TELEVISION / Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Allison Pearson
Saturday 28 May 1994 23:02

ALL NAKED posteriors looked the same to Mary Whitehouse. Whether pumping with a dramatic purpose (The Singing Detective) or crudely stuck in to waylay the passing viewer (anything by Andrea Newman), bottoms up always got the thumbs down. Of course, not knowing your arse from your elbow has never been a barrier to entering British public life, but an inability to distinguish between your arse and your arts could be seen as a weakness in the moral guardian of the nation's television.

The Mary Whitehouse Story (BBC2) marked the retirement of the 84-year-old head of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association. Archive footage showed its subject - a boucle-knit armadillo - petitioning No 10 while her Seventies 'hit list' danced across the screen to an unfavourite tune ('My Ding-a-Ling'). I Claudius came before Alice Cooper; The Exorcist just after that notorious work of the devil, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. These juxtapositions were as finely judged as everything else in Clare Bevan's film. Eloquent witnesses - Jeremy Isaacs, Richard Hoggart - pointed out how Mrs Whitehouse's Nimptys (Not in My Parlour Thank You) wanted to clean up TV although their real target was wider social freedom of which the medium was merely the messenger. More eloquent still was the scene where two ladies - the superbly named Mary Crabtree and Sheila Sturdy - revisited Birmingham Town Hall, scene of the NVLA's first meeting. As 'Jerusalem' parped on the soundtrack, we eavesdropped: 'My own impression is that sex seemed to be the more pressing problem.' 'But sex always leads to violence.' 'Yes, it does.' And there I was thinking it leads to pleasure, babies even.

Cartoonists always adored Mary Whitehouse because, like them, she thought in black and white. There was nice and there was not nice. Life, sadly, is not so well-defined; mortality not a pretty sight. Isaacs, a former Panorama editor, recalled the letter he got from Whitehouse after he repeated Richard Dimbleby's great report from Belsen. It was disgraceful, she wrote, that this 'filth' had been allowed on screen. 'It was bound to shock and offend.' Indeed it was: all those Jews dead and not a stitch on. The older Whitehouse, eyes still beady behind wild-swan specs, was asked to explain herself: 'I think it's an awful intrusion. And it's very off-putting.' All words fail to describe the Holocaust, but few have failed quite so spectacularly as 'off-putting'.

In the week that the ITC rebuked several ITV companies for their shoddy output, it was sad to reflect that Whitehouse had not been barking, merely barking up the wrong rotten tree. Her outrage should have been reserved for people like the senior ITV drama executive who recently greeted a new script with that key creative question: 'Does she get her kit off?'

The ITC did not go far enough; it fell short of attacking the Government which auctioned the franchises as if they were funfair rides. Moral: if you employ dodgem operators, you make people sick. The commission's sniffy criticisms belong to the old world where commissioning could be imagination, not market led. It noted that some South Bank Shows were 'more superficial than might be expected'. Wrong. The arts flagship's output is less superficial than might be expected, given it is fighting for its life while being shunted back so far into the night Melvyn Bragg could soon end up on the GMTV sofa.

The old ITV might have risked putting The Windsors, Phillip Whitehead's classy if fruitily overwritten documentary series, out at 9 not 10.45pm. But there is no room for it in a primetime crawling with crowd-pleasers like The Day I Nearly Drowned My Granny to Get on Telly. Whitehead's more sensational revelations - sex, drugs and George V letting the Russians butcher his cousins to save his own bacon - were all exposed with pungent economy by Christopher Hurd on C4 recently. But the real pleasures here are incidental - ancient, sleeting film of Queen Alexandra's funeral cortege snaking inkily down a snowy Mall, a battalion of Royal biographers dispensing euphemisms like amontillado: 'He was not an in-tee-leck-chewall.' Seeing Edward VIII, a man who combined the dapper camp of Are You Being Served?'s Mr Humphries with the poisoned petulance of Richard Attenborough's Pinkie in Brighton Rock, and his siblings, made you realise how lucky we are. They made the present incumbents look like the Waltons.

More bizarrely, modern royalty is also a beneficiary of The House of Windsor (ITV). You have to feel sorry for them after watching Russell T Davies's comedy of no-manners at Buckingham Palace. Filmed 48 hours before transmission, the show can shoehorn in the Wales's wiles of the week and boasts of its topicality. Unwise, given the historic jokes. The punchline to the one about the Princess of Wales's lifesaving - 'It's normally Edward who goes for a tramp in the woods' - appeared to my certain knowledge in the 1973 Armada Book of Fun. Leslie Phillips as Palace press supremo, Lord Montague Bermondsey, reprises his recent blithering toff in Honey For Tea, and is in danger of turning his career's Indian summer into a wet weekend. Warren Clarke, who plays tabloid toe-rag Max Kelvin, should also be more choosy. House of Windsor is low treason: for the stars it's not so much a case of off with their heads as off their heads.

Clarke turns up again in Jack Rosenthal's Moving Story (ITV), this time with some great lines and a van of furniture to deliver. Rosenthal has already written about the work of removal men in The Chain, and rightly returns to it here, recognising a marvellous comic vehicle for exploring British life. Shifting customers from Kensington and Kilburn, Bamber (Clarke) and the Elite Removals' boys can provide an inside view of the upwardly and downwardly mobile. Rosenthal has a terrific ear for human aspiration struggling to get out through the thicket of the English language. Bamber (nicknamed after Gascoigne, 'cleverest man in the universe') has aspirations to Mastermind and is getting acquainted with the great philosophers, although not yet on first-name terms. Aristotle is still easily confused with that Des Cartez.

Bamber is such a richly drawn eccentric that his juniors could usefully have been slighter, sharper - a sorbet to prepare the palate for daft excesses to come. But Rosenthal has lathered them with delusions and speech impediments: Adrenalin can't get his 'wotsits' - words - out; Nick, a father of two, inhabits a bachelor fantasy. There is more to character-building than ticking off the tics, and Rosenthal knows it. His portrayal of Asif - a sweet Pakistani youth with a cartoon mother and grandma and a girlfriend who clearly learnt English from Celia Johnson - is nearly unforgivable. Comedy doesn't have to make points about society, but it feels escapist, irresponsible even, to draw in 1994 a picture of innocent harmony straight out of Warmington-on-Sea.

Elsewhere, the recent baby boom on TV has left at least one viewer believing King Herod may have had a point. Miraculously, Baby It's You (C4) banishes all thoughts of infanticide: stylish and beguiling, it looks at the world through the newborn's eyes. The dribbling Master Blobby emerges as a Patrick Moore of the pushchair. It can recognise its own language by the time it is four days old; at eight weeks, it already prefers its mother tongue to any other. The idea of prejudice going into the software at the same time as mother's milk was fascinating, as was producer David Hickman's use of wildlife photography techniques. The only thing missing was a notice at the end inviting you to send an SAE in for one of your own: I'm game if dissatisfied customers can return it after 14 days.

There were times when you thought it might have been best to send Julia's Baby (C4) back. Ayla was dragged with a pair of tongs out of Julia who screamed horrid screams she herself could not hear because she is deaf and finally produced the beautiful aquatic creature, mottled red and green, who she could not see because she is blind. The adamant armour the disabled acquire to fend off pity has hardened on Julia so she cannot be touched by reason. She loathes the 'jackboot' social services who fear for Ayla's welfare. Marilyn Gaunt's extraordinary film never took sides, showing you instead the baby bawling in her cot while Julia sat nearby unawares, then cut to the pair of them hollowed into each other in rapt communion. Unforgettable; and nobody got their kit off.

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