I’m not good at forgiving. It’s always been one of the worst aspects of my character, and now that I am old, there’s no chance it’s going to get better. I won’t have a warm retrospective feeling about Margaret Thatcher. I don’t see Reagan or Nixon in a new perspective with the passage of time. And I still loathe my wicked stepmother. This last is what needs acknowledging, because as I read Mary Whitehouse’s letters, everything about her, except the trim tailoring, reminded me of my wicked stepmother.* There was the same quivering, tight-lipped prissiness, the untroubled moral righteousness, a desire for the respectable and normal so powerful that when she realised my mother would never ‘give’ my father (with whom she lived during his last decade) a divorce, she changed her name by deed poll as the least excruciating option. A great deal of my time and mind at the ages of 13 and 14 was taken up with hating her, and the loathing was, as she wrote to me later, understandably reciprocated. Discovering negations of everything she found proper and good became almost my sole preoccupation; luckily, that included reading books of any kind, but especially ‘grown-up’ ones, as well as smoking, wearing outsize men’s jumpers, hanging out in cafés, supporting CND and getting expelled from school. It’s true that as a woman of mature years I can now see her unenviable situation: an ordinary provincial English housewife in love with an ageing ‘cosmopolitan’ Lothario with whom she had nothing in common, except their equal desire for his material comfort in his later years, and in loco parentis to a furious, fucked-up teenager who despised everything she and her chip-off-the-old-block, conformist, Cliff-Richard-adoring teenage daughter smugly stood for. I do see how awful it was for her, but I hate her, still and nevertheless.
She was more or less out of my life by 1962, but the ‘ordinary provincial English housewife’ pattern, which I hadn’t come across before in my London Jewish world, was lodged in my mind, and she rose up, it seemed, almost instantly in the form of Mary Whitehouse, complaining loudly in her deputy headmistress tones about the pornographic lyrics to the Beatles’ second hit, ‘Please Please Me’. (What she made of Cole Porter’s 1934 ‘You’re the Top’ isn’t on record.) When she wrote in the brochure of the Clean Up TV Campaign that she spoke for ‘the ordinary women of Britain’ and ‘ordinary housewives’, I knew exactly what and who she meant. They were the ones, like the WSM, who never thought to doubt that everything they knew and thought was right and good and normal, that whatever they did not know or had not heard of was subversive and dangerous, and who had moral rectitude stamped, like Blackpool rock, through their unbending spines from coccyx to brain stem. Whitehouse came, rather covertly given its prewar extreme right-wing reputation, from the Moral Rearmament movement, and set about creating a rallying point for anyone who feared that a liberalisation of sexual attitudes, modern art, communism, free-thinking and non-conformity (in spite of Ernest, her husband, being a Methodist) were all part of a conspiracy on the part of diabolical forces to destroy the fibre of the nation. Her sworn enemies were broadcasters (the BBC above all), contemporary playwrights, ‘pornographers’ (publishers of all kinds, including pornographers), rock musicians, atheists and the bishops of Woolwich and Southwark. With an eventual 500,000 supporters behind her, she wrote, litigated and spoke tirelessly to suppress whatever my wicked stepmother might have found offensive.
Whitehouse drove administrators and producers to distraction and even desperate sarcasm. Richard Eyre responded to the fury Trevor Griffiths’s Comedians caused her when broadcast on BBC1’s Play for Today in 1979: ‘You quote as typical of the language used in the play “prick of a brothel”. It seems that even your typewriter is infected by your prurience and your vision of universal corruption for “brothel” should, of course, read “brother”.’ On another occasion a letter from a concerned listener, a ‘qualified child psychologist’, forwarded by Whitehouse to the Home Service (Radio 4’s predecessor) complained about a play containing ‘25 “bloody” expletives, 6 “damns”, 2 “blasts” and 2 coarse expressions’ and ended with the suggestion that ‘somebody ought to tell the BBC that there is a multitude of one-act plays by classic authors, Chekhov, Strindberg, Shaw, which are good theatre,’ and which could have been used instead. The head of radio drama, Martin Esslin – not an English name, she observed – replied to Whitehouse that the play was simply a comedy about a steam engine enthusiast who wanted to turn an old mill into a steam engine museum (radio drama was evidently as compelling then as it is now). He added that a few ‘bloodies’ was ‘justified in characterising these people as rough and ready northerners’, and then couldn’t resist: ‘I was amused to see that your correspondent recommends Strindberg, Chekhov and Shaw as more wholesome fare. I can only conclude that he may not be very well acquainted with authors like Strindberg.’
