Sunday, 13 June 2010

Meeting Mary Whitehouse

Today is the centenary of the birth of the late Mary Whitehouse. In recent weeks she has received a great deal of publicity following an article by Joan Bakewell where she admitted

"The liberal mood back in the 1960s was that sex was pleasurable and wholesome and shouldn't be seen as dirty and wicked,

"The pill allowed women to make choices for themselves. Of course, that meant the risk of making the wrong choice. But we all hoped girls would grow to handle the new freedoms wisely.

"Then everything came to be about money. Why else sexualise the clothes of little girls, run TV channels of naked wives, have sex magazines edging out the serious stuff on newsagents' shelves? It's money that's corrupted us and women are being used and are even collaborating. I never thought I would hear myself say as much, but I'm with Mrs Whitehouse on this one."

Given that there is a bit of history between Mary and Joan her comments came as a bit of a surprise.

I met Mary Whitehouse way back in the swinging 60s when she came and spoke to the Baptist Society at Sussex University. I was staying at the Baptist Manse in Moulescomb at the time and had to give up my room for the night.

At that time she was a figure of contempt and ridicule. Her views were counter cultural and I felt her son was right that she was something of Canute figure. However  she was an uncomfortable prophet who was unafraid to challenge the status quo. Some of her targets were misguided, especially when she strayed into politics rather than culture.

However as she spoke to the Baptist Society she provided a coherent and mature analysis of where popular culture was going and the problems which would arise in the future. We expected an ignorant housewife, that is how she was painted by the media, she was anything but.

I had picked up that she was connected to the Moral Rearmament Movement. Now like many Christians from the middle of the last century I have mixed views about MRA. Individuals within the movement can be truly amazing, but MRA had a reputation for attacking trade unions and undermining solidarity especially during industrial disputes. I asked her about the MRA link and she seemed a little embarrassed. I have never quite worked out why the wider media never picked this up. The point I'm trying to make is that her "Clean Up TV" Campaign may not have been the spontaneous gross roots movement of popular imagination.

Nevertheless she spoke out when many parts of the Christian community were busy trying to be "relevant" (I think that was the favorite word). The tragedy is that others did not take on board her valid points and create a wider debate.

Years later I had cause to speak to her on the phone and reminded her of our discussion. She said she remembered it well and thanked me for making the point. A few weeks later I was asked to speak at an annual conference of her organisation. They were interested in my work in the European Parliament. 
I explained that  British licensed "adult" television programmes on satellite TV were being picked up by children at tea time in the Middle East. I think Mary raised a lot of good points in the 1960s and would do so today.

Mary died aged 91, she was one of those rare people who actually did make a difference, but it came at a tremendous cost to her and her family. Even today we can sense that antogonism on items put up on YouTude such as this and this, but I really loved her appearance on the Dame Edna Experience:

1 comment:

Ian G said...

Quite right. Absolutely brilliant. Every bit a match for the 'professional'.