Saturday, 5 July 2008

A Very Strange Woman

My most recent book - Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s - is published by Aurum Press. Aurum has its own blog, where you might sometimes see my scribblings. But since I'd like to keep my stuff together, I'm re-posting this piece that I wrote on 29 May 2008, following the BBC drama about Mary Whitehouse...

I had the pleasure of Mary Whitehouse once.

Back in the late-1970s she came to my school to lecture us about the evils of the modern world, the moral pitfalls that we, as tender teenagers, should take care to avoid.

I asked her a question, in fact. Asked her about how absurd it was that the blasphemy laws protected a minority faith in a secular society. (This in the context of the prosecution she was mounting of Gay News magazine for blasphemous libel.) She didn’t answer, of course – she was too seasoned for the likes of me to get even to first base.

But two things stayed with me from her speech.

First, her obsession with communism. She argued that the Soviet Union was attempting to undermine capitalism, democracy and Christianity (which were apparently interchangeable constructs) through the medium of pornography.

And second, her belief that her campaign to clean the filth out of society had been successful. She cited as evidence for this the absence of satire on television, perhaps failing to notice that by that stage the Sex Pistols meant a great deal more to most of us than That Was The Week That Was. She was, I thought, too busy celebrating past conflicts to recognize that the country had changed, and that all the changes were, from her point of view, surely for the worse.

Amanda Coe’s play, Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, on BBC2 last night, was equally stuck in the mud of an old battlefield. Centred on Whitehouse’s struggle to get a hearing from the BBC – and from her sworn enemy Hugh Carleton Greene, the then director-general – it was set entirely in the 1960s. And, as her friend Bill Deedes once pointed out, ‘The 1960s were rough times for people with the message Mrs Whitehouse sought to deliver.’

The Whitehouse we saw was thus an essentially impotent figure. Played by Julie Walters in a manner that was less Mary Whitehouse than it was, er, Julie Walters, she was seen as a thorn in the flesh of the BBC, but little more than a thorn. Perfectly true of the times, of course, but she became much more significant.

The play followed her from her days as concerned Christian parent into the birth of her more familiar incarnation as a self-publicizing complainer about pretty much anything and everything: Dr Who, Pinky and Perky, the lyrics of the Beatles’ ‘I Am the Walrus’ (not for its clear drug-fuelled consciousness, but for the use of the word ‘knickers’). And then it stopped. Which was a shame, because that’s just when she became really interesting.

Amidst all the headline-grabbing stuff in the early-1970s about Chuck Berry’s ding-a-ling, Whitehouse had a much more political agenda. The mass membership of her National Viewers and Listeners Association (VALA) was primarily motivated by a distaste for what was perceived to be obscenity, but she had no hesitation in using the platform this gave her to intervene in matters of party politics. For her, as for Roy Jenkins on the opposite side of the fence, permissiveness and liberalism skipped hand-in-hand.

Amd she didn't approve.

So when Panorama had the nerve to ask some difficult questions of Northern Ireland prime minister, Brian Faulkner, she demanded to know ‘where the sympathies of the BBC lie in relation to Northern Ireland’. And during the three-day week in January 1974, called by Tory prime minister Ted Heath in response to an overtime ban by the National Union of Miners, she denounced the corporation for being ‘committed to polarisation of public sentiment in favour of the miners.’

There was just a hint of this in Filth, as Whitehouse complained about the BBC’s ‘propaganda for the left that verges on communism’. But mostly the play presented her as a single-issue campaigner. ‘Dearie me,’ she said, ‘we’re not political.’

And that simply wasn’t true. She’d first met her husband, Ernest (played brilliantly here by Alun Armstrong) in the 1930s when they were both members of the evangelical Oxford Group, later known as Moral Re-Armament. And although the Oxford Group was primarily and overtly religious, it had a strong political, as well, as moral, compass. Its founder, Frank Buchman, was so committed to the cause of anti-communism that he was even seduced by the ideological allure of fascism: ‘I thank Heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler,’ he enthused in 1936.

The Whitehouses shared Buchman’s passionate opposition to the Soviet Union as a godless, evil force in the world. Ernest Whitehouse believed that the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament prophesied the (temporary) triumph of communism, and his wife had no hesitation in seeing reds both under and in the bed: ‘They’ve infiltrated the trade unions,’ she argued. ‘Why does anyone still believe they haven’t infiltrated broadcasting?’

As VALA continued into the political turmoil of the 1970s, these attitudes – present from the outset – came ever more to the fore, helping to build the social coalition that would ultimately see the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Whitehouse’s ability to win battles remained dubious at best, and the campaigns against sex and swearing on television were ultimately doomed to failure. But she did live to see a new right-wing consensus built in this green and pleasant land. And she even lived to see the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe.

Which brings me back to that claim of hers that’s been baffling me for nearly thirty years now. Was she really saying that porn was fuelled by Moscow gold? Did she really believe that the controlling interest in capitalism’s most profitable industry was held by the Soviet Union, at a time when that country was not exactly renowned for its ability to foster enterprise? And if so, who’s funding it now, when the Internet is being deluged with porn from the democratic nations of the former Soviet bloc?

What a very strange woman she was.

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