Mary Whitehouse: Wikis


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Mary Whitehouse CBE (13 June 1910 – 23 November 2001) was a British campaigner for what she perceived to be values of morality and decency derived from her Christian beliefs. She began by focusing her efforts on the broadcast media, which she regarded as highly influential, and where she felt these values were particularly lacking. Later, she made notable interventions over publications and theatrical productions of which she disapproved, becoming involved in several cases of litigation. She was the founder and first president of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, now known as mediawatch-uk.


Early life

Born Constance Mary Hutcheson in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England, Whitehouse won a scholarship to Chester City Grammar School.[1] On leaving, she did two years of unpaid apprentice teaching at St John's School, Chester, and attended the Cheshire County Teacher Training College in Crewe, specialising in secondary school art teaching. Hutcheson was involved with the Student Christian Movement before qualifying in 1932. She became an art teacher at Lichfield Road School, Wednesfield, Staffordshire, where she stayed for eight years.

She joined the Oxford Group, later known as Moral Re-Armament (MRA), in the 1930s. At MRA meetings, she met Ernest Raymond Whitehouse; they married in 1940 and remained married until Ernest's death, in Colchester, aged 87, in 2000.[2] The couple had five sons, two of whom (twins) died in infancy.[3]

After raising her children and returning to teaching, she became responsible for sex education, at Madeley Modern School in Shropshire in the early 1960s. At this time, shocked at the response of her pupils to moral issues, she became concerned about what she and many others perceived as declining moral standards in the British media, especially in the BBC.

"Clean Up TV" campaigns

Mary Whitehouse began her campaign in 1963. Among her first targets was Sir Hugh Greene, then director-general of the BBC, who she claimed was "more than anybody else [...] responsible for the moral collapse in this country".[4] Greene ignored her concerns and blocked her from participation in BBC programming. Over 2,000 people attended the 'Clean Up TV Campaign's first public meeting on 4 May 1964,[5] which was held in Birmingham's Town Hall. The National Viewers' and Listeners' Association was formed in November 1965;[5] she obtained a total of 500,000 signatures on her 'Clean Up TV' petition to be sent to the Queen.

Through the letters she frequently sent to Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, Whitehouse caused particular difficulties for civil servants at 10 Downing Street.[6] These letters expressed her belief that, through the Royal Charter, ultimate responsibility for BBC output lay with the Government, rather than with the BBC's governors whom she felt to be failing in their duties; the then BBC chairman did meet her. For some time Downing Street intentionally "lost" her letters to avoid having to respond to them.[6] Georffrey Robertson, QC, suggests that when Greene left the BBC, in 1969, contrary to the view that it was because of disagreements over the appointment of the Conservative Lord Hill as BBC chairman in 1967, whereby Whitehouse could be given some credit for his departure, it was more to do with a political struggle between the BBC and Wilson.[7] With Malcolm Muggeridge and others she organised the Nationwide Festival of Light in 1971 leading to a mass rally in Trafalgar Square which 50,000 people attended.[5]

Whitehouse criticised adult entertainment like Goodfellas, the work of Dennis Potter and A Clockwork Orange. She was also critical of comedians such as Benny Hill and his use of dancers, she described Dave Allen as "Offensive, indecent and embarrassing"; of the satirical comedy Till Death Us Do Part she said, "I doubt if many people would use 121 bloodies in half-an-hour", and "Bad language coarsens the whole quality of our life. It normalises harsh, often indecent language, which despoils our communication." She claimed that Doctor Who had nightmare qualities, saying it "Contains some of the sickest, most horrible material"[8] and describing it as "teatime brutality for tots".[9] Her criticism of Doctor Who was especially frequent while Tom Baker played the Doctor and the series was produced by Philip Hinchcliffe between 1975 and 1977. She made complaints about several of the serials during this era, particularly "The Ark in Space",[10] "Genesis of the Daleks",[11] "The Brain of Morbius"[12] and "The Seeds of Doom".[13] Following "The Deadly Assassin" in 1976, she wrote her strongest letter of complaint yet to the BBC about the content of the serial and received an apology from Director-General Charles Curran. The freeze-frame ending to the third episode, in which Tom Baker appeared to be drowning, was subsequently edited.[14] The BBC ordered the series' next producer, Graham Williams, to lighten the tone and reduce the violence and horror following Whitehouse's complaints.

