October 19, 2020

The critic Raymond Williams reminds us in Marxism and Literature that societies are always in a state of flux. At any one time, there will be dominant, residual, and emergent cultural elements existing simultaneously and in tension with one another. We tend to celebrate those historical figures who were part of emergent strains that later became dominant: the people credited with being ahead of their time and later vindicated, sometimes only (and most romantically) in death.

But we usually pay less attention to the people who found themselves part of residual elements that may once have been dominant, but eventually faded away. We venerate the people whose ideologies won out, perhaps imagining ourselves to be among their number. We think a lot less about the people who lost.

The infamous campaigner Mary Whitehouse is one of history’s losers. Born in 1910, she never let go of her Edwardian sensibilities, even as the society she knew collapsed around her ears. She spent 37 years organising letter-writing campaigns in an effort to halt the arrival of what she called the ‘permissive society’, horrified as she was by the displays of sex and violence that suddenly appeared on British television screens from the 1960s onwards. A contemporary of Whitehouse’s described her in The Financial Times as a “little Canute, exhorting the waves of moral turpitude to retreat”. She didn’t campaign for change, she campaigned for stasis. And she failed utterly, in a grand display of public humiliation.

Some of Whitehouse’s concerns look rather silly now. She and her fellow campaigners expended a huge amount of energy on the kind of sauciness that nowadays seems quaint. The double entendres in songs like Chuck Berry’s My Ding-A-Ling and sitcoms like It Ain’t Half Hot Mum all provoked letters, as did a suggestively placed microphone during Mick Jagger’s appearance on Top of the Pops. 

One of Whitehouse’s first forays into public life was an anonymous 1953 piece for The Sunday Times that advised mothers on how best to inhibit homosexuality in their sons. This open homophobia was combined with a crusade against blasphemy that often called upon archaic legislation. In 1977, she pursued a private prosecution against Gay News for printing a poem that described a Roman centurion fantasising about having sex with the body of the crucified Christ. The editor was convicted of blasphemous libel and the QC who represented him later wrote that Whitehouse’s “fear of homosexuals was visceral” — he may well have been right.

Her reputation as a bigoted fuddy-duddy means that if Whitehouse is remembered now, it is usually as a punchline. And indeed in her own lifetime she was the subject of constant ridicule. One of her books was ritually burned on a BBC sitcom, her name was used in jest as the title of the hit comedy show The Mary Whitehouse Experience, and a porn star mockingly changed her name to ‘Mary Whitehouse’ by deed poll (this second Mary Whitehouse later committed suicide).

Sir Hugh Greene, Director General of the BBC between 1960 and 1969, openly despised Whitehouse, so much so that he purchased a grotesque naked portrait of her to hang in his office. The story goes that Greene would vent his frustration by throwing darts at the portrait, squealing with delight if he managed to hit one of Whitehouse’s six breasts.

Greene was born in the same year as Whitehouse, but while this public school and Oxford educated man pronounced the word ‘class’ with a long ‘a’, the Warwickshire-born Whitehouse always pronounced it with a short one. The war that Whitehouse waged was, looked at from one perspective, a class war. She represented a majority whose world was being transformed by a cultural elite out of step with popular opinion and, then as now, it was provincial people without degrees who stood in opposition to the establishment of the day. If Whitehouse had been alive in 2016, she would surely have voted Leave.

The working class academic Richard Hoggart once shared a stage with Whitehouse, and wrote later of how “[t]he noise of the enthusiastic crowd of followers was, literally, a sort of music to her ears.” When he attempted to defend a provocative play by Dennis Potter, Whitehouse was outraged:

She pointed at me and invited [the crowd] to share her shock that anyone, least of all a “university man” could be so foolishly “clever-clever”. They agreed.

And yet, unlike most of his academic peers, the “clever-clever” Hoggart understood Whitehouse’s appeal and acknowledged the legitimacy of many of her complaints. And, in retrospect, it is indeed clear that while Whitehouse got a lot wrong, she also got a lot right.

For instance, at a time when the Paedophile Information Exchange was being welcomed warmly within some establishment circles, Whitehouse was one of the few public figures who gave a damn about child sexual abuse, lobbying hard for the private member’s bill that became the Protection of Children Act 1978. Anxiety about paedophilia was deeply unfashionable in the 1970s, but Mary Whitehouse was not in the business of following fashion.

In this instance, she was quite right, since we now know that at the same time BBC executives were rolling their eyes at the irritating behaviour of Whitehouse and her gang, the institution was enabling the abuses perpetrated by men like Jimmy Savile.

Looking back at the Leeds and Broadmoor hospital report on the crimes that Savile committed there in the 1970s, his deceptive technique becomes clear. The male doctors were charmed, as were the male porters. Young women were either too frightened or too starstruck to say a word. When anyone stood up to Savile, it was older women: nurses, matrons, grandmothers — the sort of obstinate ladies who flocked to Whitehouse’s campaigns. Misogynists have always reserved a particular well of hatred for women like this — creatures with heavy ankles and sagging necklines who have nothing to offer in terms of nubile beauty, but an annoying habit of saying ‘no’ to male demands. Sir Hugh Greene did not throw darts at naked portraits of any of his male critics.

Whitehouse ultimately made a terrible mistake in allying herself with Margaret Thatcher, falsely assuming that here was a woman — a lower-middle-class mother, just like Whitehouse — who would recognise the nobility of her project. But of course, the age of the free market that Thatcher ushered in has led to a proliferation of sexualised entertainment, far beyond anything witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s.

With no figure like Mary Whitehouse to block them, advertisers and filmmakers have produced increasingly shocking and titillating content, doing their very best to capture our attention and using every tool available, no matter how profane. Just imagine Whitehouse’s face if she could watch Cuties, or WAP, or a new adaptation of The Lord of the Rings which will apparently include graphic sex scenes. The devoted Catholic J. R. R. Tolkien would have been appalled at such an idea, and even just 20 years ago, Peter Jackson added no more than a bit of light snogging to his otherwise chaste films. But then, in a free market, sexualisation goes in one direction, and one direction only, and for a simple reason: sex sells.

Whitehouse really was a “little Canute”, clinging onto the past even as she was swamped by emergent cultural elements that soon became dominant. Few people have ever been as loudly consistent in their beliefs as Mary Whitehouse was. And few people have ever lost as hard as Mary Whitehouse lost.