Cock and total balls! Mary Whitehouse still lives in British newspapers

In their fevered minds, every TV drama features manhoods flapping in their face. And not in a good way.

I’m 36 and have the slightest memory of Mary Whitehouse being a media figure. Partly that because of the comedy show, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, but also because the woman herself was still a croaking voice in the debate around sex, violence, and… horror of horrors… swearing in the media. To people younger than me, the name is mostly entirely meaningless.

(Constance) Mary Whitehouse CBE — awarded, unsurprisingly by Margaret Thatcher’s government — died in 2001 after a long career wagging her finger at the British media and culture in general for what she saw as a long slide into a filth-ridden permissive society. As the founder and first president of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVLA), Whitehouse was Witchfinder General for watching TV. The kind of hard-line social conservative who — to borrow a joke about the DUP — was against sex because it might lead to dancing, Whitehouse was around from early-60s onwards.

In 1963, Whitehouse began her campaigning with a letter to BBC director-general Hugh Greene. She was temporarily mollified by a meeting with Greene’s deputy, Harman Grisewood, a Roman Catholic, which made her feel like her complaints about the corporation’s output were being taken seriously. However, when she watched TV over the next few months she remained — as she would for decades — disgusted.

The campaign against the BBC ratcheted up a notch. After Greene was knighted in 1964, Whitehouse positioned herself as his nemesis. She considered him, “the devil incarnate… who more than anybody else is responsible for the moral collapse of this country.” Greene must have felt so powerful. The Clean-Up TV campaign, which Whitehouse had co-founded with vicar’s wife Norah Buckland, published a manifesto that accused Greene’s BBC was dedicated to spreading “the propaganda of disbelief, doubt and dirt” and obsessed with “promiscuity, infidelity and drinking”. They wanted a BBC that promoted “faith in God and [brought] Him back to the hearts of our family and national life.”

Talking to The Catholic Herald in its Christmas issue for 1965, Whitehouse spoke of an unnamed programme she claimed to have seen on the BBC in which “youngsters were asking questions [and] there was not a single member of the panel who was prepared to say outright that pre-marital relations were wrong. In fact, when a girl asked a clergyman, ‘Do you think that fornication is sin?’, he replied: “It depends on what you mean by sin and what you mean by fornication.’” Whitehouse knew what she considered a sin and she saw it everywhere; crazed as she was with homophobic thoughts and an abject disgust at the representation of anything sexual.

The following year Greene delivered a speech which contained a clear criticism of Whitehouse and her campaigns, without deigning to name her directly. He said:

“[Critics of the BBC] attack whatever does not underwrite a set of prior assumptions… [It is] a dangerous form of censorship which works by causing artists and writers not to take risks.”

What I wouldn’t give for a leader at the BBC right now who was brave enough to stand up against the censorious. Instead, we have Tim Davie — a former Conservative Party council candidate — who slaps his talents’ wrists rather than backing them. Davie would attempt to mollify a Whitehouse-type figure, Green ignored Mary Whitehouse, had her blocked from appearing on the BBC, and, privately, purchased a satirical painting of her by James Lawrence Isherwood that depicted her with five breasts… for some reason.

The range of Whitehouse’s criticisms was vast. She objected to a 1965 rebroadcast of Richard Dimbleby’s coverage of the liberation of Belsen (“Filth… it was bound to shock and offend.”) while also spending time counting how many ‘swear’ words were in an episode of the sitcom Til Death Us Do Part (“I doubt if many people would use 121 bloodies in half-an-hour”). In 1967, she and the NVALA won a libel action against the BBC and Til Death Us Do Part’s writer Johnny Speight after he implied in a radio interview that Whitehouse and her compatriots were fascists. Shortly after the interview, an episode of the series (‘Alf’s Dilemma’, 27 Feb 1967), mocked Whitehouse with the central character Alf Garnett reading her book and agreeing with every word, but by the story’s conclusion the book is burned as characters exclaim, “Unclean!”

