This is an article that I have been thinking about writing for many months now. Mostly inspired by the fact that the world is slowly beginning to be filled with Karens and the rise of the snowflakes. You know, those people who endlessly complain and moan, while pissing on the cornflakes of people who just want to enjoy what they want to (legally) enjoy in terms of entertainment.
Pretty much every day, I hear of a story about a TV show or film being censored and edited, or steaming services removing episodes of a show because 6 people on Twitter complained about nothing. Comedians being ‘forced’ to apologise for telling a joke and more. In my eyes, if you don’t like something, then don’t watch it. Yet, it is the vast minority that is being heard over the majority. Let us adults decide what our delicate little brains can or can not handle. Still, all of these Karens and snowflakes are hardly a new thing, at least not for us Brits of a certain age. We’ve already lived through the dark ages of TV and film censorship. We had a Mary Whitehouse.
Seeing as it is 21 years to the day since Mary Whitehouse shuffled off this mortal coil, I thought I’d write this article of ‘remembrance’. Not to honour or respect Whitehouse in any way. But more of a look back on her reign of terror as one of the most annoying and unpleasant people to ever force her opinions onto anyone.
Mary Whitehouse was an art teacher in the 1950s. Her first foray into coming across as a complete bitch was when she wrote a lengthy article for The Sunday Times newspaper where she lambasted homosexuality and damned gay people with plenty of vitriol, real fire and brimstone stuff. Bearing in mind that homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967 and that gay people had no rights or voice then. So, her outburst wasn’t seen as shocking and blatant bigotry-filled hate speech back then as it would be today. In fact, it got a lot of support. Whitehouse continued her teaching career until 1964 when she gave up teaching to concentrate on her ranting full-time.
Becoming angry with what was being shown on TV (well, the BBC mainly), Mary Whitehouse teamed up with Norah Buckland (the wife of a vicar) and created her CUTV (Clean Up TV) campaign in January 1964. Hugh Greene, who was the director-general of the BBC at the time, soon became her nemesis. In fact, Whitehouse described him as ‘the devil incarnate’ and blamed Greene and the BBC’s programs for (in her opinion) the decline of the country. Whitehouse said of Greene that:
“If you were to ask me to name the one man who more than anybody else had been responsible for the moral collapse in this country, I would name Greene.”
Any and anything would set Mary Whitehouse off. If the BBC aired a show that even dared to suggest the very possible idea of pre-martial sex (or even marital sex), she would reel off one of her many letters to the BBC and complain. She’d even get pissed off if a program dared to show characters drinking alcohol.
Mary Whitehouse set up a petition, which gained over 500,000 signatures, to be sent to the BBC over their ‘obscene’ TV programs. Her CUTV campaign was gathering some momentum and Whitehouse, as its figurehead, was becoming well-known in her own right. Regularly holding talks at Birmingham Town Hall, which were attended by 1000s, she would speak out against the ‘filth’ being shown on the BBC. At one such meeting, local writer David Turner, stood up and berated Mary Whitehouse for her views. Turner claimed that Whitehouse was a threat to the integrity of legitimate art. If only he knew that this was just the beginning.
Not too long after David Turner gave Mary Whitehouse a piece of his mind at that meeting, the comedy-drama Swizzlewick (which Turner created and wrote for) featured a character called Mrs Smallgood, an obvious parody of Whitehouse. This would be the start of a long line of TV shows calling Mary Whitehouse out and highlighting her forced opinions.
In 1965, Hugh Greene delivered a speech in which he spoke out against certain campaigners. He never mentioned Mary Whitehouse or her CUTV campaign by name. Still, it was pretty obvious who and what his words were aimed at. During that speech, Greene said that such campaigns could lead to:
“a dangerous form of censorship, which works by causing artists and writers not to take risks.”
Mary Whitehouse’s CUTV thing only lasted until the end of 1965. Oh, don’t worry. She was not done yet, not by a long chalk. See, Whitehouse founded the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVALA) which just replaced CUTV. It was the same shit, just with a different name. With the name change came some semblance of legitimacy too. With CUTV, Whitehouse mainly attracted supporters from bored housewives who were as annoyingly pathetic as she was. With NVALA, she got politicians involved. People like the former cabinet minister, Bill Deedes and Quintin Hogg (AKA Lord Hailsham) became supporters.
Mary Whitehouse would still hound the BBC with letters whenever she found a program to be ‘offensive’. Due to her political connections, she began to send similar letters to the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Whitehouse and the NVALA were growing daily. Her letters to the PM were so frequent that it has been said that the staff at 10 Downing Street would often ‘accidentally’ lose her letters just so that they didn’t have to reply to them.
In 1965, the current affairs show Panorama aired an episode where they covered the liberation of the Nazi Belsen concentration camp on its 20th anniversary. The same concentration camp where Anne Frank died. Of course, Mary Whitehouse found something to complain about. She said that the program was ‘bound to shock and offend’ and called it ‘filth’. She really did like to use the word ‘filth’ as a descriptive. How and why a program celebrating the anniversary of British soldiers liberating a Nazi concentration camp and saving 1000s of innocent lives could be described as ‘filth’ by anyone, I have no idea… unless you were a Nazi yourself. Not that I am suggesting in any way that Mary Whitehouse was a Nazi, honest.
Mary Whitehouse’s letters were usually epic rants about the ‘filth’ and ‘smut’ that the BBC would show. She would count unsavoury language in TV shows and list it. Now, this was the mid-1960s, so the language was pretty ‘off-colour’. Words like ‘bloody’, Whitehouse would count each and every use and record it in her letters. The classic sitcom Till Death Us Do Part was one of her main targets. Alf Garnett and his very ‘un-PC’ ways often rubbed Mary Whitehouse up the wrong way. In one of the many, many letters, she said of the show that:
“I doubt if many people would use 121 bloodies in half-an-hour.”
Johnny Speight, who created and wrote Till Death Us Do Part, had to pay Whitehouse and the NVALA ‘substantial damages’ and give a full apology after he suggested, in an interview, that NVALA members were fascists.
In the Alf’s Dilemma episode of Till Death Us Do Part from 1967, Speight had Garnett reading a copy of Whitehouse’s book, Cleaning Up TV. Seemingly on the side of Mary Whitehouse, Alf Garnett began to agree with everything that she said. This, of course, just pissed Whitehouse off even more. It was a clever and deft bit of writing. A lesser writer would’ve had the character ranting and raving at Whitehouse. But instead, a character that she despised of and continually complained about was now praising and defending her. How could she damn a character that thought she was right, as that would make her wrong? Though, the episode does end with her book being burnt.
In 1969, Mary Whitehouse’s nemesis, Hugh Greene, left the BBC as its director-general. Whitehouse took great pleasure in taking credit for Greene leaving. Her continual letters must’ve eventually worn him down eh? Well no, Greene leaving the BBC had nothing to do with Whitehouse. In 1967 the chairman of the BBC, Norman Brook died. Brook and Greene were good friends and had a great working relationship. Anyway, Brook was replaced by Charles Hill, somebody that Hugh Greene really didn’t get on with at all. Still, Greene just wanted to retire anyway, so he did. His stepping down as the BBC’s director-general had nothing to do with Mary Whitehouse, even if she liked to claim that it did.
The Liberating 70s
The 1970s bought a whole load of more TV ‘filth’ for Mary Whitehouse to get writing letters about. The bawdy comedy stylings of Benny Hill became a major target for her and her letter-writing pen. Hill was famed for his use of sexy young women that were known as the ‘Hill’s Angels’ (yes, that lass off Frasier was one). These young lasses would often be wearing nowt much more than lingerie and swimsuits as they sang and danced on The Benny Hill Show. Out would come Mary Whitehouse’s pen and the angry letters began. It wasn’t just TV though as Whitehouse began to broaden her disdain for well, pretty much any and everything related to entertainment.
