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Bloody, bloody, bloody.
on 22 March 2015
Mary Whitehouse was born with a maximal sense of outrage and a minimal sense of proportion. This book's editor, Ben Thompson, has pieced together an eclectic mix of her letters, intent on explaining how the ‘Nuneaton Nostradamus’ became a household name.
We're told early on that if Mary 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 encouraged bullying; all non-religious music encouraged anarchy. Some took that as a compliment. Alice Cooper sent Whitehouse a thank you card after her protests ensured the success of ‘Schools Out.'
Moral decay was everywhere. People had the sheer disregard to say ‘bloody’ on national television, and even reference pre-marital sex. Some – the truly damned – not only referred to oral sex, but admitted it was rather nice. The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was so ‘filthy’ that she pulled out all the stops to ensure it was never broadcast - and almost succeeded. The Kenny Everett Show was a bridge that led people ‘from adult pornography to child pornography’. TV shows, she ranted showed their contempt for Christianity by their dogged refusal to recruit for it.
Mrs Whitehouse’s acolytes in the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVLA) get ample space. They're a rich blend of cringe comedy, pedantry and rank hypocrisy. The NVLAs idea of campaigning for moral rearmament was posting death threats to TV producers, and child pornography to each other.
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. If you think the critics that count the number of swear words in James Kelman's novels are uptight to the point of madness, try pages 198-200. Here’s The Day of the Triffids, as filtered through the NVLA:
‘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, by happy coincidence, whenever her media profile was waning.
One of the few genuinely shocking things in the book is the depth of Whitehouse’s bigotry. There was the racism, sadly common at the tile (and place). Even more visceral was her hatred of gays. Acceptance of homosexuality, she said, was 'one of the avowed objectives of Communism’. Programs that showed gay people as anything other than objects of pity or ciphers for the effects of bad parenting encouraged 'the spread of AIDS.'
Like many cranks before and since, Whitehouse liked to spin her bigotries into grandiose conspiracy theories. She genuinely believed a ‘homosexual/intellectual/humanist lobby’ operated out of Oxford, intent on destroying the Christian religion and brainwashing the nation. More disturbing than the number of people that bought it into all this was just how high up in society they were. One letter, quoted in full, comes from the Scottish Free Presbyterian Church Synod, applauding Whitehouse's 'unflinching stand against sodomites [...] The Synod appreciates your efforts and were glad that they were crowned with success.’
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 sensibility. 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 has been influenced by her. Whitehouse even found time to become a proto punk rocker. ‘Punk’, you may be surprised to learn, ‘was a kind of moral re-armament’, and Whitehouse’s poems were 'punk rock songs’. There’s taking a balanced view of your subject, and then there’s taking a schizophrenic one.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Thompson’s prose, like most of his conclusions, rarely holds up to scrutiny. Concision is beyond him. Like many skilled writers, he has a lot to say. Like many unskilled writers, he tries to say it all at once. You wish a sentence like this had been prised apart beforehand, perhaps with the aid of heavy machinery:
‘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's somewhat less than effective. G.K. Chesterton once said the reformer is not a brother but a supercilious aunt. It seems an apt summary of Mary Whitehouse's career. You wish the editors at Faber and Faber had given this text the same level of attention that she gave the media.