Ban This Filth!
Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive
Edited by Ben Thompson
London: Faber & Faber, 2012
Hardback. viii+408 p. ISBN 978-0571281497. £16.99
Reviewed by Trevor Harris
Université François-Rabelais, Tours
There can have been few more determined or resourceful advocates of the declinist thesis than Constance Mary Whitehouse (1910-2001). In a Britain where sex scandals and the attendant moral panic of one kind or another rarely seem to be out of the headlines, and where child-abuse by religious and media figures now seems to have become the rather distressing norm, Mary Whitehouse and her “alarmist cosmology”  seem increasingly quaint, but perhaps because they are increasingly relevant. Any account of Mary Whitehouse and her role as the self-appointed arbiter of British moral standards is, as a result, likely to be faintly amusing, yet somehow topical.
From the opening lines of Ben Thompson’s engaging foreword, this is a book which it is definitely fun to read. Thompson has fine-combed the 300 or so box files in the Mary Whitehouse archive held at Essex University and provided us with some of the splendidly spirited exchanges between Mrs Whitehouse and her correspondents among the great and the good. There are also a number of important insights into the workings of the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVALA), launched in 1965 by Whitehouse, and into the relationships which she patiently built up with members of the British government and some of Britain’s most important political and social institutions. Mrs Whitehouse was nothing if not “attritional” .
What Thompson has put together here, however, is not an “edition” of the Mary Whitehouse correspondence, which would have been a far bulkier and, one suspects, a rather more tedious book to read. In the selection we have, moreover, the “editing” process is very much hands-on: twenty-five of the first fifty pages, for example, are written by Thompson, and his input throughout the book is considerable. The arrangement of the letters is thematic rather than chronological: a record of his subject’s main encounters – her battles with the BBC, with Parliament, the Church or the world of Pop, with Playwrights, with the Movies, and so on –, an approach which, while not exhaustive, conveys a palpable sense of the woman’s tenacity and energy. One minor quibble would be the decision to retain the courier typeface when reproducing the text of the letters: this may provide a period feel, but it is not easy on the eye.
Reading Mary Whitehouse’s letters is to witness Grundyism in full flight. Even the Catholic Vicar General, in 1965, expressed the fear that the members of the Clean Up Television (CUTV) campaign were liable to generate “the image of a group of Mrs Grundies” . Mrs Whitehouse was, indeed, subjected to much ridicule during her lifetime (“there were times in the politically charged atmosphere of late-1960s Britain when to be laughed at was the best she could hope for” ) and one is inevitably drawn to wonder if the passage of time has lent any gravitas to her case, and made of her person and her work – one is tempted to say her mission – a subject which deserves serious treatment. There are a number of clues here as to Thompson’s own take: there are no footnotes at all, and no index. This is apparently a book prepared more with the reader’s enjoyment in mind, than their instruction.
Ben Thompson summarises the Mary Whitehouse mission in the following terms: “The goal she really wanted to achieve was to win something akin to a fair hearing for a Christian message which she felt was being drowned out by a decadent secularism” : fair enough. But there are places where Thompson’s presentation of Mrs Whitehouse appears to shade towards a defence and an attempt to rehabilitate his subject. Her successful private prosecution of Gay News in 1977, for example, stands as one of the strongest examples of her work and her ultimate objectives. Ben Thompson points out that Peter Tatchell once described Mary Whitehouse as “God’s Rottweiler”, but then promptly attempts to present Whitehouse and Tatchell as an “odd couple of fanatical campaigners” , as equal but opposite forces being exerted upon public (and private) morality. Some may agree. But this may also appear, to others, to come close to rhetorical sleight of hand: the extent of Mary Whitehouse’s conservatism was surely far more out of kilter, at the time, with the ambient libertarianism of which Tatchell, admittedly, was a particularly outspoken proponent.
