One of the more telling scenes in Filth: the Mary Whitehouse Story showed the housewife campaigner saying goodbye to a television crew after giving an interview about her Clean Up TV campaign. As the reporter and the sound man straggled down the garden path, Mary turned to her husband, Ernest, and said with quiet satisfaction, "Well, we're winning." And then we cut, out of her earshot, to the man from the telly unleashing a volley of obscenities at his hapless colleague because he'd neglected to hold the gate open for him. Not just the b's and the d's that would have so agitated Mrs Whitehouse at the time, either, but the f's and the c's that she might have hoped would remain permanently unthinkable. And what was intriguing about this little vignette was that it had one foot inside the drama and one foot outside it. It was a detail that told us how protectively isolated Whitehouse was from the day-to-day reality of much of Sixties Britain. But it was also a little spasm of triumph addressed specifically to a 2008 audience. Oh, no, she didn't win, it said, because just listen to what we can get away with now.
It was – in the terms that Whitehouse helped to introduce to the discussion of television – an oddly gratuitous burst of bad language. But Amanda Coe, the writer of this entertaining yet unsatisfying account of Whitehouse's moral crusade, could perhaps be forgiven for this sudden convulsion of resistance. She probably needed to get the crick out of her spine, having spent much of the drama bending over backwards not to be unfair to Mary. That was always going to be the biggest challenge for a BBC film about one of the corporation's most assiduous and unflagging critics, and it was one that the makers of Filth met in two ways. The first was to cast Julie Walters as Whitehouse, instantly turning her from nagging prig into a specimen of cherishable British eccentricity. This Mary was certainly innocent: she actually dropped the teapot when she heard an announcer uttering the words "premarital sex". But her innocence was presented as rather sweet. As she checked through her pupils' artwork, it was obvious to her long-suffering husband that every abstract was phallic in form, but she saw only composition and colour, an implicit repudiation of the charge that she was dirty-minded enough to see dirt everywhere. She was even shown turning amorously to Ernest in the marital bed, a scene that was simultaneously a charitable rounding-out of her character and her own worst nightmare.
The second solution was to make Whitehouse's great opponent in the early days of the campaign, the liberalising BBC director-general Hugh Carleton Greene, into a caricature of corporation arrogance, lecherous in the office and coldly abusive at home. "Pass the marmalade," he said to his wife at breakfast. "What's the magic word?" she asked. "Pass the fucking marmalade," he replied coldly. Greene's ambition to get a bit of fresh air into a fusty organisation was acknowledged, rather thuddingly, in a scene where he clambered on to a desk during a meeting to yank the window open and let in a gale that sent papers scattering across the room. But his refusal to even discuss Whitehouse's views still came across badly, a patrician loftiness about an interfering housewife that managed to be sexist and condescending and snobbish all at once. There was far more to Greene than that, and the politics were a good deal more interesting than they were allowed to appear here. Curiously, in the end, Coe's drama had the effect of neutralising both its protagonists: softening the moral outrage of one into an Ealing-comedy display of provincial indomitability and reducing the social boldness of the other to mere metropolitan high-handedness. I suppose it could be counted as a triumph of BBC balance.
That Mary Whitehouse might have had some kind of point is difficult to deny when you find yourself knee-deep in the bilge of the modern television freak show. God knows what she would have made of My Car Is My Lover: Strangelove, the first of a Five two-parter on bizarre sexual obsessions. This first episode centred mostly on Edward, a cheerful American who has an intimate physical relationship with a Volkswagen Beetle called Vanilla, and has posted explicit pictures of their couplings on a specialist website for "mechaphiles", or men who like having sex with their cars. I wasn't entirely convinced we needed to see these to understand the oddity of Edward's psychosexual wiring, or, for that matter, the scene in which he was caught exercising his clutch control against the hubcap of a fellow mechaphile's car. But I suppose there are viewers out there who would feel cheated if they didn't get the money shot. For the rest of us, the solution remains that was offered so often to Mrs Whitehouse. Just switch off.