The relentless moral campaigner and her fight to prevent a blasphemous film from being made.
By the middle of the 1970s, moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse was both at her most powerful and most irrelevant. Since starting her campaign against ‘dirt’ in the early 1960s, she had spectacularly failed to prevent the spread of sexual freedom – under her watch, homosexuality and abortion were legalised, and soft porn had gone mainstream. Nudity was commonplace on TV and across the media and she was often seen as little more than a joke – a parochial housewife interfering in the nation’s fun. Yet equally, Whitehouse had successfully marshalled the troops of the Festival of Light (including such notables as Lord Longford, Malcolm Muggeridge, Cliff Richard and Jimmy Savile) to fight the spread of permissiveness and godlessness, and it was in large part due to her relentless efforts that censorship in Britain remained as strict as it did – while hardcore porn was spreading across the globe, Britain had to be content with softer-than-soft smut for the most part – while hardcore was available, it was strictly under the counter in Soho sex shops. Whitehouse would probably have her glory days a decade later when her political double Margaret Thatcher was in power and a whole raft of laws was put in place to stem the tide of filth… but in 1976, she seemed old-fashioned and prudish (which she was), and her efforts to ban smut, homosexuality and Communism might have been quaint if they weren’t so pervasive and frequently successful. Whitehouse and her cronies knew the workings of the law intimately and were only too happy to dig up obscure, forgotten offences with which to charge her enemies. For instance, she tried, unsuccessfully, to prosecute La Grande Bouffe under the vagrancy laws when it became clear that obscenity rules did not cover film.
But 1976 was the year of what she might have seen as her greatest triumph. It was a battle against everything she dreaded – pornography, attacks on Christianity and left-wing subversion – and it opened up the Pandora’s box of blasphemy prosecutions that she and others would subsequently use to devastating effect.
Jens Jørgen Thorsen was a Danish artist and filmmaker who represented everything that Whitehouse despised. Born in 1932, he was an art historian who became disillusioned with the art establishment, and embraced Situationism in the early 1960s, connecting with the German radicals known as SPUR, a collection of beatniks, thinkers and libertarians who lived in a commune in Drakabygget in Sweden. As part of the group, he made the short film Pornoshop in 1965, which mixed porn movie outtakes with more naturalistic sex scenes. The film was revolutionary stuff and set Thorsen on the path of filmmaking. He saw porn as a revolutionary weapon (which, indeed, it was in the mid-Sixties), and he would organise screenings as well as making short films that explored sexuality. In 1970, he made a feature film version of Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy, which mixed late Sixties radicalism and explicit sex to good effect; it was banned in Britain.
Asked what was next, Thorsen stated that he wanted to make a pornographic film about Jesus. He commented:
“of course we could, in connection with Catholicism – which when it comes down to it lives off pornography – aim our guns at the Pope, but I believe the best way to give the Pope a forceful kick in the ass is to turn up the heat on Jesus. He has always interested me, although the use of Jesus as an authority figure repels me. In the film when Jesus rises up out of the grave, he’ll ball a farmer girl. A nice blonde girl. That by itself signifies in my opinion what Jesus ought to stand for, instead of standing for the repression of life and eroticism.”
In fact, Thorsen had already placed with the idea of an eroticised Jesus – he’d done a painting of Christ on a train station wall, showing him on the cross with an erection. How serious he was about the film is hard to say, but the outraged reaction to the project helped propel the idea towards reality. The film, alternatively called The Sex Life of Jesus and The Many Faces of Jesus, was submitted for funding to the Danish Film Institute in 1973, and after initial rejection, Thorsen was given 600,000 kroner. This caused outrage – petitions against the film were collected, politicians fumed, Christians took to the streets to demonstrate. Meanwhile, the rest of the world looked on in shock. Denmark had abolished censorship in the 1960s, and was already under attack internationally as the capital of porn, being responsible for the films and magazines smuggled to other countries (not for nothing did much of the porn in British sex shops smell of bacon). Billy Graham raged in America, the Vatican was aghast and the Danish ambassador’s home in Rome was firebombed. The Danish Film Institute quickly reconsidered their offer and asked for their money back. The Sex Life of Jesus could not be made in Denmark.