In practice, Thompson is sometimes simply too close to his subject, putting forward a cosy, chatty treatment of what were often extremely retrograde positions, even for the time. His obvious affection for his subject can lead to some quirky interpretations. Seeing Whitehouse as an example of “frustrated artistry” , for example, her moral strictures innocently pointing to a repressed creative urge – repressed by others like herself? – seems less than convincing on the basis of the evidence presented here. We are invited, a little further on, to “consider her fetishisation of home and hearth as a creative response to the emotional pressures of her own domestic life (rather in the same way that Brian Wilson’s songwriting genius proceeded partly from his lack of ability at surfing)” ...
It would, of course be unfair and inaccurate to suggest that Mary Whitehouse had simply got it all wrong: she was lucid enough to see a number of developments in the media, particularly, as the vanguard of a social evolution which was removing taboos and constantly pushing the limits of permissiveness. But she was not alone in this. Nor was her moral alarm, or the moral alarm of the 1960s new: many (most?) earlier periods had known their own variants. (Worse, to some it might seem as though the Gay News episode, when set against something like the Oscar Wilde case, showed how consistent with late-Victorian Britain the “swinging” London of the 1960s had remained.) Elsewhere, Thompson’s obvious admiration for Whitehouse leads him into some bizarre justifications: he surely lets her off far too lightly, for example, in respect of her conduct through the libel case which she lost against Dennis Potter’s mother [176-180]?
The discussion of the archive material is always lively, and often witty. But the experience threatens to become a little frustrating for the reader. Thompson’s comments and analysis tend to remain close to the content of the letters, rarely straying very far into the wider context of the Britain that Whitehouse was attempting to clean up. But, at the same time, anyone attempting to home in on a biography of Mary Whitehouse might also feel disappointed since this is a narrative which relies on a single source. In fact, for the reader who is old enough to remember Mary Whitehouse in her pomp, the view of her which emerges from these letters is unlikely to be challenged, since her letters tend to confirm, rather than undermine, the impression one already had: and what sounded like shrill moral panic to a significant minority at the time will probably seem shrill to a rather larger number today.
The chatty, sometimes cosy, style use by Thompson is, in the main, entertaining. But his lead-ins to each letter can become a very obtrusive set of instructions on precisely how one is to read the letter(s) in question. True, there are places where Thompson does venture into a more historical mode as in the discussion of the 1978 Protection of Children Act , or the brief, but engaging assessment [49-50] of Sir Hugh Greene who, as Director General of the BBC (1960-69), proved to be one of the major obstacles to the advancement of the campaign launched by Mrs Whitehouse. There are also some interesting hypotheses thrown out at various points: the idea of an “unexpected crossover”  between Mary Whitehouse and punk music: “punk and NVALA were in many ways apples which fell from the same tree, this particular arboreal specimen being a crabbed and slightly withered post-war Britain with its roots sunk deep in social exclusion and disillusionment” . And the juxtaposition of prudery and prurience throughout the book effectively takes the reader into a debate about the nature of Britishness: “the boundary between public and private space was already becoming increasingly hard to define” .
But in the end the main objective which Mary Whitehouse’s fundamental conservatism had set out to achieve – the preservation of decency – was, as Thompson rightly points out, done a major disservice by the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher in whom Whitehouse had placed such enthusiastic hopes in 1979. Thatcher’s Britain, rather than ushering in some new golden age of British domestic niceness, completely upended any vision Mary Whitehouse may have entertained of a return to the cosy 1950s front room where Britain could “live clean and straight” . By the time of her death, eighteen consecutive years of deregulation and rolling back the frontiers of the State had definitively consigned that Britain to the past. The kind of decency Whitehouse hankered after was a middle-class, evangelical primness which, arguably, had its roots in British provincial industrial towns, and found its greatest political expression in the emergence of British Labour. Perhaps one of the main merits of this selection of letters from the Mary Whitehouse archive is that, indirectly, it gives us an insight into the mysterious ways in which British ‘conservatism’ lives, moves and has its being.
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