I’m not old enough to remember Mary Whitehouse’s campaigning years, only the jubilation of my film lecturer informing us she’d kicked the bucket a few years earlier — he filled us in on her puritanical, anti-gay, anti-sex crusades.
So watching BBC2’s dramatisation of her life was pretty surprising — no lunatic fundamentalists here, just a story of an ordinary woman fighting the smug liberal establishment. Hugh Greene, Director General of the BBC, was portrayed as a womanising, slightly bonkers, upper-class twit slowly cracking under the pressure of her formidable campaign.
Whitehouse, played by Julie Walters, is here a representative of another generation, clinging to good old-fashioned values, a bit batty but in a mostly benign way. There’s a kind of David and Goliath thing going on, and after years of refusing to see her or even mention her on the BBC, Greene’s departure in the face of a Whitehouse-friendly Chairman being installed is presented as a victory, and the end of the programme.
Literally nothing then about her private prosecution against the play The Romans In Britain (charged with “procuring an act of gross indecency” for a scene of simulated anal rape. Whitehouse herself hadn’t seen the play, and the case fell apart). Nothing about her role in campaigning against “video nasties” leading to the Video Recordings Act of 1984. Nothing about her successful prosecution of Gay News editor Dennis Lemon for blasphemous libel (he received a 9 month sentence suspended for 18 months and a large fine).
And, perhaps surprisingly given that the BBC has been its main target, nothing about the current incarnation of her National Viewers and Listeners Association — “MediaWatchUK”, the group behind the protests (and death threats) at ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’.
Perhaps the BBC were just being kind, given their history of ripping it out of the old reactionary at every opportunity. One show even mocked her husband after he was in a car accident. But the kindness to Whitehouse didn’t end with the air-brushed drama — straight after, Newsnight informed viewers that 75% of Radio Times readers surveyed now believed that Whitehouse was right about violence on TV leading to societal ruin (although as the liberal folks they are, they didn’t agree with her on sex).
Maybe, surveyed at the time, a similar proportion of readers would have agreed with Whitehouse, but the desire of politicians and pundits to find an answer to street violence in the media should not be underestimated. One Tory MP informed viewers that children are “first desensitized” to violence via video games and TV — his children in rural Buckinghamshire might be but it shows a shocking disconnection from real life to suggest the relationship between violent teens and the media is anything near that simple.
In the face of an onslaught of newspaper inches blaming ‘emo’, and Grand Theft Auto IV for kids stabbing each other, a whitewash of Whitehouse really wasn’t helpful. The feature’s only saving grace was the occasional sprinkling of “fucks” that would have had Whitehouse falling off the sofa in shock.