Ironically, opportunistic Danish porn producers had, by this time, already cranked out Jesus Is In The House (aka I Saw Jesus Die), a low rent hardcore affair that is arguably more morally bankrupt than anything Thorsen could have made. However, in this film, Christ does not actually engage in any sex acts himself – he just wanders around watching people engaged in sinful, hardcore activity, and then punishes them. The Jesus in this film is played by Finn Tavbe and is short, fat and unimposing. The film managed to be released with little comment – perhaps it was seen as too irrelevant to even object to, as it played porno cinemas and then vanished.
Thorsen, meanwhile, was trying and failing to secure backing for his film. He even published the screenplay (which would backfire on him later) to help raise interest. But it was not until 1975 that his luck seemed to change when a new regime at the Danish Film Institute offered him 900,000 kroner to make the movie. Apparently, they had learned nothing from the previous scandal. This time around, the ire of the Christians and the authorities was aimed at the DFI rather than Thorsen (by this time seen as too much of an outsider to care), and after much legal wrangling, the film was declared a violation of Droit Moral – the protection of artistic integrity, which was here dubiously applied to the Bible – in 1976. Once again, the DFI took their money back.
Thorsen was nothing if not determined, though. If he couldn’t make the film in Denmark, he would look elsewhere. He first turned to Sweden, but his application to the Swedish Film Institute was also unsuccessful. He then, for some bizarre reason, set his sights on the UK.
Pornography was considered illegal in Britain in 1976, despite what should have been a precedent-setting acquittal of porn baron John Lindsay at Birmingham Crown Court a year earlier, where his hardcore loops were declared not to be obscene. While Lindsay’s cinema clubs showed his films and Soho sex shops sold hardcore magazines and loops, and while Britain’s softcore feature film-makers often quietly shot explicit versions for overseas sales, the official word was that the sale and production of porn was a crime (this attitude would be maintained until 1999). So the idea that a Danish filmmaker would be coming over not only to shoot a porn film, but a blasphemous one at that, caused outrage.
It was Mary Whitehouse who marshalled the troops. In one of her many self-congratulatory books, she talks about how she obtained a copy of the screenplay and had it translated – perhaps not the scoop she implies, given that it had been published in Denmark a few years earlier. Nevertheless, armed with the ‘evidence’ of what Thorsen intended to film, Whitehouse tapped up friendly journalists to stir outrage amongst the public, while demanding that politicians do something to stop this awful man. The ‘something’ included the use of the virtually forgotten blasphemy laws against the film – there was the hope that even if the production could not be stopped, at least they could prevent it from ever being shown. Among those lined up against Thorsen were the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Queen, who unusually allowed herself to be quoted, calling the film “disgusting”. A prayer vigil was held outside the Home Office, and this seems to have been the last straw for Home Secretary Mervyn Rees, who announced that Thorsen was to be banned from the UK. And indeed, the Dane was turned away by customs when he arrived at Heathrow Airport early in 1977.
Thorsen would go on to try France and Israel, where he had no more success in making his film, and eventually gave up on the plans that had by now dragged on for five years. Whitehouse, on the other hand, was emboldened by what she saw as her personal success. It was probably this new sense of power and a belief that the religious lobby was now in the ascendency that encouraged her to take out a private prosecution against Gay News for publishing James Kirkup’s poem The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name, a gay sexual fantasy involving Jesus Christ and a Roman centurion. Her success in this case put the long-dormant law of Blasphemous Libel back into the minds of prosecutors, censors and publishers. From now on, artists would have to be careful about how they dealt with religious ideas, or risk facing the consequences, as Nigel Wingrove found to his cost a decade later when his erotic art film Visions of Ecstasy became the first movie banned on blasphemy grounds.
Thorsen eventually did get to make his film about Christ, though not the one he’d been fighting for. In 1992, he made The Return, a comedy about the Second Coming in which Christ is a revolutionary. There was no explicit sex, and reviews bemoaned the fact that the director seemed stuck in the 1960s in terms of style and humour. Whether Whitehouse even knew it existed is hard to tell – it has not been released in the UK.
Thorsen died in 2000, Whitehouse a year later. The law of Blasphemous Libel was abolished in 2008 in England and Wales, but almost immediately replaced by new laws relating to religious hatred. In Denmark, arguments about the right to mock religion became very pertinent in 2006, when the Mohammed cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten ignited a new outrage that made the Sex Life of Jesus scandal seem quaint in comparison. Just what Thorsen – or Whitehouse for that matter – would make of the current blasphemy wars is a fascinating thought…
Thanks to Jack Stevenson and his book Scandinavian Blue for background detail on the Thomsen case.
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