Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Filth : the Mary Whitehouse Story" from 3.6.2008

This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2008

One can always rely upon the quality of the work of Julie Walters. Just think of the range of her film and TV credits which include Educating Rita, Boys from the Black Stuff, Personal Services, Pat and Margaret, Acorn Antiques up to dinnerladies and The Wife of Bath. Her output has been consistently accomplished and entertaining. So naturally I looked forward to her leading role in Amanda Coe’s TV biography Filth: the Mary Whitehouse Story. How many actresses could depict both Cynthia Payne and Mary Whitehouse?

Filth tells the story of the rise to prominence of the Nuneaton-born, Wolverhampton-based art teacher and mother and her campaign to clean up TV. Mary is presented as a warm but tough suburban matron. Self-doubt does appear when her family come into the firing line, but generally her feisty resolve to combat what she considered a rising tide of filth was unwavering. Her bete noire was BBC Director General between 1960 and 1968, Sir Hugh Greene, brilliantly played by Hugh Bonneville.

From the opening scene of Mary riding about her village on a matronly bicycle waving to her neighbours to a jaunty tune and light-hearted chorus of juvenile rude words, the piece has a light and affectionate touch. The period feel is ironic and rather tongue in cheek in a slightly Five Go Mad in Dorset comic strip sort of way – all hats and gloves, perms, horn-rimmed glasses and singing Jerusalem in the Rover. This is not a stinging critique or even a satire.

From the outset, Mrs Whitehouse’s major task appeared to be to make the pompous and impatient Greene acknowledge her very existence. Her initial, and possibly justifiable, gripes against a programme on premarital sex, inappropriately shown in the early evening, were fielded by a senior assistant who disappeared on retirement. A major issue in the ensuing battle appeared to be Mary Whitehouse’s increasingly injured pride in not being even recognised to exist by her adversary. Greene was everything Mary was not - metropolitan, liberal and upper class. He was altogether disinclined to massage her ego.

Greene’s patrician insouciance was contrasted with the oleaginous former radio doctor Lord Hill who, as Chairman of ITV, took the time to meet personally with Mary over tea. In charming and flattering her, he seemed largely to diffuse her as any kind of problem for the commercial channel. Later, Greene simply could not work alongside Hill, when he became his Chairman at the BBC, exactly mirroring his failure to make any effort to find a modus vivendi with Mrs Whitehouse.

We see Greene as an opinionated and inflexible, cricket-playing liberal who manages also to be a sexist, leering at the legs of secretaries and carelessly making enemies of those within the BBC who would pass on ammunition for Mrs Whitehouse to use against him. He also, perhaps unwisely, chose not to curb some of the more spiteful excesses of satirical programmes which gave Mrs Whitehouse the moral high-ground.

At times Greene’s antipathy towards Mrs Whitehouse verged on the schoolboy with the many-breasted modernist oil painting dedicated to her in his office targeted with paper pellets - just like during prep in the Remove.

Mary’s rise is presented lucidly from the first momentous public meeting in Birmingham Town Hall to the development of support for her Clean Up TV Campaign, which became the National Viewers and Listeners Association and latterly Mediawatch UK.

We have a certain amount of humour at Mary’s expense as with her innocent ignorance of the unfortunate impact of the acronym of the first name for her organisation discreetly pointed out by her postman husband Ernest, admirably played by Alun Armstrong.

Prim and unworldly, Mary has a talent for the unintentional double entendre such as being only a finger in the dyke, manages to overlook some very phallic images in her pupils' artwork and even confuses Hugh Greene with Hughie Green the quiz show host. The humour throughout the play works well with only an ill-judged fantasy love scene between the protagonists striking a discordant note.

Although inclined to the dotty and with a short fuse, her motives from the outset are favourably presented. She is genuinely concerned about the moral welfare of her sons and a perplexed girl pupil at her school. We see her bravely stand up against hecklers at her first public meeting and cope with the unfair press attempts to compromise her sons at a party and later to hound her husband after being innocently involved in a road fatality.

It is only later that a more fundamentalist air emerges, as when she complains about the content of Pinky and Perky, rails against the reference to knickers in the Beatles’ I am the Walrus and completely loses it in a disapproving rant over some hippies kissing.

Julie Walters conveys the developing darker, authoritarian side of Mary and her loathing of Hugh Greene in an understated way, using a hardening expression, narrowing of eyes already glazed and imperious in her horn rims and a setting of the jaw that makes her appear truly formidable.

Her dance of victory when her husband comes to her exercise class in the village hall to tell her that Hugh Greene has resigned as Director General reflects her pent-up resentment and is a perfect demonstration of triumphalism.

Although the play appears superficially to be non-partisan, the BBC Press Office did describe it as the story of Mary's David and Goliath type struggle with the BBC and referred to her heroic and surprising victories. It seems clear who is the heroine. Mrs Whitehouse ultimately won and her victory is celebrated. Impatient autocrat the DG may have been, but Mary saw him off comprehensively.

Greene’s major weakness and ultimate undoing, when Lord Hill became Chairman of Governors, was his intransigence in dealing with opposite viewpoints and a failure to understand the increasing power of popular opinion. The satisfaction etched onto her face as Mrs Whitehouse waited to meet with her adversary’s successor, Sir Charles Curran at Broadcasting House said it all.

Characterisation never descends to ridicule but of the two principals perhaps Hugh Greene is caricatured more as avant-garde, lecherous and stubborn and with more than a hint of Basil Fawlty. We should however remember that under his stewardship the BBC produced drama of the highest quality and relevance ranging from Cathy Come Home to the early work of Dennis Potter, none of which met with the approval of Mrs Whitehouse.

Also, the play precedes some of Mary’s more strident campaigning, such as the case against Romans in Britain. In reality, her opposition of homosexuality, which she considered a condition to be cured, was visceral.

I don’t think sufficient emphasis was placed upon the vigorous and creative phase of drama in the BBC fostered by a liberal and modernising Hugh Greene. Mary Whitehouse may have been gauche and provincial, but became an adroit and effective manipulator of the media. It has been argued that her approach sometimes verged upon bullying and an attack on creativity. Her home-spun moral outrage did mask a reactionary agenda close to that of right wing moral re-armers that could be described as narrow-minded.

One reviewer applauded the piece for demonstrating that Mary Whitehouse was not the semi-fascistic old bat of popular myth. He was correct that she was not presented in that way. For me, however, this was the major weakness in a play that really amounted to an apologia. 

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