Music was another one of her targets. My Ding-a-Ling by Chuck Berry became a song that Whitehouse had an issue with. The song had always been a bit of a joke, a novelty song, a bit of fun. The story in the song is said to be about someone receiving a toy of ‘silver bells hanging on a string’. Look, here are the opening lyrics:
“When I was a little bitty boy
My grandmother bought me a cute little toy
Silver bells hanging on a string
She told me it was my ding-a-ling-a-ling, oh”
See, the song is about a boy getting a gift from his grandmother. Obviously, one could misconstrue the lyrics as being something more sexual and I am sure that was the intention of the song too. So obviously, Mary Whitehouse did see the song as being sexual and she tried to get the BBC to ban the song from being played on TV or the radio. As far as I can tell, she didn’t succeed. If going after Chuck Berry wasn’t enough, Whitehouse turned her attention to shock-rocker, Alice Cooper.
Cooper’s School’ s Out was slowly climbing the charts in 1972 and he was asked to perform the song on BBC’s premo music show at the time, Top of the Pops. Of course, Mary Whitehouse was having none of it. She began one of her campaigns to have the song and even Alice Copper himself banned from the BBC. The letters and the public speaking began, ‘filth’, ban this song and its singer! Whitehouse was outraged that such a ‘disgusting’ song and act could get publicity and be promoted by the BBC. However, her campaign backfired and if anything, actually helped School’ s Out in the long run. In fact, it reached number 1 in the charts here in the UK in 1972 and that certainly popularised Cooper himself. So happy with the result Alice Copper was, that he ended up sending a bunch of flowers to Mary Whitehouse to say ‘thank you’ for helping him become such a hit.
Even cinema was not safe from the Whitehouse wrath. Everyone knows the story of Stanley Kubrick pulling A Clockwork Orange from the cinema in the UK, right? Apparently, Kubrick voluntarily had the film pulled because he was worried that copycats would try to be the next Alex DeLarge. That’s only a half-truth. Stanley Kubrick actually pulled the film because he was getting tired of a campaign against the film that had been building in the UK. I’ll give you one guess as to who started the campaign against the film, to begin with.
Now, A Clockwork Orange was supposedly linked to a handful of crimes by the press, including murder and rape. However, there was never any proof that the film was to blame. At least, I can’t find any. Oh, I can find snippets from the press back then blaming the film, but no actual proof that those claims were true.
There was even something called a ‘Clockwork Orange defence’ used in some court cases back then, where the lawyer of the accused would put the blame on the film, even if there was no link. In fact, in one case an old homeless man, David McManus, was beaten and killed by a 16-year-old boy, Richard Palmer. The press said the film was to blame. However, Palmer admitted that he had never even seen A Clockwork Orange to be influenced by it. But that didn’t stop the press at the time as they were the ones making the links, even if there were none.
All of the negative press coverage that A Clockwork Orange was receiving at the time (true or not) was what spurred Mary Whitehouse to launch her campaign against it. That campaign grew and grew, to the point where Kubrick and his family began to receive death threats (the irony eh?) and he even had protesters outside of his home. Fearing what these people could do, Stanley Kubrick got pissed off with all the negativity and had the film pulled. Pulled not because he was concerned about copycats, but concerned for the safety of his family, a concern that was created and stirred up by Mary Whitehouse and her NVALA group. When he was asked about the possibility of his film creating copycat crimes, Kubrick said:
“To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, nor cause life. Furthermore, to attribute powerful suggestive qualities to a film is at odds with the scientifically accepted view that, even after deep hypnosis in a posthypnotic state, people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures”
If there was one thing that really rubbed Mary Whitehouse up the wrong way in the 1970s, that thing was Doctor Who. Whitehouse’s main issue with the program was that it was too violent for children. The fact that Doctor Who wasn’t a kid’s TV show seemed to completely go over her head. Yeah, I guess children could watch the show, but that doesn’t make it a kid’s TV show, does it? Children can watch the news, but it’s not aimed at them and you wouldn’t consider it children’s television.
