Was the campaigner a misunderstood girlboss? No

Poor Mary Whitehouse. As a fiercely anti-progressive schoolteacher, the 60s can’t have been the best time to live through.

Banned! The Mary Whitehouse Story vibrantly portrayed the decade’s explosion of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Look one way and DH Lawrence’s newly published and famously racy Lady Chatterley’s Lover was staring you in the face. Look the other, and the Profumo affair – the government-destabilising romance between a British minister and model (Christine Keeler) – was splashed across the newspapers.

Last night’s first episode in this two-part documentary showed how Whitehouse cast herself as the “avenging angel of Middle England”; it drew on archive footage and interviews to explore her 30-year campaign against social liberalism.

The show was billed as the story of the original “cancel culture” warrior, which was both unnecessary and highly dubious – I’m not sure those campaigning for social justice today would be keen on being linked to a woman whose name is basically a synonym for censorship.

Yet, thankfully the documentary itself focused on Whitehouse rather than any flimsy modern comparisons. “She’s an important figure… because she does keep cropping up. Every now and then there’s an article that says: Mary Whitehouse was right,” said the curator of her archive, Dr Sarah Demelo. While the film was too nuanced to draw easy answers, underpinning everything was the question of whether, in particular respects, she was. Does our contemporary reading of Whitehouse as a prudish conservative whose views are as outdated as her tightly-curled hairdo need an update?

Inevitably, in the era of the girlboss, we were invited to see Whitehouse as a relentless hustler, a 54-year-old teacher and housewife who managed to build an influential political movement. She managed to present her organisation, The National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, as a powerful institution, when it was, we were told, often just “her with a typewriter”.

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Hearing about her criticism of the way television had started to discuss sex before marriage and abortion swiftly put paid to any ideas of her as a misunderstood feminist. Her “Clean Up TV” campaign argued the BBC was pouring “disbelief, doubt and dirt into millions of homes”.

Yet as the 70s dawned and her focus moved from TV to the era’s counterculture, the picture became knottier. First of all, I think I’d become a advocate of censorship if I were regularly confronted with the cartoon of Rupert Bear with an erection that caused controversy at the time (it is inadvisable to Google this).

Then there was her objection to Bernardo Bertolucci’s film Last Tango in Paris, which depicted a rape scene, of which it later turned out the actor playing the victim had no prior warning.

“I thought the blurring of consent existed fictionally, but it existed in real life,” said the film critic Peter Bradshaw, adding that Whitehouse was on the money in her awareness of how “these things have a moral dimension in the real world”.

Indeed, footage of one of Whitehouse’s speeches shown at the episode’s close could have been made by feminist politicians today. “Porn is a male commodity, made by men, for men,” she said. “We must consider the effects of porn on women and children.”

A compelling and balanced look at Whitehouse, then, that showed how she, often just like the material she argued against, can’t be viewed in black and white.

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