Bath Literature Festival: Did Mary Whitehouse have a point when it came to ‘filth’? asks Ben Thompson

 

Mary Whitehouse was not only a censorious zealot and a thorn in the side of the BBC but she was also a pioneer who pre-empted the Internet age and became a master of image-making, an audience heard today at The Independent Bath Literature Festival.

Ben Thomspon, whose book, Ban This Filth!, focuses on Whitehouse’s fervent letter writing career, said her legacy had been reappraised in recent times to reveal a ruthless, fame-grabbing and sometimes flirtatious woman who was ahead of her time.

"She would take letters out of context, even letters of support, and play off [for example] the director general of the BBC with its chairman. There was a disregard of the facts and of propriety. You could say this unscrupulousness was ahead of its time,” said Mr Thompson.

She was not the humble housewife who was reluctantly forced to take a stance against so-called obscenities and moral outrages on British television, he added, but someone who cleverly spun her own image. She had given up teaching by the early ‘60s and was working as a freelance journalist, sometimes writing anonymously, before she launched her prominent ‘Clean Up TV’ campaign in the 1964.

“She was an absolute fame-hound. She would never do anything without a press briefing. She loved to go onto David Frost [TV show] and he was a key figure in her story. He introduced her as a showbiz figure,” said Mr Thompson.

Pioneeringly, she pre-empted the speed and methods of Internet protests, mobilising dynamic signature collecting campaigns that now seem like precursors to the Internet. One of her most impressive petitions was to continue the Queen’s Christmas broadcast for which she collected a million signatures and presented them to Buckingham Palace wrapped in a red, white and blue ribbon.

A figure of fun among Britain’s youth and media contingent, Whitehouse did not do anything to rectify the image of herself as a comic figure, launching vitriolic attacks on Alice Cooper’s title track of his 1972 album, ‘School’s Out’, for being a bad influence on children (Cooper sent her a bunch of flowers as thanks for the publicity), and another campaign against Chuck Berry for the implied obscenity in his 1972 song, My Ding-A-Ling.

In fact, she even capitalised on this aspect of her public persona. “She was a great comic character, sort of unwittingly but not entirely. She knew, on some level, what was funny about her and played up to it.”

Mr Thompson’s research was based on a letter archive housed at the University of Essex in 300 box files, which clearly reflects her love of publicity and her ever-readiness to embrace the limelight. She spent years writing her autobiography in six volumes, thereby also pre-empting the current trend among celebrities to write memoirs in a multi-volumed capacity. “Mary Whitehouse was dashing out memoirs even before she’d done anything,” said Mr Thompson. “Then she would update them… She almost anticipated the celebrity memoir to not get the whole story out, but to tell it in many volumes.”

Most poignantly, Thompson found an extended correspondence between Whitehouse and the former BBC chair, Sir Michael Swann, which read as an almost romance. “There was a crackle of flirtation in their correspondence, which got caught up in this strange romantic dance. They were almost love letters.”

The letters ended abruptly after Sir Michael felt stung by Whitehouse’s methods in which she played off one BBC executive against another, and he passed on all future correspondence to his secretary. Whitehouse continued to write him anguished letters expressing personal betrayal.

Some of Whitehouse’s campaigns which were dismissed as reactionary have since become relevant, Mr Thompson concluded, such as her anti-pornography campaign which was derided by many as left-field then. “She is a figure who was perceived as representing the past but who in recent times, people are more inclined to think that perhaps we need to look at what she was saying and what is relevant in it.” 

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders