Tales from the Porn Side

Mary Whitehouse:'Sometimes I denied she was my mother'

Mary Whitehouse was a moral crusader campaigner for 30 years who tried to clean up TV, abhorred the violence on Tom and Jerry cartoons and hated Mary Millington and persued her relentlessly. She inspired a BBC dramatisation titled Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story but what was it like as a son with a mother like Mary Whitehouse? Richard Whitehouse remembers...

Published Thu 15th Sep 2016
By itsAdult / Tales from the Porn Side

Mary Whitehouse:'Sometimes I denied she was my mother'

Richard Whitehouse: 'I absorbed my mother's God-centred views by osmosis' 

Mary Whitehouse was a fun and loving parent - until she started her moral crusade. Her son Richard tells Elizabeth Udall how his admiration turned to misery

Six years after Mary Whitehouse's death, her son Richard still struggles with the conflicting emotions aroused by the 30-year campaign she conducted against sex, violence and blasphemy in the media.

He was 19 - a self-conscious age - when her Clean Up TV campaign began in the spring of 1964. It cannot have been easy to have a mother who stands second only to Mrs Thatcher in the liberal hate stakes and who was ridiculed for many of her more extreme views.

She denounced the Tom and Jerry cartoons for excessive violence, criticised the romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral for the "four-letter obscenities" in the opening scene, and wanted to ban the BBC's Till Death Us Do Part because of the number of times Alf Garnett said "bloody".

The thick-rimmed glasses, helmet of grey hair, strident voice and determined walk - which made her such a good subject for a Spitting Image puppet - have all been skilfully recreated by Julie Walters for Filth, BBC Two's dramatisation of Whitehouse's campaigning years.

We see her as a matriarch, commanding to her husband Ernest, a former coppersmith, and affectionate but very much in charge of her three well-scrubbed sons.

"My earliest memories are of a fun, loving woman who gave me and my brothers lots of freedom when we were growing up in Wolverhampton," he says. "I absorbed my mother's God-centred views by osmosis. My parents were members of the Christian organisation Moral Re-Armament, and we all went to church every Sunday. But my mother never made us get up early in the morning for her half an hour of Bible reading and prayer.

"After bringing up me, Paul [four years older] and my little brother Chris [18 months younger], she returned to teaching art at secondary school. There, she took on responsibility for sex education and became more and more concerned with the moral messages being passed on to children by television. I remember it suddenly seemed to be the subject of discussion at practically every meal time, and the next thing I knew, a desk was being moved into the spare room and shelves and box files appeared." The campaign had begun.

In the spring of 1964, Richard was curious enough to sneak into the back of the first rally organised by his mother at Birmingham Town Hall.

"I was astonished. Coaches arrived from all over the country. Two thousand people poured in and suddenly there was my mother on a podium inspiring them to rapturous applause. Her hands were shaking. But she didn't stop. I was full of admiration.

"Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, the director- general of the BBC, was one of my mother's earliest targets. She said television should encourage and sustain faith in God, but he was pouring 'poison… into millions of homes'. He responded by refusing to see her or even give her airtime. He said her opinions were irrelevant."

Greene's loathing of Whitehouse's sustained campaign against him was so intense that he later bought a portrait of her, naked with six breasts, at which he reputedly threw darts.

Amusing as such behaviour sounds now, Richard and his brothers did not find life in the shadow of such a relentless moralist easy. Discretion prevents him from saying much about his brothers, but his carefully worded expression of his own experience hints at deep unhappiness.

"I was upset by how Sir Hugh treated my mother, but I was also finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the profile she was getting herself." None of the photographs on display in his sitting room is of his mother.

The following year, she established the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, which had a membership of 150,000. Meanwhile, half a million people signed her Clean Up TV petition - a British record at the time. "My mother had less and less time for the family. The campaign took over," says Richard, who was then studying to be a silversmith at Birmingham School of Art.

There, he became increasingly interested in the liberal ideas espoused by the other students. "My mum had never banned us from watching television, but I found myself deliberately watching programmes she had publicly warned against and being amused while she became incandescent with rage. My fellow students often confronted me about my mother and I just kept quiet. I left it two months before I told my future wife that my mother was the Mary Whitehouse; I was terrified of scaring her off.

"Others wanted to tell me what a good job my mother was doing. But I just wanted to be ordinary and anonymous and was being forced into being conspicuous. Sometimes I denied Mary Whitehouse was my mother. In 1970 I graduated and moved out with my brother Chris. We were overwhelmed. We needed to escape. But I must admit that we waited until my mother was away for the weekend before we dared to leave.

"It was an incredibly gradual process, but I eventually realised I was totally at odds with her moral outlook. As an individual and - later - a parent, I grew to see it was completely unrealistic. In my work, as a creative person, I loved going against traditional forms, pushing boundaries and moving forward. How could I support my mother working so hard to stifle so many of the writers and filmmakers who were doing the same?"

Meeting Richard now, you wouldn't guess that he was related to the woman whose stance against a permissive society won her the dubious accolade of having a satirical show, the Mary Whitehouse Experience, named after her.

Aged 63, he still works as a silversmith and lives in a bright, colourful Victorian house with Ros, his wife of 34 years, a picture restorer. The relaxed atmosphere of their home in Manningtree, Essex, is a far cry from the siege mentality that prevailed at the house four miles away in Ardleigh, which he and Ros once shared with his parents.

In 1976, when the first of their three children was only six weeks old, the two couples bought a large house and agreed to split it down the middle. "We said: 'If it gets difficult, we'll move.'"

He smiles at the memory of their naivety. "By that point my mother's campaigning was spreading to the theatre, cinema and publishing. She had Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange removed from cinemas and, in 1977, sued Gay News for blasphemous libel. The editor got a nine-month suspended sentence. The last time there had been a prosecution like it was 1922."

Ros and Richard were both working at home. "I was desperate to keep our family life separate from what my mother was doing. But we'd pull back our bedroom curtains in the morning and be faced with cameras and lights. We were always answering the door to reporters and were often woken in the night by people screaming abuse.

"I remember sniffer dogs and guards with machine guns in Mum's garden while a helicopter hovered overhead because the Home Secretary had popped in for tea. Meanwhile, we'd be sweeping up glass from a brick that had come through our window instead of my mother's, fearful that next time our children might be in the line of fire."

Then Mary began to get death threats. "She had a panic button. If she thought she spotted a stranger, the police would be there in an instant. But what about us? We wanted to move, but my mother just kept saying it would mean setting up another office." And because they had bought the property together, Richard and his family couldn't leave without his parents.

He stresses that on the occasions when they all got together, his mother was full of love and fun. "But she never once talked to us about what we were going through, let alone expressed regret that she was the cause of it."

With his father suffering from dementia and Mary increasingly frail, Richard's parents relied both on him and carers. "But none of the carers stayed for long. They hated my mother. She treated them like servants."

In 1999, Mary and Ernest went into a Colchester nursing home. Within a year, Ernest had died and on November 23, 2001, at the age of 91, Mary followed.

Richard admits there is much in his mother's legacy to admire, citing the 9pm watershed, as well as her influence on legislation such as the extension of the Broadcasting Act and the Protection of Children Act, which attempted to curb the pornographic exploitation of minors.

"I respect my mother's single-mindedness and resilience, that she maintained the courage of her convictions and inspired so many people. I enjoyed the fun person my mother could be. But even then, we were never left in any doubt that there was something much more important to her going on elsewhere. If the choice was between family or the campaign, the campaign would win every time. My mother let it take her and I never really got her back."

Source: The Daily Telegraph.co.uk

 

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