The Ingrid Pitt column: a Mary Whitehouse story

Ingrid remembers her one and only experience meeting the legendary Mary Whitehouse - and the bruises she inflicted

Ingrid Pitt

I’ve always been in favour of a good old Anglo-Saxon expletive to liven up a flagging conversation. ( I won’t use the euphemism of ‘the f-word’. It’s too coy.) What is wonderful about it is that it can be used with the ultimate dramatic effect as a noun, verb or adjective. The trouble is that overuse can destroy its effectiveness. Men, in particular, have never understood this. Talking among themselves they use it frequently and often in all its participles. I suppose it makes them feel rough and alpha male-ish as they polish their niblick. I guess it is also why the new swearing class of teenage girls has decided that it should be used twice in every sentence.

The acting profession have long felt that it can be used to get them out of trouble when they fluff their lines or do something unbelievably naff on television. If my memory isn’t having its customary walkabout I think it was Lady Chatterley’s Lover, written by D.H Lawrence in 1928 and aired in court during 1960 under the Obscene Publications Act (1959), which brought words into into vogue that had been seen as obscenities reserved exclusively for the male gender. Once their lordships had given the go ahead the use of ‘fuck’ and its variants trip lightly of the tongue of men and women with equal facility. It soon became fried up and shrivelled where once it had been strong, seductive and glorious.

Television writers and directors lapped it up. It made their miserable productions look cultured and with it. Soon a drama wasn’t a drama unless it could use the previously forbidden words at least half a dozen times. As long as it was locked behind the ridiculously named ‘watershed’. The watershed comes into operation at 9 pm and lasts until 5.30 am in Britain and is supposed to stop the ankle biters hearing naughty words. As the furore grew over the celebration of formerly excluded words a formidable champion stepped onto the stage to slay the newly awaken dragon – Mary Whitehouse. Mary was remarkable for her appearance as much as anything else. She was a staunch member of the blue rinse brigade and the template for everyone’s favourite grandmother. Basically she was a teacher with strong Christian ideals. I don’t think, when she started sending letters to the BBC and Prime Minister Harold Wilson, she had any idea of the almost fantastic effect she would have on the entertainment industry in general, TV in particular and the BBC in extremis. Probably she was just doing her bit for the ‘offended of Tonbridge’ generation. But she had a lot of material to work on and she gave it her full attention. In the beginning her specific bete noire was Sir Hugh Greene, head of the BBC. When he left the Corporation Mary claimed the credit for getting rid of him. He made the blunder of at first ignoring her and then making derisory remarks about her campaign. It was a mistake that Harold Wilson also made originally but soon saw that humouring her was less demanding and politically dangerous than opposing her.

Mary had an enormous influence on entertainment which still exists. Mary was born in 1910. She went on to teach Sex Education at Madeley Modern in Shropshire and is reported to have been so upset that pupils seemed to know more about sex than she did that she decided to wage war on the source of the children’s knowledge – television. She formed The National Viewers and Listeners Association in 1965. Her mandate as Porn-Finder General was endorsed by half a million viewers who thought that television should be cleaned up or closed down. Her targets were wide ranging and at times seemed faintly ludicrous. One of them was the popular Til Death Us Do Part comedy series. Alf Garnett’s use of ‘bloody’ in every sentence sent her temperature soaring and she never really understood that Alf’s character was sending up the bigoted bully he played. Even Doctor Who and the Who felt the lash of her corset strings and Tom and Jerry were filed under the same category as the increasingly violent films that were invading the big screen at the time.

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Soon all the comedy shows were having a go at her. It became a badge of merit if Mrs Whitehouse complained about them. One top show, The Goodies, was congratulated by her for producing ‘wholesome entertainment’ and instantly tried to introduce more risqué material into the show. It didn’t work at first but finally Tim Brooke-Taylor dancing in Y fronts with a carrot on the front did the trick. Mary wasn’t afraid to back her judgement by going to law if she thought the occasion called for legal intervention. She brought a prosecution against Gay News for printing a poem by James Kirkup called The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name and after the court case the editor, Denis Lemon, was handed down a sentence of nine months in prison – suspended. Mary made no secret of the fact that she felt he should have done the time.

She also had a go at the National Theatre Production of Romans in Britain although she never actually went to the theatre and saw the play. Her case revolved around the fact that there were overt acts of sodomy on the stage. Unfortunately the only witness to be called had been sitting in the back row of the theatre, ninety feet from the stage and had been unable to actually see just what the actors were doing with their penis. ( So I guess size does matter). Anyway her QC, who probably had seen the play, decided that he had had enough and advised her to drop the case. As would be expected, Mary Whitehouse became a figure of fun and there wasn’t a comedian or a comedy writer in the land that could refrain from having a go at her.

I met Mary Whitehouse just once. I was an innocent thrown to the lioness. I was invited by the Cambridge Union Society to defend the motion that “The Sixties Were A Good Thing’ – or something like it. And I accepted. Who could pass up the opportunity to perform on the stage of the world’s oldest debating society? I really didn’t know much about Mary Whitehouse although her name did seem vaguely familiar. It was a wonderful experience – at first. The big, oak lined walls that had witnessed centuries of orators, crammed with smartly dress, vibrant young men and a few women, the high leaded windows, the sense of history and the ignorance of who I was taking on, filled me with joy. I was wearing a black, tight-fitting velvet suit, a white high collared shirt with as many buttons as possible undone, and had been to the best crimpers in the West End I could find. I thought I had written myself a pretty nifty speech extolling the wonders of the sixties and the benefits the culture had passed on to mankind generally. Not sure if I believed all that but, as lawyers defending a villain are prone to claim, I was only doing my job. The applause was loud and encouraging. I sat down and awaited my triumph. Mary started well. “How am I supposed to follow that?” she began. And then proceeded to demolish my proposition point by point. The decision of the audience was overwhelming. Mary Whitehouse was the winner.

Afterward I was invited to dinner by the President with Mary and her husband, Ernie. They were a lovely couple and we had a great evening chatting about all sorts of things. She was even gracious enough to congratulate me on my speech. I hate it when someone does that.

Now there is to be a TV show about Mrs W called The Mary Whitehouse Story with Julie Walters in the eponymous role and Alun Armstrong playing Ernie. I’m looking forward to seeing it to see if it equates with the intelligent and very funny Mary I met for that short and bruising time twenty years ago. I think it is to be shown on BBC2, Wednesday 28th May.

Ingrid Pitt will be back with another column next week; read her last one here.

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