The replies are both funny and typical of the sort of thing that was said by those in charge of the arts and broadcasting to an interfering busybody who felt she was entitled to put her point of view, and assumed, with some accuracy, that there were a lot, if not a majority, of other viewers and listeners who were just like her. The producers and administrators were invariably men, educated in much the same way that our present political elite are educated. But unlike our present political elite, they were somewhat liberal and defended experiment and the intellectual right to ‘make mistakes’, as was often said of Play for Today, in the hope that relatively unfettered creativity would produce good and maybe great work. It was thrilling at the time, and it felt, as drama, fiction, satire and art burst out of the 1950s, that we were living in an exciting world, capable of surprises. The newly permitted possibility of things going wrong or not being good had within it the chance of the opposite taking place and running out of control. And the good, bad and too much all did happen.
‘Bad taste can be very much a symptom of immorality,’ Whitehouse wrote to one of her supporters. They knew what was good, based on a solid lower-middle-class education intent mostly on reproducing the status quo, and they trusted that what they had been told by teachers and preachers was true. Shakespeare was good, and so, someone must have said, was Strindberg. There was no need to mess with what was officially good and there were perfectly clear rules setting out how good was achieved. Whitehouse therefore saw it as her duty to be a critic as well as a moral guardian. The bad language and filth in Comedians was, she said, ‘an alibi for poor script-writing or character delineation’. Who knew where the experimental and liberal would end? And who, if they’d become adults in the 1950s, with the world wars in the background and the Cold War in the foreground, wanted to take chances? Well, a few people did (though we couldn’t have imagined back then the way it is now), but the taste for taking cultural and artistic risks was divided by class and age: a few of those with either a superior education or virtually no education, and some of the young. Whitehouse and her kind feared and loathed what they called in their manifesto ‘the propaganda of disbelief, doubt and dirt’ that was being poured into ‘millions of homes through the television screen’. And they demanded ‘a radical change of policy’ from the BBC, ‘programmes which build character instead of destroying it, which encourage and sustain faith in God and bring Him back to the heart of our family and national life’.
The commentary on these infuriating and laughable letters by the book’s editor, Ben Thompson, is considered and witty. He conceives of Whitehouse, delightfully, as a constant background hum over her three decades of public life, like the presence of ‘John Cale’s viola in the Velvet Underground song “All Tomorrow’s Parties”’. It’s a pleasure to imagine how baffled she would have been by that. But without losing sight of the absurdity, self-aggrandisement and malice in Whitehouse’s interventions, Thompson achieves a degree of intelligent sympathy with her. He resists the recent argument that she was a proto-feminist, but points out that some of her complaints specifically targeted the exploitation of women, whether it was Page Three Girls, Benny Hill or Soho strip-joints, and that many of the things that troubled her, and the male contempt that underlies them, remain firmly and in some cases rampantly in place. Thompson is certainly not wrong to suggest that much of the fury she provoked came from white, privately educated men, who were contemptuous of her gender and her class, and were indeed in charge of the world. She repeatedly demanded time to debate her views on television but was always blocked by some director general or other. He points out that, irritating though she was and reactionary and downright dumb in her views of art, most things survived her criticism. Very little was banned or even cut as a result of her or her National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, and even what was suppressed eventually saw daylight. Certainly she was puritanical, homophobic and herself not so keen on women (‘How do you help girls not to tease and tantalise? How do you help boys to assess the girls’ behaviour for what it is and be firm enough to withstand it?’), and nothing Thompson says in his gentle way will induce me to add a mitigating ‘but’ to this sentence. Still, he makes the book of her letters a more thoughtful read, and less of a rant against a ranter.
Whitehouse was an inevitable but not a necessary irritant, although Dennis Potter claimed to approve the usefulness of the constraints she wanted to impose, especially on him. I see, but stubbornly refuse to be very much moved by, Thompson’s thesis that Whitehouse was a kind of performance artist; a woman, strictured by rules and commandments, the child of a failed commercial artist, originally an art teacher herself, acting out in her public persona a surrogate form of creativity. I’m perfectly happy to laugh at and loathe her, and I will no more feel for her as a lost and haplessly limited free spirit than I will countenance sympathy for the pathetic love of my prim and proper wicked stepmother.