‘Stupid old bat.’ That’s what my father always used to say when Mary Whitehouse appeared on the screen, and the older I grew the more I agreed with him. What right had this ghastly woman with her horn-rimmed specs and silly hats and Black Country accent to stand between me and ‘the torrents of filth’ I would happily have watched on TV all day and all night?
But Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story (BBC2, Wednesday) wasn’t going to let us off so easily. It opened up in one of those picture-perfect villages from the past we’d all like to live in — the steepled church, the well-tended hedges, the working post office, grown-ups smiling greetings to one another on their bicycles, boys in blazers and caps who were probably at the local C of E and getting the sort of unashamedly rigorous education you now only get at private schools...
‘Now see here,’ it seemed to be saying to people like me. ‘This was the England the old bat wanted to preserve. Can you really condemn her for trying?’
A few scenes later we had the counter-argument. Mrs Whitehouse (an on-top-form Julie Walters) is musing aloud to her long-suffering husband Ernest. ‘Oral sex,’ she says, in bafflement and disgust. ‘Now, really, what sort of person would want to do a thing like that?’ Ernest (beautifully played by Alun Armstrong) runs a tongue thoughtfully over his lips, and keeps his counsel. You know exactly what’s going through his head.
On the face of it, Mrs Whitehouse’s bête-noir Sir Hugh Carleton Greene was a much more attractive figure. As played by Hugh Bonneville, he came across as an amusingly potty-mouthed, caustic bon viveur with a sound appreciation of foxy blondes, cricket and fine wine and a hatred of paperwork and cant. His initial response to Mrs Whitehouse was to commission a portrait of her with seven bare breasts.
He also had all the best lines, notably his bravura rant when the BBC chairman Lord Hill tried arguing that Mrs Whitehouse should be heeded. ‘If she had her way,’ spits Greene, ‘all we’d show would be Andy bloody Pandy. And she’d stop him climbing into that basket with Looby Loo, let alone Teddy, lest some innocent child be corrupted by the whiff of puppet troilism.’
Just when you thought you’d got everyone measured, though, Amanda Coe’s fizzing script and Andy de Emmony’s sharp direction pulled the rug from under your feet. There was a good example of this when Greene asks his wife to pass the butter. ‘What’s the magic word?’ she asks. ‘Pass the f***ing butter,’ he replies, and, for a beat, you think what a saucy, japeish fellow he is. But then the camera pans across the long, patrician Greene dining table, past the faces of his boys, and you suddenly find yourself turning into Mrs Whitehouse. ‘Hang on a second,’ you think. ‘Is that really the message a chap should be sending his children?’
It performed a similarly deft somersault in a scene involving the Whitehouse boys. They’re all at a typical late-Sixties groovy party, and a sexy girl is trying to persuade them to get drunk and dance. But the boys all refuse, because they know from Mum that premarital sex is wrong. ‘Oh dear, the poor, sad, loser squares,’ you think. Cut to a scene in which the girl is apologising to the tabloid journalist who has clearly given her a bribe. ‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘They just weren’t interested.’
So which side did the programme ask us to come down on in the end? The refreshing thing was, it never did. You could despise Mrs Whitehouse for the silliness of her prejudices (she once actually wrote in to complain about a scene in which Pinky and Perky had been shown abusing adults; and she fought hard to have a broadcast of ‘I Am the Walrus’ banned because of the line ‘Boy you’ve been a naughty girl, you’ve let your knickers down’). You could recognise her essential absurdity (if the film was to be believed, she originally planned to call her campaign Clean Up National TV — till her husband pointed out the unfortunate acronym). But nonetheless, the film argued, you had to admire her courage and determination in the face of so much intransigence and abuse.
And in the end, of course, the silly old bat had a point. With its loathing of ‘hideously white’ Middle England, its slow but sure dumbing-down and its lofty disdain towards anyone who doesn’t share its groovy bien-pensant values, the BBC really has helped make Britain a demonstrably worse place than when Mary Whitehouse started her campaign in the late Sixties. Greene’s stint as director-general was the point when the rot set in.
Then, again, this brilliant drama was a BBC production. So it can’t have lost it completely, can it?