Whitehouse once described Doctor Who as being ‘teatime brutality for tots’ and that it contained ‘some of the sickest and most horrific material seen on children’s television’. It wasn’t children’s television though. I’ve never watched Doctor Who and even I know that. It got to a point where Philip Hinchcliffe, who was the producer of Doctor Who in the late 70s said:
“I always felt that Mary Whitehouse thought of Doctor Who as a children’s programme, for little children, and it wasn’t, so she was really coming at the show from the wrong starting-point.”
There was one episode of Doctor Who called The Seeds of Doom where the then Doctor, Tom Baker, was attacked by a plant monster. Mary Whitehouse was so incensed by the violence that she went on to say:
“Strangulation by hand, by claw, by obscene vegetable matter is the latest gimmick, sufficiently close up so they get the point. And just for a little variety, show the children how to make a Molotov cocktail.”
I had to seek out this episode just so I could see for myself just how graphic it was… it’s not. As for the whole teaching children how to make a Molotov cocktail bit. Doctor Who was not a kid’s show, so it taught them nothing. It’s not like Doctor Who was trying to be Blue Peter. The episode doesn’t teach anyone how to make a Molotov cocktail. Even if it did, what kid in 1976 had open and easy access to glass bottles and paraffin liquid?
In another episode called The Deadly Assassin, Whitehouse made a complaint about the ending. To be more accurate, this was a four-part special and at the finale of part three, the Doctor is seemingly drowned and killed in a cliffhanger ending. It was this ending that got Mary Whitehouse’s dander up. She wrote one of her classic letters of complaint to the BBC saying that the drowning of the Doctor was too intense for children (in this, not a children’s TV show). The BBC showed that they had no backbone by giving Whitehouse an apology and they edited the master tape to remove the ending. This meant that whenever the episode was repeated, the Mary Whitehouse safe version had to be shown instead because the original no longer existed. For a while, it was believed that the unedited ending was lost. It was found years later and put back in for the DVD release in 2009.
Throughout most of the 1970s, Mary Whitehouse and her NVALA protest group boasted more than 150,000 members. Considering the time, and as this was way before the Internet and social media gave any and everyone a voice, that was a hell of a lot of miserable people moaning about music, TV and films. But, as the end of the 1970s came about, NVALA members dropped to around 30,000 members. Those dwindling numbers have never really been explained. Perhaps people’s perceptions were changed and all of those things that Whitehouse liked to describe as ‘filth’ slowly became the norm? Perhaps people just got tired of her ramblings and chose to ignore her? Either way, Mary Whitehouse still had a lot to bitch about as the 1980s began.
The Hateful 80s
Easily, the biggest impact that Mary Whitehouse and the NVALA had in the 1980s was the whole ‘Video Nasties’ movement. Now, I’m not going to go into great detail here, as this one thing alone could take up its own very lengthy article. But, the basics were that before Whitehouse got involved, VHS releases didn’t need to be passed for clarification by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) due to a loophole. This meant that before the 80s, videotapes of films were released fully uncensored and (usually) without age restrictions. Of course, Whitehouse didn’t like this one bit and a campaign was born to introduce a law that the BBFC would now have to classify VHS releases of films the result was the Video Recordings Act 1984.
This act tied with the Obscene Publications Act 1959 led to a lot of VHS films being heavily censored in the UK or even outright banned and soon became known as the Video Nasty list. 72 films were on the original list and a further 82 films were added to that list later in what became known as the (Director of Public Prosecutions) DPP List.
Now, while I am dead against censorship, I do agree that age restrictions should apply. However, if something is rated for adults, don’t go censoring (or even banning it) when it is for an adult audience. The Video Recordings Act 1984 had far stricter rules for films released on video than if that same film had been released in the cinema. So, even when films were released on VHS after a cinema run, they would still be edited a lot of the time.
