaded against violence, rape, full-frontal nudity, coarse language, and smoking and drinking.
Mrs Whitehouse did indeed protest too much; she saw slights against decency in everything, and especially took personally insults against Jesus Christ. Some of her complaints were just silly: she
criticised a Beatles song in the Magical Mystery Tour because it contained the line “You’ve been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down”. She deprecated the innuendo in the
sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum: and thought Top of the Pops ‘anti-authority’. She disliked Cathy Come Home because she thought it Left-wing propaganda, which she thought all part of
the BBC’s agenda.
Yet despite her over-statement and misjudged targets Mary Whitehouse was a significant figure. Some of her battles were justified, even prophetic. Today her attacks on ‘kiddie porn’
would be widely supported. In the late 1970s paedophilia was regarded by some as a valid ‘sexual orientation’, while the Paedophile Information Exchange was associated with the National
Council for Civil Liberties. Piquantly, Natalie Walter, daughter of the anarchist and atheist Nicholas Walter, a fierce enemy of Mrs Whitehouse, has recently written Living Dolls, a denunciation of
the sexualisation of young girls.
Mary Whitehouse’s views on pornography and rape have also been endorsed by feminists. When I encountered her again in the early 1980s, at a Cambridge Union debate where she inveighed against
the degradation of women by pornography, a group in the audience raised their clenched fists and shouted ‘Right on, Mary.’
The opinion, supported by several experts in the 1960s and 1970s, that sadistic pornography afforded an ‘aid to masturbation’, would hardly be accepted today; no more would the opinions
of Dr Brian Richards, who claimed in 1975 that a picture of a pointed sword and a cat o’ nine tails striking at a chained naked woman’s genitals was ‘for the public good’,
being ‘therapeutic’. Mary Whitehouse’s opposition to the pornographic film Inside Linda Lovelace proved amply justified when, years later, it emerged that the actress had been
coerced into a form of sex slavery during the making of the film. (Sir John Mortimer, having earlier defended Gay News against Mrs Whitehouse’s charge of blasphemy, pleaded for the film
company in the case of Linda Lovelace.)
Furthermore, Mary Whitehouse’s insistence that the BBC should be accountable to its public is now widely accepted. It is also today thought undesirable to offend religious sensibilities,
especially if they are Islamic. One wonders whether Geoffrey Robinson, QC, would now be as eager to defend a poem about a Roman centurion’s homosexual desire for the Prophet Muhammad, as he
was in 1977 to perform the same service on behalf of James Kirkup’s verses on the centurion’s longing for Christ.
Had she lived to see her centenary on 13 June, Mary Whitehouse would have been saddened by many aspects of our culture. The trends against which she struggled so valiantly – the dominance of
secularism, the exaltation of violence, the explicit portrayal of sex, and the acceptance of coarse language – all persist.
All the same, and perhaps much to Mrs Whitehouse’s credit, many conservative values have endured and returned again in freshened livery. The kitchen-sink dramas which the BBC propagated in
the 1960s have given way to wall-to-wall Jane Austen, and the flurry of bonnets in Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford.