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Inside Mary Whitehouse

What would the notorious campaigner make of the modern free speech debates?

I've spent an overwhelming part of the last month trying to get into Mary Whitehouse's head. The result is partly an overpowering desire to take my clothes off in public, but also the creeping feeling that an unsettling something lurks under recent calls for censorship, from whatever corner of the political spectrum they originate. Call it the uncanny if you like, or maybe just fear of the other either way, there seems to be this sense that whatever lurks inside your opposite is toxic and scary and better contained than confronted.

This is the main idea behind Mary Whitehouse Looks Down From Wherever, a solo performance that's happening for the first time at Camden People's Theatre on Sunday 22 March. It places her (me) in an imaginary afterlife as a way to think about idealism, self-righteousness, and our tendency to objectify other people in order to come to terms with the ways they differ from us.

Since her death in 2001, Mary seems to have faded from the cultural landscape. My own awareness of her was first gleaned from reading about her private prosecution of Michael Bogdanov for his production of The Romans in Britain at the National Theatre in 1982, which ultimately foundered on the prosecution's inability to distinguish between a penis and a protruding thumb. She established herself in my imagination as the sort of crusading homophobe who these days were limited to speculating about weather patterns on the letters pages of local newspapers.

Reading Ben Thompson's (very entertaining) book Ban This Filth, I discovered that Whitehouse's interests and influence were actually a good deal wider. From the 60s until the early 90s she enjoyed a surprisingly substantial presence, garnered partly through astute PR and political skill, and partly from her ability to subject a succession of BBC Director Generals to a volume of correspondence that must have felt like being carpet-bombed. Violence, "normalisation" of gay relationships, undermining the Scouting movement  you name it, she objected to it. It's hard not to admire the sheer energy it must have taken to sustain that level of outrage.

Not that she didn't take anything back. I can't think of many public figures who've been so relentlessly mocked, even in the golden age of broadcast satire. Monty Python, Alf Garnett, The Goodies, Spitting Image and even Dennis Potter all had a crack, and David Sullivan even named a porn film after her (its title was pretty hastily retracted under threat of legal action, but the magazine Whitehouse stayed as it was.) Progressives and libertarians alike seem to have considered her enough of a threat to warrant a level of attention that seems surprising given her own relative outsider status. All these lions of the new Establishment spent a lot of time on her considering that she was supposedly an ignorant middle-class busybody from somewhere near Wolverhampton.

I can't deny that this inspires a bit of sympathy in me. I know, of course, that she was reactionary, a terrible homophobe and (by her own son's account) a bit of a snob; but she also seems to have suffered a great deal more ridicule than she might have if she were, say, not a middle-aged woman.  Many of the attacks on her carry a distinct air of chauvinism, if not outright misogyny. And some of her concerns  not least those to do with the commodification of sex and its commercialisation  seem to have been pretty well founded.  

In any case, if Mary didn't feel like she'd lost by the time she died, she'd surely have given up by now. The Internet provides transgression and subversion on tap, and the idea of a single broadcaster being responsible for the nation's cultural consumption seems laughable in the era of YouTube and the "long tail". But the thing that would really have confused her, is the extent to which her natural congregation now appear to be singing from the other hymn sheet.

In Mary's heyday, it was progressives clamouring for freedom of speech, and reactionaries who seemed terrified of it. There were only a few short steps between a Python sketch and a line of hanging Royals strung up on the Mall. These days the situation seems, in some senses, to have reversed.  

Think of all those Ukippers: 30 years ago, they could have been the foot soldiers in Mary's army, railing in shaky cursive against the BBC's lack of restraint and dignity. Now they're clamouring for their freedom of speech, as they appeal to common sense, common decency and all those other useful gadgets that help us to avoid complexity. For the likes of Godfrey Bloom (or a certain Mr Clarkson), the left have become the pesky do-gooders, humourlessly suffocating honesty, free expression and harmless fun. 

What's the sensible response to this? Clearly, the kind of idiotic hate speech revealed on Meet the Ukippers isn't the same as, say, an aggressively satirical portrayal of the Queen (though try to put one of those on TV and see how far you get.)  The victim of the former is demonstrably more vulnerable, and the latter addresses a structure as much as an individual. Saying the satirist (or the politician) has a right to critique a political force  or a set of beliefs – doesn't necessarily entail that they are also entitled to kick whomever they like in pursuit of easy laughs. Beyond the obvious legal constraints  which protect us all from actual harm - we expect people to exercise a degree of judgement, taste, decency or whatever else you choose to call it. Public figures who fail to exercise sufficient restraint in this manner tend to sink eventually (even boorish jerks who happen to know a thing or two about cars.) And personally, I think any idea worth nailing your colours to should be able to withstand forthright criticism.

Mary Whitehouse's desire to censor pretty much anything that wasn't a picture of kittens  possibly praying, certainly segregated by gender  was the product of a bunch of anxieties that still trouble a lot of people today: fear of change, of the other, of losing the things that guarantee whatever identity you manage to carve out for yourself. That doesn't excuse reaction or bigotry, but it does help us understand it. The opportunity to understand, and to resolve problems by interrogating them in all their complexity, is what makes openness a better starting point than prohibition. Forbidding any idea, however stupid, gives it a kind of power. Forcing it in into the light allows us to see it for what it is. The point of contention becomes the truth of what you're saying, not the power to say it.

Mary Whitehouse Looks Down From Wherever is on at the Camden People's Theatre from Sunday 22 March. Tickets are availible here


Phil Ormrod is a writer, theatre maker and teacher of various things. He’s co-director of the performance company Switchback. He’s made and performed in work all over the country, at theatres of all sizes and sorts, but his favourite venue so far has been Preston Bus Station. Google it and you’ll see what he means. Phil’s especially interested in ethics, language and food. At some point he’d like to turn all the road signs on the A1 into a "choose your own adventure" story.

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