Ban this filth!

A Britain in which large numbers of people could be scandalised by the use of the word “bloody” in a television sitcom, or by a cabinet minister implying that premarital sex might not automatically lead to eternal damnation, seems an impossibly distant place. Such, though, was the national stage that Mary Whitehouse, a 53-year-old Shropshire schoolteacher, strode on to less than 50 years ago. And our new-found awareness of the darkness that lurked behind some of the most firmly closed of establishment doors at that time – from the BBC to Broadmoor – lends a fresh twist to some of her most apocalyptic rhetoric.

From the launch of her Clean Up TV Campaign in early 1964, the name of Mary Whitehouse became a byword for moral censure. Her strident jeremiads and determined but seemingly unavailing attempts to stop the sixties swinging led one contemporary commentator (in this very newspaper) to describe her as a “little Canute, exhorting the waves of moral turpitude to retreat”. Yet, after spending the past nine months compiling an anthology of her voluminous correspondence, I have come to believe that this supposedly antediluvian figure might also have been the harbinger, if not quite the agent, of a turn in the tide of our cultural history.

As I returned the last of the 300 large box files of the Mary Whitehouse archive to its place on the shelf in a temperature-controlled concrete basement and emerged blinking into the sunlight, one aspect at least of the national landscape looked strangely familiar. To see a new BBC director-general, the recently appointed George Entwistle, striding past outstretched microphones – apparently oblivious to the notion that he might bear any responsibility for the earlier actions (or, in the case of the Jimmy Savile scandal, inactions) of the publicly-funded corporation he heads – was perhaps to experience the same kind of frustration that prompted Whitehouse to embark on her 37-year campaigning odyssey.

In the early 1960s Mary Whitehouse was first spurred into action by the determination of Hugh Carleton Greene, the BBC’s then DG, that “in matters of liberalising, the BBC should be a little ahead”. In assuming the role of spokeswoman for those who believed that when it came to changing social mores, the BBC should, in fact, be some way behind, she opened herself up to decades of liberal opprobrium. However, in the 11 years since her death in November 2001, the battle-lines have become considerably more blurred.

The very location of the archive of Whitehouse’s National Viewers’ And Listeners’ Association in the University of Essex (an erstwhile radical hotbed whose students picketed her nearby home in the aftermath of her infamous private prosecution of the editor of Gay News) testifies to the shifting currents of opinion. From Mumsnet to the Taliban, feminist anti-pornography campaigns to the executive naming and shaming strategies of UK Uncut, her ideological and tactical influence has been discernible in all sorts of unexpected places in recent years. So what new light did her private papers shed on Mary Whitehouse’s disputatious legacy?

On untying the pink ribbons that lend Whitehouse’s endless sheaves of original and photocopied documents a suitably chintzy outward demeanour, the first of many surprises to emerge was that – far from the image of the devout everywoman she successfully cultivated throughout her career – Whitehouse had considerable media experience long before she became a household name. A broadcast she made for Woman’s Hour in 1953 as a loyal housewife and subject on the day before the Queen’s coronation is in the public domain but there is no mention, in any of her six volumes of autobiography, of the long anonymous article she wrote about homosexuality for the Sunday Times in the same year.

So extensive was the correspondence generated by her anguished personal investigation into how a mother might best avoid inadvertently pressuring her sons towards that particular orientation that The Sunday Times republished it as a special booklet. The paper later credited the ensuing debate with stimulating a new public appetite for addressing this issue, which ultimately (and somewhat ironically, given Whitehouse’s later vehement antipathy towards what she would contemptuously term “the gay lobby”) culminated in the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Alongside her improbable (and unintended) reincarnation as godmother of gay equality, Whitehouse emerges from her archive in a number of other unlikely guises. One is as the inadvertent perpetrator of sexual libel who was once sued for damages by Dennis Potter’s mother. Another is the fearless provocateur who once sent an unmarked package of child pornography to the office of Cardinal Basil Hume. The head of the Roman Catholic church in England had asked Whitehouse for help in understanding the true nature of the scourge they were jointly trying to fight but she was worried that, if she sent these problematic samples in her official capacity, the newspapers might have a field day. So far, so sensible. It was only in her decision to send him anonymously the “kiddie porn” (one of many tabloid battle-cries of which Whitehouse was at least the midwife) that she showed the stuff of a true maverick.

I think the most surprising of all these different Mary Whitehouses is the unrepentant showbiz wannabe. A cache of black and white photos shows the supposed über-prude flirting with Mick Jagger on a TV chat show, posing for a promotional photo with TV presenter Hughie Green and a bevy of dancing girls, pursuing Peter Cook in a bumper car at David Frost’s New Year’s eve party. Perhaps her remorseless assaults on the “permissiveness” of the 1960s and 1970s might also usefully be seen as her way of joining in the fun.