Whitehouse was enraged by Benny Hill, Dave Allen, The Goodies, Dennis Potter, A Clockwork Orange, Chuck Berry’s execrable novelty song My Ding-a-Ling, and School’s Out by Alice Cooper — he sent her flowers as he believed the stir she caused helped get the song to Number One. In a move that would later illustrate the blinkered perspective of the NVALA, in 1977, it presented Jimmy Saville an award for his contributions to ‘wholesome family entertainment’ with Jim’ll Fix It. Investigations after Saville’s death found that he had used the show as a means to abuse children.

Throughout the seventies, Whitehouse obsessively attacked Dr Who and her efforts did lead to executives at the BBC demanding that the tone be lightened and the amount of violence be reduced. Times were changing and the dismissive approach of the 1960s Greene-era was being replaced with a more mollifying strategy. Whitehouse was listened to and no longer simply a punchline. How anyone could take her complaint that The Seeds of Doom (1976), in which Tom Baker’s Doctor survives an attack by a giant carnivorous plant monster, featured “strangulation — by hand, by claw, by obscene vegetable matter.” She witheringly suggested that the programme should “for a little variety show the children how to make a Molotov cocktail.”

To recount all the pettifogging campaigns and scandals ginned up by Whitehouse throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s would fill the rest of this newsletter. It’s worth noting however that in the ‘80s, her homophobia and desperation to see then complain about nudity on television was very much in step with the position of the government. Margaret Thatcher’s administration, which introduced the anti-LGBT Section 28 law, found common cause with Whitehouse often. William Rees-Mogg, the Chairman of the Broadcasting Standard Commission and father of future MP and Victorian cosplayer Jacob Rees-Mogg, called her “on the whole a force for the good, an important woman.”

Mary Whitehouse died aged 91 on the 23 November 2001, but her spirit — the spirit of censorious hooting at the merest hint of a buttock — lives on in the British media, particularly at The Times which wants the BBC broken and The Daily Mail which likes to both decry nudity and emblazon it across a double-page spread, while its internet sibling MailOnline drools over every paparazzi shot of celebrity flesh.


In yesterday’s Sunday Times, Louis Wise wrote a piece on televisual penises that could have been dictated by Mary Whitehouse via ouija board. The short article — ahem! ahem! — was headlined ‘Avert your eyes! The, ahem, rise of penises on TV’ and the standfirst made the rather wild assertion that “it’s rate these days for a small-screen drama not to feature an actor showing us his manhood.” This seems to imply two things: A) That Louis Wise has been tabulating todgers in some kind of salacious spreadsheet and B) That he thinks that actors are not simply performing a part but are, in fact, desperate to windmill their wangs for the world.

I feel sorry for Wise. To be a professional journalist — whatever that might actually mean right now — in the year 2020 and have to write the following sentence must be incredibly embarrassing:

“Is Auntie stripping off in order to make Generation Z pay a licence fee? Or is she trying to re-seduce its irate and alienated pensioners? Every penis counts.”

Wright’s Law of TV Criticism — yeah, I’ve just decided I get to name a law after myself — says “Anyone who describes the BBC as ‘Auntie’ in this day and age actually hates the BBC whatever they might otherwise claim.” Whether Wise pitched this angle or had it pushed hard on him — alright, I’ll stop — it fits into The Times’ continuing campaign to criticise the BBC for absolutely everything, aiding the government’s wider aim of abolishing the TV licence fee and ending the unique funding model.

It’s unsurprisingly that Wise gives special attention to the nudity of Normal People — a show that drew huge audiences but which the newspapers want to assert was only of interest to horned-up millennials and porn-obsessed gen-z types — and Industry, a newer drama set in the City of London, whose sex scenes have been providing plenty of chances to be shocked (with full-colour pictures!) for The Daily Mail, Sun and others.

While society’s perspective on nudity, sex, and swearing on television has moved on since the days when Whitehouse was waging war on Hugh Greene, the newspapers know there is still mileage in outrage. In the culture war — for which Whitehouse did so much to sow the seed — the fascist notion of ‘degenerate art’ has been revived.

The idea that the BBC is packed with perverts — not entirely incorrect in the past — is a useful one for editors who want the Corporation cut down to size. That’s why we’ll keep seeing stories about ‘porn’ on the public sector broadcaster, even from papers for whom photos of naked and half-dressed celebrities are an everyday inclusion.

And if The Times and Sunday Times are so concerned about the public display of cocks, they should consider sacking the majority of their columnists.

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