If you have a name that contains only one different letter from that of someone famous, that person is always going to loom large in your life. The human brain will leap to the familiar every time. It might not be so bad if you were called George Glooney or Merl Streep, but for me, the signature doppleganger was always going to mean trouble. She was, of course, the legendary ‘clean up TV’ campaigner, Mary Whitehouse.
I was a young woman in the media in the permissive 1970s and 80s and her high-profile campaigning made my life a misery. Apart from being mistakenly being called Mary about twice a day, there was the never-ending question: ‘are you any relation to Mary?’ from nearly everyone I met. I was a journalist in radio back in her heyday, and we had to call the police, fire and ambulance services every four hours. Those—in the days before political correctness—were the kind of guys who had a fairly limited idea of a joke. After the initial query, it would be something like, ‘are you a prude like her?’
‘No I’m not.’
‘Show us your tits then.’
It got so bad that I started a wall chart to mark the earliest time in the week I’d been associated with Mrs. Whitehouse—the winner was Dudley police at 05.14 on a Monday morning.
Even when she began to wind down her campaigning, after hurting her back in 1988, Newman, Baddiel, Punt and Dennis flooded the airways and later the TV screen with their Mary Whitehouse Experience extending the agony for me by another decade.
I was vehement in my lack of support for her and her National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association mostly because of youth and bravado. And yet, decades years after Mrs. Whitehouse’s death, I rather miss her and I know, nowadays, I would even speak up in her praise. I certainly think she had a point.
For the not-so-Oldies, Mary Whitehouse was what most people believe God is now: a spoilsport, judgmental and fundamentally wrong. The Clean Up Television campaign, which she founded in 1964, denounced ‘the propaganda of disbelief, doubt and dirt that the BBC projects into millions of homes through the television screens.’ Yes, there was ITV too and eventually Channel 4 but she believed that the Beeb was the one responsible to its audience because of the television licence. She campaigned fearlessly against their ‘decline in moral standards.’ BBC Director General Hugh Green was the usual target for her salvos and He purchased a naked portrait of her, adorned with six breasts, by Lawrence Isherwood which (it was said) hung behind his desk.
Dennis Potter — with whom she had quite a few run-ins — described her as ‘standing up for all the people who have been laughed at or treated like rubbish by the sophisticated metropolitan minority.’
If you think Mary Whitehouse, you need to think:
Dame Edna Everage without the tact and diplomacy.
Wolverine without the people skills…
Think Russell Crowe – but with balls…
She got so upset about naughty words and gratuitous sex and violence on television that she set up a group of people in hats who wrote to national newspapers to protest. It was called the National Viewers and Listeners Association. She was a sort of UKIP with a purple rinse. A strangely innocent woman as you can tell by her initial intention of calling it Clean Up National Television.
She was much mocked—and deeply hated—and fortunately she was wrong in her belief that Eastenders was effectively the end of the world when it came to televisual standards. Eastenders is in fact proof that the positive outweighs the negative; if it weren’t so, the whole world would have imploded three weeks after the first episode.
But like the Bible Mary Whitehouse did pick out a few things which really were worth noticing. There’s a letter here from 1973 after Gary Glitter appeared on Crackerjack, it was commenting on both words and actions aimed at the schoolchildren audience.
Do you want to touch me?
Do you want to touch me there?
Every growing boy needs a little toy…
Do you want to touch me there?
The letter goes on to warn about the inappropriateness of children being exposed to such sexuality. I don’t think they actually had the word pedophile then…
Another of her letters to the BBC in 1981 says, “Anything which asserts that the violation of women is ‘asked for’ and presents that violation as good entertainment is unacceptable.” Well that’s got a lot better hasn’t it??
When the BBC finally gave me my own programme to present, I interviewed Mary Whitehouse many times and we became quite good friends. Turned out she was really quite well-meaning and just wanted people to be happy. She just didn’t think the majority of us were going the best way about it. A bit like God, really.
I once asked her to clear up the question once and for all—that we weren’t related—and she agreed but as soon as we went live on air and I asked her, the little minx said ‘well, you know, my dear, I’ve been thinking and I think, actually, we must be…’
Later, when I worked at BBC Pebble Mill—remember Pebble Mill at One? It was mocked to smithereens at the time but is now held up as the icon for all daily live shows—anyway, we lost a celebrity guest on the morning of a show and had to find a replacement very, very quickly. I called Mary Whitehouse, who’d been chuntering on about Eastenders again, and she agreed to come so I sent a fast car. Now the M40 from her home was badly affected by roadworks so once they were past that, the driver, speeded up to (she said) 140 miles an hour.
She told me she tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to slow down because he was frightening her.
Apparently he said, ‘Lady, I’ve got a job to do and I like today’s producer. So I’m getting you there on time even if she has to buy you a new pair of knickers.’
When she arrived, the first thing she said to me was, ‘You owe me fish and chips. Big time.’ She only mentioned the knickers later…
Mary Whitehouse was anti homosexuality. In 1982, she took out a private prosecution over a theatre production called The Romans in Britain, produced by Peter Bogdanovich because it showed a fairly graphic depictions of male rape. Graphic as in the actor used his thumb to masquerade as a penis. As I said, she was strangely naïve…
However, the distinction between male homosexuality and male rape is important.
Quick Bible lesson here…many scholars agree that the quotation in Leviticus 19 is actually about the practice of sending small boys to the temples to be used as male prostitutes in the service of some of the more unsympathetic gods. They were usually buggered to death by the age of 12 and personally I don’t have a problem with a law against that. Roman society in Jesus’ day also went in for male rape as a way of humiliating enemies. I don’t have a problem with a law against that, either.
In Bible times, you were married six months after puberty so you hardly had time to find out if you were gay or not and there really weren’t many opportunities for two men to have a close, loving gay relationship which, I believe, is what gay marriage is all about.
Incidentally, Mary Whitehouse’s petitions against child pornography led to probably her greatest triumph, the passing of the 1978 child protection act.
So, Mary Whitehouse is dead now and she’s probably gone to heaven. We should be nicer to God really. He’s got enough grief with Mary Whitehouse up there.
Although we hated her while she was around … I kind of miss her like a wobbly tooth now she’s gone. She was not just an annoying person who objected to things which were harmless. But someone who tried to get us to respect ourselves and each other.
One of her final salvos was against – of all things — Pinky and Perky. One can’t think what they had done other than inspire us to play LPs at 78rpm. But it was the fact that they were abusive to humans. But you know, —to in the words of the great atheist Douglas Adams—it’s 2000 years after we nailed a man to a tree for saying what a great idea it would be to be nice to each other, and I think she had a point.