Of course, the more familiar Mary Whitehouse is here too – the remorseless pursuer of double entendres in otherwise “delightful” family entertainment such as The Black and White Minstrel Show, the tireless kvetcher about gay characters in EastEnders – but even these interactions have a twist in the tail. BBC directors-general and chairmen of governors are not people for whom many of us feel instinctive sympathy and fondness, but the patience and delicacy with which some of Sir Hugh Greene’s less patrician and stand-offish inheritors dealt with her endless complaints stand as an object lesson to those who hold those positions today in how to engage with public disquiet.

“Touché,” wrote BBC chairman Sir Michael Swann, graciously putting his hands up after she had caught him in a rare moment of inconsistency. “You do your homework extremely well.”

Her lengthy correspondences with BBC executives found them interrogating the principles of free expression and editorial independence with a thoroughness that might not have been required had Whitehouse’s strictures not demanded it. They are often at their most eloquent defending cultural phenomena (from the Sex Pistols’ salty language to pop artist Claes Oldenburg’s provocative sculptures) of which they did not necessarily approve, and the patrician rigour of these exchanges was the one aspect of her archive that (for me at least) prompted genuine feelings of nostalgia.

“I find sweaty, gyrating and noisy performances like his repulsive” the then BBC chairman Lord Hill wrote of Jimi Hendrix in 1969, “so I imagine do you. But that, it seems, is what some pop music is about.” Comparing the vitality of the art Whitehouse complained about (Hendrix, Cathy Come Home) with the blandness of much of today’s entertainment (Emeli Sandé, say, or Downton Abbey), it is tempting to conclude that the capacity to elicit disapproval could even be a useful marker of a vigorous pop culture.

As a child growing up in the 1970s, the main impression I remember having of Whitehouse was as someone who publicly took to task things – pop music, TV comedy – that I very much liked. As an adult, my career has involved writing about, and in collaboration with, people (such as Scum and EastEnders star Phil Daniels, Daily Mail bête noire Russell Brand, and rapper Dizzee Rascal) whose work Whitehouse either campaigned to restrict or would have done had she lived long enough.

It was from this perspective that the idea of giving her a fair hearing particularly appealed. Artistic iconoclasts from Marcel Duchamp to Johnny Rotten have traditionally been lionised for their destructive genius, so why shouldn’t the creativity and wit channelled through Whitehouse’s “anti-art” postures also get their due? The opportunity to learn from people we do not agree with is one of the blessings of living in a democracy, and for all her apparent small-mindedness, this was one lesson Whitehouse definitely seems to have learnt.

Her acuity and ruthlessness as a manipulator of the media were a match for any revolutionary. For all her oft-stated concern for privacy, Whitehouse’s conviction that no action should be taken without a flurry of press releases and no supposedly off-the-record conversation with a government minister or head of light entertainment need ever go unbroadcast could be said to make her the missing evolutionary link between the Women’s Institute and WikiLeaks.

Probably Whitehouse’s single most significant historical act was her reinvigoration of the virtually defunct concept of blasphemy throughout the Gay News prosecution of 1977. When the paper’s editor Denis Lemon decided to publish an early poem (which even its author considered “lacked maturity”) by the poet James Kirkup about a Roman centurion’s necrophile assault on the body of Jesus, he provided the perfect platform for a Christian moral crusade.

It was not Mary Whitehouse’s intention that her gospel of religiously motivated censorship would subsequently be preached most zealously by those of other faiths, but that was exactly what happened. Her reassertion of the primacy of faith over reason can be seen to have foreshadowed many of the 21st century’s most self-consciously forward-looking cultural manifestations.

Was her practice of counting the “bloodies” (she claimed to have detected more than a hundred in some episodes of Till Death Us Do Part) really any more inherently absurd than the idea that aggregative websites such as Metacritic can satisfactorily reflect the aesthetic climate by representing critical opinions numerically? And, although the political assumptions underlying their quickness to take offence might be very different (the individual foot soldiers of this latter-day green biro brigade would certainly be alarmed to look in the mirror and see those familiar horn-rimmed glasses staring back at them), are the mobs of angry Tweeters who patrol our cultural landscape in search of a word said or written out of turn really anything other than Whitehouse’s digital inheritors?

Everywhere you look in 2012’s media landscape, images of participation and interactivity distract from the eclipse of real engagement. If the career of Mary Whitehouse can teach us anything, perhaps it’s that the moral ramifications of culture are a subject worth having a serious argument about.

You don’t need to go into an archive to find evidence to support that proposition. Just like the intimations of child abuse in the television shows of Jimmy Savile – to whom this lifelong campaigner against the sexualisation of minors presented her National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association award for wholesome family entertainment in 1977 – it is hidden in plain sight.

‘Ban This Filth! Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive’ (Faber, £16.99), edited by Ben Thompson, is out now

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