One of her main early targets was the television drama series Swizzlewick. In one incident she delivered a letter in person to the UK Comptroller-General to get indecent matter cut from an episode of Swizzlewick, after a television studio worker leaked an advance copy of that episode's script to her. She was told "It's too late to re-shoot.", and answered "I don't want re-shooting, I want cuts."; when that episode was shown, a BBC announcer apologised for the episode being shorter than usual "for technical reasons".[citation needed]

Private prosecutions

In addition to her activities regarding standards in television content, Whitehouse brought a number of notable legal actions, including a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against Gay News in 1977 (Whitehouse v. Lemon), the first such prosecution since 1922. The private prosecution concerned a poem, "The Love that Dares to Speak its Name" by James Kirkup, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Gay News lost the case, both the editor and his paper were fined, with Lemon receiving a nine-month suspended prison sentence. The Court of Appeal and the House of Lords dismissed appeals, although Lemon’s sentence was quashed.[15]

Geoffrey Robertson, QC (the barrister for Gay News in the case) described Whitehouse as homophobic in The Times in 2008, when he said "Her fear of homosexuals was visceral"..[7] He describes the beliefs she reveals in her book, Whatever Happened to Sex? as "nonsense", such as her assertion that "homosexuality was caused by abnormal parental sex 'during pregnancy or just after'", saying that for her, "being gay was like having acne: 'Psychiatric literature proves that 60 per cent of homosexuals who go for treatment get completely cured'”.[7] The Scotsman, in 2008, while asking whether society might have benefited from Whitehouse's campaign, also points to this case when it said "Whitehouse’s views on homosexuality were extraordinarily prejudiced"[16]

In 1982 she pursued a private prosecution against Michael Bogdanov, the director of a National Theatre production of Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain, which had a scene of simulated anal rape, under the Sexual Offences Act 1956, s13, which described the offence of "procuring an act of gross indecency". Because this was a general Act, there was no possibility of defense on the basis of artistic merit, unlike that permitted under the Obscene Publications Act. The defence argued that the Act did not apply to the theatre; the judge ruled that it did. Since Whitehouse had not herself seen the play, the prosecution evidence rested on the testimony of a single witness: Graham Ross-Cornes, her solicitor. The evidence was withdrawn which led to the Attorney General intervening, and the case was withdrawn by Whitehouse. Both sides claimed a victory, one side that the important legal point had been made with the ruling on the applicability of the Sexuual Offences Act; Bogdanov said it was because she knew that he would not be convicted. [17] The case was the subject of a radio play, Mark Lawson's The Third Soldier Holds His Thighs, on BBC Radio 4 in 2005. Whitehouse's account of the trial is recorded in A Most Dangerous Woman (ISBN 0-85648-540-3); she wrote that she was of the opinion that the legal point had been established, and they had no wish to criminalise Bogdanov, the play's director.

Her supporters claimed that her efforts played a part in the passage of the Protection of Children Act 1978 and the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981, which concerned sex shops. In 1984, she mounted a decisive campaign in the UK about "video nasties", which led to the Video Recordings Act of that year. Additionally, her supporters claimed that the Whitehouse campaigns helped end Channel 4's "red triangle" series of films; claimed by Channel 4 to be intended to warn viewers of material liable to cause offence, the broadcasting of these films with the triangle had also received criticism from non-supporters of Whitehouse. She also had a role in the 1990 extension of the Broadcasting Act and the establishment of the Broadcasting Standards Council, which later became the Broadcasting Standards Commission (in 2004, this was subsumed into the Office of Communications).

Support base

Her support base included social conservatives and Christians. For much of the 1960s and 1970s, she had more than 250 speaking engagements every year. Among her staunchest allies was the (Catholic) Labour peer Lord Longford, a campaigner against pornography. She was a leading figure in the Nationwide Festival of Light of 1971, which protested against the commercial exploitation of sex and violence in Britain.

By the 1980s, Mary Whitehouse had found an ally in the Conservative government, particularly in Margaret Thatcher herself. Senior television executives commented that at this time her views were not disregarded lightly, particularly if she had the ear of the Prime Minister.[18] It has been claimed though, that the market orientation of the Thatcher government actually prejudiced that government against Whitehouse in private.[19]

In 1990, Whitehouse claimed, in a BBC Radio interview, that Dennis Potter had been influenced by witnessing his mother being engaged in adulterous sexual activity. Potter's mother won substantial damages from the BBC and The Listener, who were reportedly unimpressed by Whitehouse's claim to have had a blackout on air and subsequently to have had no recollection of her words.[20] Her own favourite programmes were Dixon of Dock Green, Neighbours, and coverage of snooker.[21][1]

She was appointed CBE in 1980 for her public service.[citation needed]


Some of Whitehouse's opponents claimed that she had an ability to be offended by almost anything,[22] pointing to her complaints about the use of the word "bloody", her concerns about the TV character Alf Garnett, Doctor Who, and the violence in Tom and Jerry cartoons.

She became a target for mockery and caricature. During the episode of Till Death Us Do Part entitled "Alf's Dilemma" Alf Garnett is seen reading her book 'Clean up TV' and agreeing with every word. One publisher of pornographic magazines named a magazine Whitehouse, in an apparent attempt to annoy her. The British power electronics band Whitehouse also named themselves after her, in mocking tribute. She is the inspiration of Deep Purple's 1973 song "Mary Long" and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band's "Mrs Blackhouse", in which the eponymous Blackhouse is depicted as a demonic, unholy creature. The British punk band The Adicts wrote a song called "Mary Whitehouse", which includes the line "She don't like pornography when it's on the BBC" among others. In an episode of the current events satirical comedy programme Not the Nine O'Clock News a voice-over talked in reverential tones of a "certain personage" who had deigned to watch the programme that night, by all indications referring to the Queen until it was revealed they meant Mary Whitehouse. She's also mentioned by name in the song "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" on the 1977 Pink Floyd album Animals, described as an uptight "house-proud town mouse" who is "trying to keep our feelings off the street" and mocked with the recurring phrase "ha-ha, charade you are". In the Monty Python's Flying Circus election-night satire, John Cleese says, "Mary Whitehouse has taken umbrage, that could mean a bit of trouble."

In the 1970s, the cast were concerned that an endorsement from Whitehouse would harm their image. A sequence in the 1980 episode "Saturday Night Grease" of Tim Brooke-Taylor dancing in underpants with a carrot motif was inserted, and triggered the sought-for complaint.[21]

From 1986 to 1988, a character based on Whitehouse was featured in the controversial comic Oink!. 'Mary Lighthouse' was the enemy of the comic's fictional 'editor', Uncle Pigg.[23]


Whitehouse retired as president of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association in 1994; the Association was re-named Mediawatch-uk in 2001. In 1988, she damaged her spine in a fall, which severely curbed her campaigning activities.[1]


She died, aged 91, in a nursing home in Colchester, Essex on 23 November 2001. Despite earlier clashes, Michael Grade said of her: "She was very witty, she was a great debater, she was very courageous and she had a very sincere view, but it was out of touch entirely with the real world."[18] The comedian Bernard Manning also commented, "She'll be sadly missed, I imagine, but not by me."[24]


Writing in the Dictionary of National Biography, the philosopher Mary Warnock comments, "Even if her campaigning did not succeed in ‘cleaning up TV’, still less in making it more fit to watch in other ways, she was of serious intent, and was an influence for good at a crucial stage in the development both of the BBC and of ITV. She was not, as the BBC seemed officially to proclaim, a mere figure of fun".[25]

"Mary Whitehouse" on television

The Mary Whitehouse Experience was a comedy series which was broadcast on BBC radio and television from 1989 to 1992. The creators named it after Whitehouse, and at one point the BBC feared that Whitehouse would pursue legal action against the show for using her name.[26]

The Goodies created the episode titled Gender Education with the sole intention of annoying Mary Whitehouse, who had written to the BBC to praise the team's wholesome family-orientated humour, clearly overlooking the fact that the first episode contained, in Bill Oddie's words, "drug references, tits and a royal scandal". The Whitehouse character was called Mrs Desiree Carthorse, played by Beryl Reid. Mrs Carthorse approached the Goodies as the ideal people to make a clean film about the facts of life. They made a film "How to Make Babies by Doing Dirty Things". Tim Brooke-Taylor explains, "We made Mary Whitehouse, we hoped, seem crass, with lines like: Bill: 'What does your husband do?' Mrs C: 'He keeps his distance.'”[27]

Caroline Aherne came to prominence in her early twenties for her character "Mrs Merton", who was an elderly lady whose dress and the views she expressed were much in line with those attributed to Mary Whitehouse.[28]

