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Bloody, bloody, bloody.
on 22 March 2015
Mary Whitehouse was born with a maximal sense of outrage but a minimal sense of proportion. Showing how the comedy of this predicament played out is the burden of this volume. The editor, Ben Thompson, has pieced together an eclectic mix of letters drawn from Mary Whitehouse’s archive at the University of Essex. Thompson’s intent is to explain how the ‘Nuneaton Nostradamus’ rose to be a household name.
Early on, we are told that if Mrs Whitehouse and her ‘proper, Christian course’ had got its way, ‘our artistic heritage would have been immeasurably impoverished.’It seems easy to believe. Dr. Who, Whitehouse informed the world, was ‘teatime brutality for tots’. Pinky and Perky was no good – it encouraged bullying. All non-religious music encouraged anarchy. (Alice Cooper was kind enough to send Whitehouse a thank you after her protests about the song ‘Schools Out’ ensured its success.) People had the sheer disregard to say ‘bloody’ on national television; they went even further beyond the pale by referring to pre-marital sex. Some – the truly, utterly damned – not only referred to oral sex, but actually admitted it was rather nice. The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was so ‘filthy’ that Whitehouse pulled out all the stops to guarantee it was never broadcast on TV, and almost succeeded. The Kenny Everett Show was a dangerous ‘bridge’ that led people ‘from adult pornography to child pornography’. Everywhere, TV shows mocked the Christian religion through its dogged refusal to advertise for it. Even the news was no good - no matter what atrocity one faction committed, if they happened to be anti-Soviet, showing it would fatally sap the nation’s morale.
Mrs Whitehouse’s acolytes in the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVLA) are given their own time on the stage. They are certainly a plentiful source of mirth. As grimly funny as it is to see NVLA members campaigning for moral re-armament by sending death threats, say, or senior clergymen requesting samples of child pornography in the post, their pedantry is cringe-comedy at its best. A long summary written by a member after seeing The Exorcist is a comedy of errors. (‘He [Damien Karras] was seen visiting his aged Italian mother in a poor part of a city. I was at a loss to decide – both then and now – why his mother was in such poor circumstances and why she died later in a mental hospital’.)
The NVLA encouraged its members to watch television between certain hours and record their impressions of the programmes viewed. If you think the critics that count the number of swear words in James Kelman novels are uptight to the point of madness, try pages 198-200. Here’s The Day of the Triffids, seen through the NVLA filter:
‘14/3/84, 7.40 pm. One man beating woman with a stick, group of football supporters threaten young woman. One says “I want a woman.” Her defender gets beaten up. Looting. Whip lash violent attacks by triffid plant forms. Blind people hammering on occupied car – their attitudes menacing and frightening.’
Here’s classic comedy The Young Ones:
‘Some lines were funny, but unnecessary violence and vandalism, obscene phrases and gestures, childish references to excrement, phlegm, masturbation etc. made it extremely bad taste. An appealing [sic] thing for children to follow as an example.’
To some, Whitehouse’s Christian evangelism made her a shining beacon in a fog of permissiveness. To others, it made her a rancid bigot who found corruption wherever she looked for it, often at the same time her media profile was taking a dip. One of the few genuinely shocking things in the volume is just how ingrained Whitehouse’s prejudices were. There was her racism, of course; more visceral was her seemingly fathomless hatred of gays. Accepting them, her followers learned, ‘was one of the avowed objectives of Communism’. Programs that showed gays as anything other than objects of pity or ciphers for the effects of bad parenting only encouraged the spread of AIDS.
Like many cranks before and since, Whitehouse was adept at spinning her bigotries into grand conspiracy theories. She seems to have genuinely believed there was a ‘homosexual/intellectual/humanist lobby’ , operating out of Oxford, intent on destroying the Christian religion and brainwashing the nation. More disturbing than this standard-issue paranoia is not just the number of people that bought it, but high up in society they happened to be. One letter quoted in full comes from the Scottish Free Presbyterian Church Synod, which applauds Whitehouse and her ‘unflinching stand against sodomites [...] The Synod appreciates your efforts and were glad that they were crowned with success.’ Our Lady of Censorship was so toxic it was a wonder her feet never blighted the grass they walked on.
Yet Thompson also asks us to see a different side to Mary Whitehouse. She had, we are assured, a drier sense of humour than commonly supposed, an even an artistic one. She indulged the occasional bout of creativity, producing poems and short stories, though never seeing them into print. From here, it gets strange. Despite her obsessive hatred of gays, Thompson assures us Whitehouse was ‘almost’ a ‘gay icon’. She managed to be not only ‘implicitly Marxist’, but also the woman who inspired Margaret Thatcher’s dress sense. Everyone from Jeremy Paxman to Mumsnet moderators, it turns out, has been influenced by her in some capacity. Whitehouse even found the time to become a kind of proto punk rocker. ‘Punk’, we may be surprised to learn, ‘was a kind of moral re-armament’, and Whitehouse’s poems, in truth, were ‘punk rock songs’. There’s taking a balanced view of your subject, then there’s taking a schizophrenic one.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Thompson’s prose, like some of his conclusions, rarely holds up to scrutiny. Concision seems beyond him. Like many skilled writers, he has a lot to say. Unlike many skilled writers, he tries to say it all at once. You wish a sentence like this had been prised apart beforehand, with the aid of heavy machinery if necessary:
‘When the Guinness Book of Records founder and Conservative campaigner Ross McWhirter (who within two years would be assassinated by the IRA after offering a £50,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the gang, whose members ultimately killed him) managed to persuade three judges to place an injunction on the late-night ITV broadcast of an arts documentary – David Bailey’s profile of Andy Warhol – which none of those concerned had actually seen, new IRA boss Brian Young felt confident enough in Mary Whitehouse’s common sense to challenge the legitimacy of her attempts to drum up support for them.’
As a cure for insomnia, Thompson’s writing is useful. For imparting information and cleaving to the point of an argument, it is somewhat less effective.
G.K. Chesterton once said the reformer is not a brother but a supercilious aunt. It seems an apt summary of Whitehouse’s career. You wish the editors at Faber had given this text the same level of attention that she gave the media.