In recent years, former liberals, now of a certain age and wringing their hands over the availability and pernicious influence of pornography and violent entertainment, have taken to musing over whether history has proven Mary Whitehouse, the relentless moral campaigner who blighted British life for four decades, was ‘right’ – not in her constant attacks on homosexuality or left wing ideals or serious, respected works of art of course, but in her constant war against smut. That they can’t see that her contempt for promiscuity and ungodliness was all-consuming and made no quarter and no distinction between the things that they now approve of and the things they don’t is apparently lost on them, as they try to rebrand her as an eccentric old duffer who didn’t really make much difference in the end, rather than a savvy lobbyist who had the ear of the Thatcher government and was in no small part responsible for things like the Video Recordings Acts and other restrictions on what we can see or do, restrictions that remain in place – sometimes strengthened – today.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Whitehouse was opposed by assorted liberal forces and artistic bodies, but by the 1980s they were running scared. The British film industry was shamefully silent during the video nasties decable, and in subsequent moral panics, possibly because the film establishment rather approved of these vulgar foreign films being taken off the shelves, the be replaced by the likes of My Beautiful Launderette and A Letter to Breshnev. It really was a bleak time for British film all round.
The one filmmaker who was willing to fight Whitehouse, perhaps unfortunately, was Michael Winner. I say ‘unfortunately’ because Winner was both the director of assorted violent films and so might have been seen to have a vested interest in reduced censorship – indeed, several of his films, most famously Death Wish 2, had been singled out by head censor James Ferman as prime examples of dangerous filmmaking – and the sort of self-satisfied blowhard that probably put as many people off as he convinced. Don’t get me wrong – I rather liked Winner because of his arrogance, but I can see that he wasn’t perhaps the best representative of the anti-censorhip movement. But no one else in the industry was willing or well-known enough to debate Whitehouse in public.
Famously – or perhaps infamously – the pair were pitched against each other in the wake of the Hungerford massacre, when violent movies were immediately blamed without a shred of evidence. Whitehouse pulls all her tricks here – her call to populist ‘common sense’ over evidence, talking over people to stop any other ideas getting a good airing – but winner gets a few points in. The presence of a full row of bare-chested Rambo-a-likes in the row behond the pair is a legendary moment of whatthefuckery that perhaps shows how serious these daytime discussion shows that both the BBC and ITV broadcast at the time were.
Both Winner and Whitehouse are no longer with us. I wonder what the Rambos now think of their appearance? Do they too now think ‘Mary was right?’