I’m not entirely sure when I became aware of Mary Whitehouse and what she represented; she was on TV a lot during my childhood, and I must have heard she’d complained to the BBC about ‘Doctor Who’ at the height of Tom Baker’s golden ‘Gothic’ period in the mid-70s, when there was a macabre element to the Time Lord’s adventures that had more than a hint of the Grimm fairy tales. Too scary for young ‘uns was her opinion; I worked that much out, but couldn’t understand her point of view. I loved all things horror and fantastical at the time, and it was the only programme on the telly that covered such subjects before my bedtime. Why would she want to deny me that?
As I got a little older and acquired a wider knowledge of TV history, I realised she’d been around a while and her objections to broadcasters (largely the BBC) always focused on stuff that was worth watching, whether ‘I Claudius’ or ‘Play for Today’. There was a sizeable amount of crap on TV in the 70s as well, yet she never seemed to complain about that – only the quality. Once in my teens and learning of ‘Oz’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘The Romans in Britain’, I discovered she’d disapproved of all those as well. Basically, anything that was worth bothering with in every contemporary medium – TV, cinema, theatre, publishing – Mrs Whitehouse wanted to stop it. I suppose it was a compliment to the writers and the producers whenever she raised an objection; it was a sign they were doing something right. The Goodies were so pissed off by the fact she gave their show the thumbs-up that they parodied her in one episode, hoping she’d change her mind.
Even beyond Mary Whitehouse, I found out quite early on that a good deal of what I liked was intensely disliked by others. The British comic ‘Action’ seemed exciting, but IPC had to cease publication when the moral minority crucified it for its violence in the press. I could see a bomb blast in Ulster on the news and I knew the difference between real violence and that depicted in the pages of a comic; but others seemingly couldn’t. The year that ‘Action’ in its original, uncut incarnation vanished from the newsagents ended with The Sex Pistols being declared public enemy number one for saying words on television that my friends and me said every day in the playground. Again, moral uproar and demands to ban this filth dominated the headlines; in the case of Johnny Rotten & Co, it worked only in a live context; their records made the top ten and they even showed ‘Pretty Vacant’ on TOTP.
Video nasties were next on the agenda, but attempts to impose censorship upon cinema stretched back to its earliest days in this country; the foundation of the British Board of Film Censors in 1912 brought such strict guidelines into force that there was no British equivalent of German Expressionism on the silver screen during the silent era; the BBFC would never have allowed it. Theatre being a far older medium, it had been subjected to censorship since the early eighteenth century, appointing the Lord Chamberlain to act as judge and jury until as late as 1968. Publishing also finally grew up in the 1960s, following the successful outcome of the Lady Chatterley trial and the belated legal availability of numerous books that had been banned from these shores for decades; nine times out of ten, these were books worth reading.
The growth of the home VCR in the early 80s not only rendered the old ratings system of U, A, AA and X redundant, but a glut of schlock horror titles could be seen by the whole family over and over again; power was taken out of the hands of The Man and he wanted it back. He eventually got it when ratings were introduced to videos and we even had Simon Bates roped in to warn us of the potential dangers if we ignored the label. ‘Sexual swear words’ indeed. Granted, some of the titles that had constituted the video nasty scare were cheap and horrible exploitation pictures that look even worse now than they did at the time, but that wasn’t the point.
Current attempts to roll back many of the more liberal advances in culture are not coming from the old, but the young. This is a significant change where serial censors are concerned, yet once again I ponder on the strange fact that those of us who often find our tastes under attack never adopt the same tactics. There’s a hell of a lot on TV, in the press, at the cinema, on the radio and so on that I find abhorrent and appalling; but I simply don’t watch it, read it or listen to it. It’s not hard to do; it’s easy. I appreciate these things have an audience and they’re welcome to each other. What have I to gain by seeking to deprive people of pleasures that are alien to me? Ignoring those pleasures is a good deal less time-consuming than trying to ban them. Why can’t everyone come to this conclusion? It seems such a given.
Anyway, for an alternative comment on the conundrum, try this for size…
© The Editor