The disagreements between Mrs Whitehouse and the BBC were the basis of a drama in 2008 entitled Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, written by Amanda Coe. Julie Walters played the part of Mary Whitehouse, Alun Armstrong her husband Ernest, and Hugh Bonneville played Sir Hugh Greene. The Wall to Wall production was screened on 28 May 2008 on BBC2[29] and aired in the United States on 16 November 2008 as part of the Masterpiece series on PBS. The show drew heavily on the Max Caulfield book Mary Whitehouse and featured a degree of dramatic licence. For example, Whitehouse and others supposedly called their nascent group "Clean Up National TV" until her husband pointed out the unfortunate acronym - they then changed it to "Clean Up TV." Among the many reviews published in the press were two contrasting examples in The Scotsman[30] and The Sunday Times.[31]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Obituary, Daily Telegraph, 24 November 2001
  2. ^ "England and Wales Deaths 1984-2006". Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  3. ^ Dictionary of National Biography
  4. ^ Dennis Barker "Mary Whitehouse: Self-appointed campaigner against the permissive society on television", The Guardian, Saturday 24 November, 2001.
  5. ^ a b c David Winter Obituary, The Independent, 24 November 2001
  6. ^ a b Alan Travis Bound and Gagged: A Secret History of Censorship in Britain, 2000, Profile Books, p231-2.
  7. ^ a b c Robertson, Geoffrey (24 May 2008), "The Mary Whitehouse Story: Mary, quite contrary", Times, 
  8. ^ Brown, Jonathan (24 Nov 2001), "Mary Whitehouse: To some a crank, to others a warrior", Independent, 
  9. ^ "David Maloney". 
  10. ^ "The Ark in Space". BBC. 
  11. ^ "Genesis of the Daleks". 
  12. ^ "The Brain of Morbius". 
  13. ^ "The Seeds of Doom". 
  14. ^ "The Deadly Assassin". 
  15. ^ "James Kirkup: poet and translator", Times, 13 May 2009, 
  16. ^ Emma, Cowling (18 May 2008), "Maybe Mary Whitehouse was right all along", Scotsman, 
  17. ^ "BBC "On This Day", 18 March". BBC News. 1967-03-18. Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  18. ^ a b ""Whitehouse 'kept TV on its toes'", BBC obituary Friday, 23 November, 2001". BBC News. 2001-11-23. Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  19. ^ Bruce Anderson "A life spent trying in vain to preserve the suburban idyll", The Independent, 26 November 2001, as reproduced on the 'Find Aricles' website. Retrieved on 7 March 2008.
  20. ^ Mark Lawson "Watching the detective", The Guardian, 31 October 2003.
  21. ^ a b [1] Mary Whitehouse drama heads for BBC Ben Dowell Friday 21 July 2006
  22. ^ Radio Times TV Comedy Guide Mark Lewisohn, BBC Books, 8 Oct 1998
  23. ^ "Oink! Online". Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  24. ^ "''Campaigner Mary Whitehouse dies, aged 91'' John Ezard, The Guardian, Saturday 24 November 2001". Guardian. 2001-11-24. Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  25. ^ Article on Mary Whitehouse, Mary Warnock, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  26. ^ "SOTCAA article on The Mary Whitehouse Experience". Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  27. ^ Brooke-Taylor, Tim (24 May 2008), "Why The Goodies had to 'get back' at Mary Whitehouse", Times 
  28. ^ "''Housewife superscourge: We did not deserve Mary Whitehouse''. Leader, The Guardian, Saturday 24 November 2001". Guardian. 2001-11-24. Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  29. ^ Oatts, Joanne (18 April 2007). "BBC confirms 'Mary Whitehouse' drama". DigitalSpy. Retrieved 2007-04-18. 
  30. ^ Cowing, Emma. "Maybe Mary Whitehouse was right all along? Emma Cowing, The Scotsman, 28 April 2008". Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  31. ^ A.A. Gill Mary Whitehouse is the real monster The Sunday Times 1 June 2008


  • Ramsey Campbell (1987) "Turn Off: The Whitehouse Way" (an account of a public appearance by Mary Whitehouse) in Ramsey Campbell, Probably, PS Publishing, ISBN 1-902880-40-4
  • Max Caulfield (1976) Mary Whitehouse, Mowbray, ISBN 0-264-66190-7
  • Geoffrey Robertson (1999) The Justice Game, Random House UK. (A memoir of a prominent barrister who, among other historic trials, defended several of Whitehouse's targets in her private prosecutions).
  • Michael Tracey & David Morrison (1979) Whitehouse, Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-23790-0
  • Mary Whitehouse (1967) Cleaning-up TV: From Protest to Participation, Blandford, ISBN B0000CNC3I
  • Mary Whitehouse (1971) Who Does She Think She is?, New English Library, ISBN 0-450-00993-9
  • Mary Whitehouse (1977) Whatever Happened to Sex?, Wayland, ISBN 0-85340-460-7 (pbk: Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 0-340-22906-3)
  • Mary Whitehouse (1982) Most Dangerous Woman?, Lion Hudson, ISBN 0-85648-408-3
  • Mary Whitehouse (1985) Mightier Than the Sword, Kingsway Publications, ISBN 0-86065-382-X
  • Mary Whitehouse (1993) Quite Contrary: An Autobiography, Sidgwick & Jackson, ISBN 0-283-06202-9

External links

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