Sexual intercourse began, of course, in 1963. And so, by absolutely no coincidence, did what would become the 30-year campaigning career of Mary Whitehouse. The Nuneaton art teacher-turned-scourge of the permissive society and moral decay the 60s had ushered in was at the peak of her fame and power during my childhood in the early 80s. I was already surrounded by northern matriarchs of unswerving personal convictions, so it seemed to me that a Midlands addition to the mix could make no difference.
Whitehouse, however, did. Not to the children who came within clouting/educational range like my militant lineup of local battleaxes (although I suspect she could deliver a clip round the ear with the best of them) but to the nation. The two-part, two-hour documentary Banned! The Mary Whitehouse Story (BBC Two) is an exhaustive – and slightly exhausting – look at how and why she engaged in her long and impassioned struggle against Britain’s decline and what its effects, intended and unintended, were.
She gunned first for the BBC, then under the aegis of – in the eyes of Whitehouse and her evangelical Moral Re-Armament coevals – “the devil incarnate” Sir Hugh Greene. She harnessed the then considerable might of the many women’s and Christian groups around the country, petitioned parliament and got the voices of the non-metropolitan and non-elite heard. When she formed them into the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association and appointed herself head of it, she became a true thorn in Greene’s side. After his experiences in the war, he saw the BBC and a progressive agenda as a path to mass enlightenment and a way of inoculating the world, or his little part of it, against a repeat of the horrors he had witnessed. But one of the broadcaster’s responses to the NVLA’s concerns was to commission a “spiteful and malicious” drama – Swizzlewick – about her, which was nobody’s finest hour.
The inclusion of such points is proof that – as you might hope, although not necessarily expect in these benighted times – the BBC has put its toys back in the pram since then. Sixty years on from the Whitehouse beginnings as the BBC botherer of botherers, it succeeds in making an even-handed, unmalicious documentary about her that is at pains to tease apart the issues with which she was concerned and intelligently evaluate them against her contemporary norms and ours now.
Her religiosity made her, among other things, wildly homophobic. Her rigidity and certainty of her own rightness in all things made her give no quarter to art. If a film showed a backstreet abortion (as Ken Loach’s Up the Junction did as part of its compassionate depiction of myriad social ills) it was simply Bad and should be banned. No matter that most of the time she didn’t watch the material she was calling to have censored. “I have too much respect for my mind” was her usual response to those who suggested she should literally know what she was talking about.
But she was, as Beatrix Campbell (and, more extensively in next week’s episode, Louise Penny) point out, prescient in other fields, particularly where children and women and their freedoms were concerned. She refused to call herself a feminist, but she quickly and instinctively foresaw that a porn (for men)-saturated culture could easily curtail women’s liberation rather than encourage it, and that the benefits of destabilising marriage and the family would most likely run faster in men’s direction than the other.
To anyone used to spending (too much) time on social media, it is a deeply odd and almost spiritually refreshing experience to consume something that admits – in fact not only admits, but insists – that a person and her work were neither wholly good nor wholly bad and, moreover, that the one does not negate the other. In the second episode particularly, the idea that a brake on liberalism and progressivism can be as valuable and necessary as halting travel in the other direction too was taken out and examined at leisure and without the mockery I found myself expecting to find round the corner any minute. They did her proud, and it made me oddly proud of the BBC – which she would, one assumes, have hated. Very nicely done.
• This article was amended on 25 April 2022 because earlier wording suggested that Nuneaton is in the north of England.