"Filth", the Julie Walters biopic of Mary Whitehouse shown on BBC2 a couple of weeks ago, generated a fair bit of comment in the press and was warmly received. The dramatisation followed the early years of her campaigning, and didn’t stretch as far as the Video Nasty era.
A rehabilitation of sorts, “Filth” concerned itself with Mary Whitehouse the person, presenting a human side to the famously single-minded media campaigner, and her admittedly courageous confrontations with the then totally unaccountable BBC. She was portrayed as a plucky, slightly batty English eccentric with some rather old-fashioned beliefs.
To get a better insight into Whitehouse I went down to the BFI on London’s South Bank to make use of their new public access archives, where I found an earlier BBC film, an Everyman documentary from 1977 called “Blasphemy at the Old Bailey.” This impressively simple and informative film followed the trial of the British gay newspaper Gay News for its publication of the poem “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name”, famously the only work of literature still banned in the UK*, a prosecution brought by Mary Whitehouse.
“Blasphemy at the Old Bailey” reports on Whitehouse’s reasons for bringing her prosecution against Gay News in a series of short interviews. Here we see the Christian morals skated over in “Filth” explored, and they are frighteningly narrow and small-minded. She talks of the people involved in Gay News as “people who have turned their back on Christ” who strike at the very heart of the public, as “religious feelings are a person’s essence.” The trial was “somewhere where the great spiritual truths of Christendom are being fought out.” “I did what I did in the name of the Lord.”
The poem is about a Roman centurion who has sex with the dead body of Christ, an act through which he finds salvation. Although like most art its message is ambiguous, it is not a difficult piece of work. It juxtaposes its shocking content with love and spiritual ecstasy. Whilst technically necrophilic sex with the body of Christ is quite obviously blasphemous, in the poem that blasphemy is comprehensibly undermined by religious redemption.
That Mary Whitehouse didn’t understand this shows her disinterest in the subject she devoted her life to. Art was alien to her: all she saw were selected affronts to her values leaping from the page, their context lost. She completely misunderstood the things she read and watched. Yet Whitehouse dictated the censorship debate in Britain for decades, and was instrumental in the creation of the Video Nasty list - amongst much worse things of course, the sentencing of the editor of Gay News for Blasphemy being one.
In some ways Julie Walters’ affectionate dramatisation is fair enough. Now she’s gone, we can chuckle at Whitehouse’s crusade and be thankful things aren’t like that any more. But we shouldn't forget that through a mixture of arrogance, stupidity and hatred Mary Whitehouse did serious damage to the arts in Britain.
*The last piece of literature to be banned in the UK was the 1989 novel “Lord Horror” by David Britton, a gay sadomasochistic vision of an alternative Nazi-ruled UK which libeled the then Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, James Anderton. The ban was later overturned.