I thought the drama was cleverly constructed. It was a sympathetic portrayal of Whitehouse. Her principled convictions, determination, and personal sacrifice was highlighted and we got a clear sense of her motivation to protect a middle England, and Christian, morality from the forces that threatened it. She was painted as a very suburban heroine.
Yet this sympathy for the woman was frequently undercut by short scenes of real life; infidelity, domestic violence, ‘free love’ etc., which exposed just how out of touch she was with wider society and how oblivious she was to much of what was going on around her. The scene where the previously very friendly and polite TV camera crew colourfully swore at each other as they left her garden gate, while she and her husband unknowingly waved from the garden, was a particular favourite.
A drama about Whitehouse could so easily have shown her as a ridiculous and grotesque monster. But by highlighting her personal heroism as an individual this drama made the essential wrongness of her views more telling.
The Director General of the BBC, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, wonderfully played by Hugh Bonneville, was shown as a boorish, sexist, unpleasant and slightly bonkers figure. The contrast between the wrong but sympathetic Whitehouse and the right thinking but objectionable Greene was, I thought, a brilliant device which in itself made a clever and subtle point about censorship.
In many ways this drama was as much about the late 60’s BBC as it was about Whitehouse. Praise should be given to the set designers. The clever use of décor, and the architecture of Broadcasting House, to portray the self-confident world view, or should that be arrogance, of the BBC was very well done. I also liked the way they also used it to show the relationship between the Director General and the Chairman of the BBC. The use of the carpet and leather chairs was a very nice touch.
A little Luton related note. The Chairman, Lord Charles Hill, shown in the drama was of course Baron Hill of Luton. The former Conservative and National Liberal MP for Luton and famous radio doctor, who was chairman of the BBC between 1967 and 1972.
There seems to be something of a revisionist view of Mary Whitehouse that has developed over the last few years. Which, up to a point, should be welcomed. One point that this drama makes is that the vehemence of the dismissal of her views, and the savagery of the attacks upon her at the time, did stray into becoming a form of censorship themselves. Also that often these were motivated not by a rational refutation of her views but by the wagon circling of institutions and vested interest that felt threatened.
Mary Whitehouse wanted to protect a set of values and a way of life that she saw as being based on decency and morality. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in that. She wanted to protect these from a changing world that she saw as threatening and corrupting. But a changing world that, and I would of course agree with them, a majority of people at the time saw as improving and liberating. She, and this is where I think the revisionist view of her is right, provided a useful function in making us question the assumptions and some of the aspects of that changing society. She did make us think about whether we were sure we were getting everything right.
Where she was wrong was to see the media as the main cause of this social change. Where she was dangerous was her advocacy of censorship in an attempt to stop it.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.