It is pretty much unthinkable that anyone who remembers the 1970s would not recall the determined interventions of Mrs. Constance Mary Whitehouse, CBE, guardian of the nation’s conscience, which were frequent and resolute.
An evangelical Christian and former sex education teacher, for the best part of three decades Mary Whitehouse and her much-feared letters of protest imploring broadcasters and governments to intervene in defence of our moral standards honed in on such insidious manifestations of cultural decadence as Carry On films, Dennis Potter, Gay News, Alf Garnett and Tom and Jerry. Chuck Berry’s mischievous if inevitably popular number one hit My Ding-a-Ling quite predictably found its way into the cross-hairs of this unrelenting campaigner, whilst with a splendid touch of grace and humour shock-rocker Alice Cooper famously sent her a bunch of flowers after the publicity surrounding her efforts to prevent him and his song School’s Out from featuring on Top of the Pops ensured its elevation to the top of the UK singles’ charts.
Appalled by what she saw as the creeping advance of social liberalism in the arts, Whitehouse formed the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association in 1965 and immediately went to war with BBC Director General Sir Hugh Greene, whom she held primarily responsible for what she saw as the decline in values in mainstream broadcasting. Indeed in her view he was, more that anybody else, to blame for “the propaganda of disbelief, doubt and dirt, promiscuity, infidelity and drinking”.
Ban This Filth!
In spite of what many saw as her eccentric, even mildly batty nature, Whitehouse was disarmingly adept at manipulating the very media of which she complained in order to place her crusading work centre stage. Ben Thompson, who collected together her letters for his book Ban This Filth!, noted “One of her favourite tricks was to refer neutrally to ‘controversies’ she herself had generated as if they were simply historical facts of which all must take cognisance.”
Alice Cooper and Chuck Berry were not the only performers from the music circuit to incur her wrath. Protests were also recorded against, amongst others, Mick Jagger for making phallic gestures with his microphone and Jim Morrison for swearing.
But there were those from the world of popular culture whose creative output did meet with her exacting moral standards. In 1977 she presented the disc jockey and television personality Jimmy Savile with an award for good family entertainment on his prime-time Jim’ll Fix It TV show. It was probably for the best that Mrs. Whitehouse shed her mortal coil some years before Savile was exposed, following his own death, as having been an astonishingly prolific molester of children and other vulnerable individuals.
Large-breasted dizzy blondes
In retrospect it is easy to mock Mary Whitehouse, and many of us certainly did at the time when she was most active. But ironically this true-blue ultra-conservative, with her values rooted in her own austere interpretation of the Christian moral code which she upheld with unrelenting dedication, would find unlikely allies for some of her campaigning work today. Not least, her distaste for Benny Hill-type ribaldry featuring scantily-clad, large-breasted, dizzy blonde types running around inanely giggling whilst being chased by ugly, leering, lecherous men in the very last throes of their middle age would surely find some sympathy amongst the doyens of a generally left-leaning feminist movement more than two decades into the twenty-first century.
Her failing was perhaps in the broad-brush approach that she applied to her time-honoured pastime of being offended. Whilst she would certainly not have been alone in considering that a line had been crossed when a poem was published attributing homoerotic thoughts to Jesus Christ as his life ebbed away upon the cross, her unflagging determination to bring Alf Garnett to book for his repeated use of “bloody” and her insistence that writers should apply the word “bottom” in preference to “bum” determined that to most she would always remain something of a laughing stock.
Nevertheless, in her own way Mary Whitehouse was every bit as much a national, cultural institution of her day as James Bond or the Jaguar E-Type. Life in the seventies was so much more fun with her around, even when she was the object of our mirth.