Culture: Why Mary Whitehouse was right all along
Sunday 18 May 2008
Poor old Mary Whitehouse. Has there ever been a public figure held in more contempt by the chattering classes? Throughout her career, she was regarded as a national joke. Her name was synonymous with everything reactionary about Middle England – a "house-proud town mouse", as she was described in the Pink Floyd song about her. The final nail in her coffin is coming soon in the form of a BBC drama entitled
Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, starring Julie Walters as the vilifier-in-chief herself (pictured).
Of course, I haven't actually watched it, but what more fitting tribute to the woman could there be than attacking a TV programme about her without having seen it? Time and again, the President of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association was asked whether she had watched a show she was criticising, only for her to admit she hadn't. Indeed, she even brought a private prosecution against Michael Bogdanov, the director of The Romans in Britain, without having seen the play.
Nevertheless, I'm pretty confident that Filth... will be less than hagiographic. Whitehouse devoted her life to attacking the BBC and Auntie has shown no restraint in the past in sending her up. In the famous Monty Python election-night satire, John Cleese utters the immortal line, "Mary Whitehouse has taken Umbrage – no surprise there" and there was the BBC comedy show named after her starring David Baddiel, Rob Newman, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis.
Yet for all her obvious shortcomings it is beginning to look as though Mary Whitehouse was right – at least when it came to the artistic impact of granting more latitude to programme-makers. Allowing Britain's TV channels to broadcast more or less what they like after the 9pm watershed has not led to a Golden Age of TV drama, as Whitehouse's opponents believed, but to an explosion of programmes like Torremolinos Uncut. A lowering of standards in one area has led to a dramatic decline across the board, just as she predicted.
On the wider question of whether sex and violence on TV has led to a general moral collapse in society at large, the jury is still out. No one doubts that Western civilization is teetering on the brink – scarcely a day passes without a teenager being stabbed to death in broad daylight – but it is unfair to lay the blame entirely at the feet of BBC2 and Channel 4. Still, I have no doubt that if Mary was alive today, she would be wagging her finger at the metropolitan elite and saying, "I told you so." A prophet is never recognised in her own land.
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