Inside the Mary Whitehouse diaries

A fresh perspective on Mary Whitehouse (with David Frost, Mick Jagger 1968)

Archive on Four Disgusted, Mary Whitehouse is on Radio 4 March 5th 2022 at 8pm

It was back in summer 2019 that I first found out that Oxford University’s world famous Bodleian Library had just acquired the Mary Whitehouse diaries. And I knew straight away that I wanted to read them. I’d been a child of the 70s, seeing her mocked and dismissed as an anti-sex prude. A lot of unpleasant truths were being reassessed about that decade. What might I find by reading her point of view?

I also realised I was now nearly the same age as she’d been when she began her clean up tv campaign in 1963. I knew a thing or two about what it took to stand up as an individual woman to the power of a national broadcaster. In December 2019, I paid my first visit to the Weston Library, where the special collections of modern manuscripts were kept, and saw the Mary Whitehouse diaries in their raw state; a physical manifestation of her multitasking, formidable and relentless campaigning mind.

There were stacks of boxes bursting with letters and newspaper cuttings. These were her private campaign diaries, separate to the official National Viewer and Listener Association papers now housed at the University of Essex. The diaries occupy a fascinating mysterious inbetween world – somewhere between official correspondence and personal private channels of influence. I carefully leafed through one box and found correspondence with Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and letters to Prince Charles, the Queen and Princess Diana. She kept all the newspaper cartoons of her, clearly understanding that coverage of any kind was evidence of her influence. And she was proud of the fact that her Spitting Image puppet was smiling, and, she said, the only “ordinary” citizen on the show.

I spent several weeks in the library during 2020 going through every diary and cutting and letter. And you can read one of the many stories I found about her here: Her successful 1994 battle involving the Queen to stop humanists getting on Throught For The Day. Thanks to Francesca Alves, Nicole Gilroy and their colleagues at the Bodleian, and to St Edmund Hall’s staff and Principal, Professor Katherine Willis, for all their help and support on those long research days during partial lockdown.

Eager to turn even a fraction of this into radio I sent a pitch to Radio 4’s commissioning editor who gave a speedy yes (thank you!) and teamed up with my brilliant and regular collaborators, producers Simon and Thomas Guerrier. Given the three of us first worked together filming a Doctor Who Vengeance on Varos DVD extra, called The Idiot’s Lantern, it was particularly apposite that we should explore more closely the life of the woman who waged a high profile and effective campaign against excessive violence in Doctor Who. Simon’s written a wonderful blogpost about Mary Whitehouse vs Doctor Who.

With Fiona Whitehouse, Mary’s granddaughter

Fiona Whitehouse, whose father Paul, inherited the diaries after Mary’s death in 2001, was instrumental in finding the diaries their new home in the Bod. Talking to her and her family was a fascinating and insightful experience. It’s fair to say Mary Whitehouse was a strong and divisive personality. But as you’ll hear in the programme, Fiona had a very close and warm bond with her grandmother, who was never a conventional housewife, whatever the myth that was lazily repeated in the press. They disagreed strongly on Mary’s religious belief that homosexuality was a “sin”, but I hope the programme conveys the idea that Whitehouse could be wrong and simultaneously right on different moral and ethical issues of her day. Her views on tackling pornography, especially as computer technology took off dating back to the late 1960s, are remarkably prescient. As people are very fond of saying these days, she claimed to be on the right side of history when it came to the impact of unregulated pornography on society.

One of the cuttings found in Mary’s 90s diaries

As you can probably tell I have so much more I’d like to write about Mary Whitehouse and what we could learn by studying how she operated and what’s changed because of her campaigning, even if we don’t want to admit it. I’d also like to say more about her sense of fun. She was a smart media operator with a new frock for each appearance and remarkable confidence on camera at a time when men very much ruled the airwaves on and off mic. She was always up for a debate. A former school teacher, she loved the company of students and spent a huge amount of her time travelling round the country debating at universities. Even some of her opponents – whether student protestors such as feminist lesbian activist Julie Bindel, or broadcasting executives such as Michael Grade – have told me in interviews, that she was a formidable campaigner and orator. Tireless, relentless, a writer of the most beautifully argued letters in the pages of the newspapers.

l-r Producer Simon Guerrier, critic Michael Billington, Samuel West, Nicholas De Jongh, me

Though as theatre director Michael Bogdanov found out, as the target of her prosecution for gross indecency over the National Theatre play The Romans In Britain – being targetted by her could be life changing and frightening. We do not shy away from that story and the repercussions of her campaign. Bogdanov died in 2017, but we use archive interviews with him after the prosecution was suddenly dropped. Nicholas De Jongh, often mentioned in the diaries, was the Guardian’s arts reporter at the time and knew Mary throughout this time. Samuel West directed the only professional production of Howard Brenton’s play since – in 2006. Brenton, incidentally, declined to take part in the programme, saying he was proud of the play but did not want to talk about the attacks on it. We also piece together the timetable from the diaries, which shows how, unknown to Mary, one of her closest Christian allies was a violent abuser of young men, even while preparing to prosecute the play for staging a fictionalised male rape. He was only exposed in 2017.

Mary knew none of this. But I do wonder how it might have challenged her sometimes closed mind if she’d known; not least her unshakeable faith in the leadership of establishment institutions. She herself was herself targetted with death threats, physical attacks, angry protests and blacklisting (by then BBC DG Hugh Carleton-Greene). But she was brave and, in her later years, in considerable pain after breaking her back. I think there is much to admire in this formidable woman.

I think she would be delighted to find her writings housed in one of the world’s greatest universities.

Disgusted, Mary Whitehouse is on Radio 4 on Saturday March 5th at 8pm and BBC sounds after

Further reading

Was moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse ahead of her time? BBC News online March 5th 2022

Mary’s War – New Humanist January 2022

Mary Whitehouse v Doctor Who by Simon Guerrier Feb 2022

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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