Jacket of Ban This Filth! Mary Whitehouse Letters

Ban this filth! Letters from the Mary Whitehouse archive (Faber)

Mary Whitehouse was as comprehensive a failure as has ever sought to participate in British public life. Her causes are all utterly lost. The indefatigable moral crusader who began complaining about the depravity of television in January 1964 – three months before Britain acquired its third channel, and still more than a year before anyone would say so much as say “fuck” on air – would not know where to look, much less start, when contemplating the limitless trash now available on dozens of stations. The woman who perceived the approaching hoofbeats of apocalypse in the broadcast of The Rolling Stones’ “Exile On Main Street” on Radio 1 in 1972 could surely do little but wither forlornly at the semi-bowdlerised pornography that constitutes the visual landscape, at least, of modern pop.

Of the two newspapers of which you can imagine Whitehouse approving, the Daily Mail is now best known for a website largely comprised of spiteful leering, and the Daily Express is owned by a man whose other interests include television channels with schedules featuring Ass In The Attic, Gunky Spunky GILFs and St Teenycums Nymphic Games, among other broadly similar programmes. Even Whitehouse’s most trenchant allies would agree that it was probably a mercy that she went to the God for whom she did her best in 2001, aged 91, in the relative infancy of the World Wide Web, exposure to which might have prompted her to array her affronted legions into some sort of paramilitary force.

Ban This Filth! is the chronicle of Whitehouse’s defeat, told through the correspondence stored at the University of Essex, boxed inside what editor Thompson calls, with characteristic mordant wit, a “sarcophagus of respectable fears”. The temptation to play Whitehouse’s letters entirely for laughs must have been immense. The Shropshire schoolteacher radiated all the most preposterous qualities of the professionally offended: she was pompous, priggish and prurient, an embodiment of HL Mencken’s definition of puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”. Worse still, she was a bigot: one of those weird, seething homophobes apparently convinced that any acknowledgement of homosexuality amounted to another irreversible step towards it becoming compulsory.

Intelligently, however, Thompson realises that his subject inhabited a realm beyond satire: had PG Wodehouse invented such a character, he would have endowed her with a less crashingly obvious name. He approaches Whitehouse’s works mostly on their own merits. He rations – heroically, in the circumstances – both lofty harrumphing and childish sniggering, just occasionally flexing speculation calculated to disturb Whitehouse’s eternal rest. Thompson laments Whitehouse’s homophobia for all the reasons any civilised adult would, but also suggests, wistfully, that it could have been so different: “Part of the reason her unyielding attitude to homosexuality retained such an enduring power to inflict pain in later life was that ­ in all respects other than her actual opinions ­ Whitehouse had great potential as a gay icon.”

Whitehouse’s letters, many of which are excerpted, were notable for quantity rather than quality. She was dreary, querulous, predictable in her peevishness: if you found yourself next to someone like this on a long-haul flight, you’d buzz the steward to request a fortifying drink and a parachute. The real treasures Thompson unearths from the trove are the replies to Whitehouse’s incessant quacking. Mostly written by media grandees whose position precluded them from wearily inviting her to fuck off and cease bothering them, the best are masterpieces of understated disdain. The BBC’s John McCormick, replying to one of Whitehouse’s many complaints about Eastenders, in 1988, is magnificent: “It is quite true that Barry tried to bribe Colin by offering sexual favours in return for the £200 he needed to set up a new venture. What your letter did not mention was that Colin vociferously refused, saying that he was not to be bought, a highly moral scene, surely, which would have quite the opposite effect from the one you feared.”

Thompson extends Whitehouse due credit for her energy and capability as an organiser: at its peak, her National Viewers & Listeners Association had 400,000 supporters, and conducted its own awards ceremony, honouring appropriately abstemious entertainers (beneath a photo of Cliff Richard accepting one, Thompson draws proper attention to the shape of the trophy: an erect, thrusting steel spike). But the line between purposeful activist and meddlesome crank is a thin one, and it’s ultimately arguable that Whitehouse was mostly effective as an advocate for everything she was inveighing against.

Such is the folly of pious, boring fanatics of all stripes: previously neutral players will hasten to join the other team just so they don’t get mistaken for one of your friends. A couple of years ago, I took morning tea with one of Whitehouse’s targets, of whom she had once thundered that “If there is increasing violence in the schools during the coming term, the BBC will not be able to evade their share of the blame”. I asked Alice Cooper – for it was he – if he could quantify the effect of Whitehouse’s vigorous campaign, circa “School’s Out”, to have his music banned from the airwaves. “It was,” beamed Cooper, “the greatest thing that ever happened to us. The record went to Number One. We sold out Wembley. We sent her flowers.”