Numerous films were given the ‘Video Nasty’ label and were cut or outright banned from release. It took until 1998 when the director of the BBFC, James Ferman, retired before the rules were relaxed. A slew of films from 1999 onwards began to see full and uncut releases here in the UK. Still, it was a dark time for entertainment here, an age of over-the-top censorship that lasted for almost 20 years. One that was headed up by Mary Whitehouse.
When Whitehouse was not busy getting films banned in the UK, she still had time to show her disdain for TV. In the 1980s, she had more channels to moan about too. Channel 4 launched in the UK in 1982 and Mary Whitehouse found plenty to get writing letters of ‘disgust’ about.
When it originally launched, Channel 4 was always seen as and intended to be a channel that pushed broadcasting boundaries (nowadays, they censor episodes of The Simpsons). They showed films and TV shows that the other channels wouldn’t dare to. Brookside was one of Channel 4’s flagship shows, a soap opera set in Liverpool that had a much harder edge than other soaps of the day. Stories involving, sex, violence and more. Very tame by today’s standards but in 1982, this was a red rag to a bull for Mary Whitehouse. She objected to Brookside using (what is now and even then) very mild swearing. Just as she did in the 1960s with Alf Garnett, Whitehouse would sit there, watch Brookside and list all of the swearing and then write a letter of complaint to Channel 4 and her political friends. It got to the point where Mary Whitehouse called for the resignation of Jeremy Isaacs, who was the founding chief executive of Channel 4 at the time. He stayed at Channel 4 until 1987 when he left to become the General Director of the Royal Opera House. And no, his leaving had nothing to do with Mary Whitehouse or her letters.
Mary Whitehouse even had issues with the ITV show, Robin of Sherwood. A more up-to-date (for the time) version of the Robin Hood tale. It was a popular and very watchable show that was for family viewing, not children’s TV. This is where Whitehouse and the NVALA made the same mistakes that they did with Doctor Who, it wasn’t a kid’s show. Still, that didn’t stop Whitehouse from labelling the show as being ‘unsuitable for children’. Robin of Sherwood had things like sword fights in it, but no blood or any real or detailed violence to speak of. Think of it as a Robin Hood version of The A-Team, with far fewer cabbage cannons. But of course, Whitehouse became incensed by the ‘violence’ and felt that the show was anti-Christian too. The episode called The Swords of Wayland angered Whitehouse because she felt that it had a Satanic plot and villains. Then, The Greatest Enemy episode depicted a ‘resurrection’ of the Robin Hood character (not really) and Mary Whitehouse said that it was disrespectful to Christianity.
During one of her many public rants, Mary Whitehouse was doing her usual of telling everyone that TV was evil and ‘filth’. Little did she know that Richard Carpenter, the writer of Robin of Sherwood, was in the audience. After Whitehouse had finished ranting about TV and the evils of the Robin of Sherwood show, Carpenter stood up and said:
“I’m Richard Carpenter, and I’m a professional writer. And you’re a professional… what?”
Apparently, the gathered crowd and Mary Whitehouse herself fell deathly quiet. He had a point though, she may have had some clout but Whitehouse was a nobody. Just a bitter old woman trying to tell people what they could or couldn’t watch.
In 1989, Mary Whitehouse got herself into a bit of trouble. She was on the BBC Radio show In the Psychiatrist’s Chair and was talking about celebrated writer Dennis Potter and his controversial drama, The Singing Detective. For those not in the know, Potter suffered from psoriatic arthropathy and The Singing Detective’s main character also suffered from the same disease. The drama infamously featured a scene where a young boy saw his own mother having sex. So, Whitehouse made a connection that the reason why Dennis Potter suffered from psoriatic arthropathy was that he, as a young boy, saw his mother having sex with a stranger. I guess she had issues with differentiating between fiction and real life? Or, to use Mary Whitehouse’s own words, Potter’s mother:
“…committed adultery with a strange man and that the shock of witnessing this had caused her son to be afflicted.”
