FILTH: THE MARY WHITEHOUSE STORY


BBC2 - 28th May 2008 - 9.00pm

"Hey you Whitehouse, ha ha, charade you are
You house proud town mouse, ha ha, charade you are
You're trying to keep our feelings off the street
You're nearly a real treat
All tight lips and cold feet
And do you feel abused?"

- Pink Floyd, Pigs (Three Different Ones), Animals, 1977

Andy DeEmmony's film is a curious beast. On the one hand it has two very sympathetic, central performances from Alun Armstrong and Julie Walters as Ernest and Mary Whitehouse; and Walters is particularly excellent; and on the other there's a sort of nudge, nudge, wink-wink, schoolboyish, ridicule running throughout the drama that fatally undermines any attempt at seriously examining why Whitehouse allowed her life to be dominated by her convictions. In the opening titles she's shown riding her bicycle through the village, grinning at her neighbours, who are quite obviously getting on with the permissive society that she eventually rails at, and then rides her bike through a lump of dog shit. All to a sort of farting. comedy music soundtrack from Nick Green and Tristin Norwell. The music is repeated endlessly throughout as a signifier that Whitehouse is some dotty old fruitcake who is best humoured for her antics. Her nemesis, Hugh Carleton Greene, the Director General of the BBC, played with great irritation by Hugh Bonneville, comes over as an utter buffoon and their on-going battle almost seems too bizarre to be considered as real even though the opening title card insists these are true events. Carleton Greene seems such a hideously, blinkered figure here that you're almost persuaded to see Whitehouse's point.

As Whitehouse journeys from God fearing school teacher to 'disgusted' of Tunbridge Wells the film is littered with an assortment of visual and verbal gags, half of which are genuinely funny and half of which seemed to have wandered in from a particularly bad Carry On script - phallic artworks produced by her pupils, the Clean Up National TV campaign acronym, the 'I'm the finger in the dyke' comment - that don't quite work as ironic references to the kind of stuff she would have been appalled at. It culminates in a very odd dream sequence where the sleazy Greene seduces Whitehouse, fondling her twin set and pearls avidly. Walters makes the TV clean up campaigner so appealingly funny that half the time you need to force yourself to remember that she was actually a religious, homophobic zealot who objected to Doctor Who, Pinky And Perky and counted the number of times 'bloody' was used in an episode of Till Death Us Do Part.

However, Alun Armstrong, as put upon Ernest, is the real emotional centre of the drama. When he drives over a suicide in the middle of the road, the sensitive core of the drama is opened up and you do genuinely feel for the plight of the man as he plunges into depression. You equally feel for the sanity of Whitehouse's children, well brought up young lads, who can't even begin to interact with the opposite sex as not just an effect of Mary's own rigid morals but also out of fear of letting the side down to the prowling media hounds. You feel none of this empathy for Carleton Greene, who's too busy sweatily lusting after his various secretaries, and to a degree for Whitehouse herself, who, as the film goes on, becomes more and more radicalised and fervent in her attempt to shut down the permissive society of the 1960s.

The problem of the film is that it skates light-heartedly over her arguments and the counter-arguments of her detractors. It would have been interesting to take the story into the 1970s and her infamous blasphemy case against Gay News and the later gross indecency case against Howard Brenton's play The Romans In Britain which she never actually saw and where the case failed because her one witness was watching the play from the back row of the theatre. There were many instances where she protested against films and programmes that she'd actually never seen. She was a canny media manipulator and yet despite her shortcomings she was instrumental in the creation of the Broadcasting Standards Council which provides the essential watershed ruling we have today in broadcasting. Yet, you wouldn't know this by watching this film.

Filth does indicate how narrow minded she was but it refuses to engage with the real debate about television and violence. Many argue whether she was indeed ultimately proved right wherein the so called broken society we see today is as a result partly of lax morals in the media. It is more content to depict her as a busy body oblivious to two men having sex in the park she walks through rather than get to the core of her arguments. This is briefly alluded to in one of the most impressive scenes as she and her friend organise the mass meeting at Birmingham Town Hall that would launch her campaign.

It's impressively acted and directed, is full of lovely period detail and some smashing archive television material, but it has a sniggering tone towards its central figure which is a natural trap that writer Amanda Coe should have avoided in favour of uncovering the 'real' Mary Whitehouse as opposed to the media version of her. Instead we're just given a Carry On version with some tantalising concessions to her real personna.

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