IoS book review: Ban This Filth: Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archieve, Ed Ben Thompson

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

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The Independent Culture

From the 1960s until her death 11 years ago, Mary Whitehouse's typewriter produced a steady flow of humourless complaints addressed to prime ministers, MPs and BBC director-generals of the BBC, about the moral degradation of Britain. She became a figure of mockery (Spitting Image had a puppet of her) for her objections to Jimi Hendrix tonguing his guitar, sex outside marriage, and swearing on the Wednesday Play. "Twenty-five 'bloody' expletives, six 'damns', two 'blasts' and two coarse expressions," she noted tersely in one letter.

Ben Thompson's Ban This Filth brings together a selection of her correspondence with an engaging analysis of how Whitehouse waged her puritanical war against, primarily, the BBC. Her chief antagonist was Hugh Greene, the director general in the 1960s, who shifted the corporation away from its Reithian remit towards the vanguard of a liberal modern Britain, and put pop and satire, Beatles films and Till Death Us Do Part at the heart of its schedules.

Whitehouse's horror was echoed by many who wrote in to her National Viewers and Listeners Association to complain that their Christian values were being undermined by the broadcaster. And the more Greene dismissed her complaints, the more her power hardened.

But she did not only represent the housewife; she also found herself allied with feminists when she challenged liberalised attitudes to pornography. "Right on, Mary," they used to cry. Even Dennis Potter, whose controversial treatments of religion and sexuality were obvious targets for Whitehouse, came to respect her. Potter saw her as "standing up for all the people with ducks on their walls who have been laughed at and treated like rubbish by the sophisticated metropolitan majority".

That Whitehouse was lampooned by liberals and treated with disdain by the BBC managerial classes shows that she hit a nerve. With the unfolding of the Jimmy Savile scandal over the past month (the DJ/presenter being a product of Greene's BBC), one wonders whether a dose of Whitehouse morality might have helped the broadcaster on its course. That said, Whitehouse did give Savile her association's award for wholesome family television.