Now, I’m not a medical expert and I know very little about psoriatic arthritis, other than it being a disease that is very painful on the joints and can cause the skin to go scaly and itchy. I may know little about the disease, but I am 100% sure that you can’t contract it by seeing your mother having sex. Even if you could, Whitehouse just outright saying that was how Denis Potter came down with psoriatic arthritis was complete bullshit and based on absolutely nothing. Mrs Potter went on to sue Mary Whitehouse and the BBC for libel in 1990 and she won too. As an excuse, Whitehouse claimed that she had a ‘blackout’ during the interview and had no idea what she was saying at the time.
The End Of An Era, The Beginning Of Another
In 1988, Mary Whitehouse suffered a fall while gardening and injured her spine. She had to take it easy and began to step away from her anti-everything campaigns over the years. Eventually, she left the NVALA in 1994, after 30 years of moaning because a fictional character in a sitcom said ‘bloody’ on the TV. Mary Whitehouse lived out the rest of he life in a nursing home in Colchester before passing away 21 years ago today, aged 91.
Even though this is a pretty lengthy article, I have only lightly dusted off a few of Mary Whitehouse’s rants and raves. Trust me, she did a lot more than this brief highlight reel here.
Over the years, a lot of people have made fun of Mary Whitehouse, even when she was alive. The Monty Python team had a pop with this animation. Barry Humphries’ iconic Dame Edna Everage character was partly inspired by Whitehouse. Caroline Aherne’s Mrs Merton character also came from Mary Whitehouse. In fact, Whitehouse was even a guest on The Mrs Merton Show in the first series.
Of course, there was also the BBC 2 topical comedy show, The Mary Whitehouse Experience. Not only named after the useless busybody, but the show was specifically given that title as it featured near-the-knuckle humour that would purposely rub Whitehouse up the wrong way. The Deep Purple song, Mary Long, is about Mary Whitehouse too. Really, Mary Whitehouse and the NVALA became more of the butt of a joke in the later years and were largely forgotten about.
It may be 21 years since Mary Whitehouse died, but she’s still here. You know that scene in Gremlins when the evil Stripe jumps into a swimming pool to make many more evil offspring gremlins? That is what happened to Whitehouse. She fell into the swimming pool and ‘birthed’ the snowflakes that we have now. Only, where Mary Whitehouse had to rely on letters and the postal service to force her cancel culture opinions onto others. Now, people have the Internet and (let’s be honest, mainly) Twitter. All of these little Whitehouses can now directly @ performer or a company and instantly vent their displeasure.
A comedian tells a joke that someone didn’t like and instead of just letting it wash over, they now send a Tweet. @ the comedian, their agent, the platform they told the joke on and there you go. Next comes the forced (and faux) apology, the grovelling from whoever was involved with the joke. TV shows from the past are now heavily edited with huge chunks of dialogue and even plot removed. Sometimes, the show itself is removed in its entirety. Yeah, some shows from the 60s, 70s and 80s (even some of the 90s) would not work now… but that’s the point. They were not made in the 2020s. They serve as a snapshot of those times. So, editing (or outright removing) these shows now makes zero sense. If you are going to be ‘offended’ by certain words and situations, then don’t watch.
The thing is that Whitehouse’s NVALA still exists to this day Given a name change to Mediawatch-UK in 2001 after Mary Whitehouse’s death. The group no longer boasts the impressive number of members it did in its heydays of the 1960s and 70s. There are only around 5,000 registered members of Mediawatch-UK these days… but they do still try to piss on people’s cornflakes regardless.
Even so, I may not have agreed with Whitehouse and I do detest censorship and everything that comes with it. However, I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit to some kind of admiration for her and what she was trying to do. There is something to be said for someone who is willing to dedicate 30 years of their life to a cause (right or wrong), it’s commendable and shows a lot of determination.
Here’s to you Mary Whitehouse, the Mother of the Twitter moaners and the Queen of the snowflakes. Just look at what you have wrought.