Julie Walters as Mary Whitehouse
The Mary Whitehouse Story
Prolific media campaigner and one-time Shropshire teacher Mary Whitehouse has become the stuff of broadcasting legend, attracting fans and critics alike.
The BBC's 2008 drama Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, starring Julie Walters, provided a timely reminder of the campaigner's legacy. Broadcast some 40 years after her early clashes with the BBC, and in a very different media environment, the drama offered a fascinating insight into her relationship with the industry and the TV-viewing public.
During the 60s Mary Whitehouse was a teacher and senior mistress at Madeley Modern School in Telford, now the Abraham Darby School. Among her many duties she was responsible for delivering sex education classes.
Many observers suggest that it was her experiences as a teacher and the attitudes of her pupils (informed by her Christian values) that led her to take up her crusade against broadcasters, especially the BBC.
Director of Mediawatch-UK John Beyer, a former colleague of Mary Whitehouse, believes that it was her time as a senior mistress at Madeley Modern that inspired the Clean Up TV campaign: "What she was very conscious of was that television was influencing the girls in her school in such a way that it was undermining her role as a teacher."
In 1964 Mary Whitehouse officially launched her now-famous Clean Up TV campaign and a year later formed the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (NVLA), which was renamed Mediawatch-UK in 2001.
Mary Whitehouse's exploits live on, not only within broadcasting legend, but popular culture as a whole. She inevitably polarised opinion, lauded and lampooned almost in equal measure.
Many flocked to her cause (her 1963 petition was signed by a then record 500,000 people), and even Margaret Thatcher shared elements of Whitehouse's vision - offering her a dialogue that was avoided by Harold Wilson's government.
Yet others, particularly among the 60s' younger generation, viewed her as either an stifling, aspiring autocrat or a figure of ridicule. Some have identified her attacks on Jackanory, Doctor Who and even the violence within Tom & Jerry cartoons as being somewhat wide of the mark. TV satires and comedy shows That Was The Week That Was, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Not The Nine O'Clock News and Spitting Image all saw her as an easy target.
The Mary Whitehouse Experience
In the 1990s her name provided the title for popular BBC comedy The Mary Whitehouse Experience. In the same decade Caroline Aherne's comedy chat show persona Mrs Merton owed more than a nod to Mary Whitehouse, not only in terms of looks.
She was also immortalised, not always in the most flattering terms, in songs by Deep Purple, Pink Floyd and punk band The Adicts.
Former Controller of BBC One and Chairman of the BBC and current ITV Chairman Michael Grade described Whitehouse as a "sincere" and "courageous" campaigner, but "out of touch entirely with the real world".
While it's difficult to identify any significant influence Mary Whitehouse had on TV programming, or the attitudes of a new generation, she consistently brought the issue of standards in broadcasting to the top of the agenda. More importantly she played a key role in influencing legislation, including the the Protection of Children Act 1978, the Indecent Displays Act 1981 and most recently the 1990 Broadcasting Act.
last updated: 12/06/2008 at 16:06