The rise and fall of Britain’s most determined and publicity-hungry moral campaigner and the organisation that she founded.
As the hopes and dreams of the 1960s gave way to an altogether more cynical and austere new decade, British culture was strangely in thrall to a frumpy housewife who embodied everything that had stood against the permissive society. Mary Whitehouse had, for years, been inexplicably given airtime and newspaper columns in which she could push her reactionary views to the wider public, aiming to clean up television (and, as it quickly became apparent, everything else) with the help of the pressure group she had founded in 1965. The National Viewers and Listener’s Association quickly proved – despite Whitehouse’s claims to be just an ordinary housewife – to be a highly effective campaigning group with the ear of many powerful people who shared her disdain for all things sexual. Malcolm Muggeridge – a former unbeliever turned Christian fanatic – was so in awe of her moral crusade that in his fawning introduction to Whitehouse’s dreary and self-important autobiography Who Does She Think She Is? said;
“It is literally true that but for her the total demolition of all Christian decencies and values in this country would have taken place virtually without a word of public protest”.
It was this fear of the loss of Christian values – and Christian influence – that lay at the heart of Whitehouse’s concerns. The possibility of the British people adopting other religious beliefs or, worse still, slipping into secularism was a genuine concern for people like her, and rightly so – the unwavering grip that Christianity had on the country had been loosened by the Age of Aquarius. It was seen not just in the rise of paganism and a fascination with Indian gurus encouraged by the likes of The Beatles, but in a growing fascination with the occult – the British censor’s once iron grip on all things Satanic was being loosened, and the success of Rosemary’s Baby – a film unthinkable even five years earlier – was leading to more and more films dealing with black magic, often in ambiguous ways and frequently mixing the occult with the new sexual freedoms that were in themselves an attack on Christian values. While the tide of filth that was engulfing Europe – with Scandinavian countries having already legalised hardcore porn, ensuring that it was being produced and exported on an industrial scale – was officially being held back in the UK, who knew how long this would last? Just as Britain had followed the rest of the world, however slowly and reluctantly, in allowing nudity and simulated sex – even gay sex – on screen and in print, surely it was only a matter of time before hardcore porn was equally available? In fact, it took until 2000 for hardcore to achieve legal status in Britain, but that’s another story.
As the Seventies began, evangelical Baptist missionaries Peter and Janet Hill, who had returned from pushing their own religious values onto the people of India at the end of 1970 to find a Britain awash with “moral pollution”. Strip clubs, cinema clubs, bare breasts in newspapers, nudity everywhere you looked. The couple quickly decided that this was their new mission – possibly after one of those nocturnal visits from God that Christian fanatics are wont to receive – and set about forming a new organisation devoted to bringing Britain back to its senses. Their movement would have a wider remit than existing organisations like Whitehouse’s NVALA, which was still very much focused on TV – the group had literally set up under the ‘clean up TV’ banner, with Whitehouse holding meetings to talk about ‘dirty’ programmes to the sort of people who would respond to that sort of language.
But Whitehouse was not about to allow anyone to steal her moralising thunder, and the Hills knew that she was the figure most associated with the fight against filth in the public eye – and, more importantly, while she was dismissed as a crank by most broadcasters, she had the ear of politicians and newspaper proprietors. It made sense for both sides to pool their resources.
As with many such things, the origins of the Nationwide Festival of Light are somewhat muddy and depend very much on who you ask. Some things we know – the Hills chose at some point in 1971 to join forces with Whitehouse in their desire to form a counterweight to the permissive society, but who came up with the name and the grander concept is less clear, perhaps because it was an organic group effort. Whitehouse – who was a cunning self-publicist with quite the ego hidden beneath her ‘ordinary housewife’ persona that was as much an act as David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust – liked to take credit for the whole thing, though by the time of her third autobiography (Quite Contrary), she was willing to give Muggeridge a moment of destiny, when he apparently said “Mary, what are we going to do for these young people? We must have a great Festival of Light!”. It’s the sort of lightning-strike moment that sounds good in a dramatised and self-congratulatory autobiography, though this important moment is missing from both previous books. Well, I suppose it’s easy to forget.
A more prosaic version of how things began sees Peter Hill contacting various like-minded luminaries – Whitehouse and Muggeridge, Lord Longford (who varied his time between ‘investigating’ the evils of pornography and campaigning for the freedom of Myra Hindley), Bishop Trevor Huddleston and Cliff Richard, the rock ‘n’ roll star turned squeaky clean bachelor boy Christian pop star. Hill had been inspired by the story of ten thousand men marching through Blackburn in protest against loosening morals and envisioned a similar thing on a national scale. Like similar moral campaigners before and since, Hill was convinced that he spoke for a silent majority who had been ignored by the forces of permissiveness. The idea that society had changed, and that his Victorian, fundamentalist ideas were out of step with the majority probably never crossed his mind.
His new movement had two aims – to combat the spread of ‘sexploitation’ in the media and the arts, and to encourage a return to Christian morality through the teachings of Christ. This two-pronged approach allowed some flexibility within the movement – some people might feel less strongly about the religious aspect than others did but were still concerned about the spread of pornography and sexual exploitation. The movement could therefore take in anti-porn proto-feminists, atheist Leftists and others who would not necessarily be attracted to a strictly religious organisation. This marriage of convenience continues today, as Radical Feminists and church groups join forces to campaign against strip clubs and sex shops.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the strength that moral campaigners have is a relentless belief in their cause. They never waiver from it, and it is all-consuming. That’s how they score so many victories – partly because no one wants to be seen to be supporting moral decay (be it porn, free love, video nasties or unpopular opinions), and partly because their opponents are too fractured, too lazy or simply too busy having a good time to put up a decent fight until it is too late.
The Hills organised very quickly. By the middle of 1971, A working committee had been established, with Colonel Orde Dobbie, trade unionist Eddie Stride, Evangelical Alliance general secretary Gordon Landreth, Pentecostal evangelist Reverend Jean Darnall, actor Nigel Goodwin and missionary Steve Stevens (a missionary aviator). There was also a larger Council of Reference that took in various public figures, from politicians, lawyers, doctors, trades unionists and bishops, to actors like David Kossoff and Dora Bryan. Prince Charles sent a message of support. This cross-denominational, politically diverse group then set out to organise nationally.
And what point Whitehouse and Muggeridge became involved is unclear, but as soon as they did, the focus switched almost immediately to them. Perhaps the Hills were happy about this – after all, Whitehouse was a seasoned campaigner that everyone in the country recognised. That neither seems to have been part of the central bureaucracy is telling – Whitehouse never quite liked sharing the spotlight with anyone, and might well have been suspicious of some of the people involved (trade unionists were effectively Communists to her, and Communism was an ungodly threat to the moral stability of the nation). And she doesn’t appear to have been involved in the group’s earliest public meetings, including the first major rally at Westminster Central Hall on September 9th, where the Gay Liberation Front disrupted events by dressing in drag, releasing mice into the audience and sounding horns. The protest was funded by Monty Python’s Graham Chapman and certainly helped take the wind out of the nationwide Festival of Light. How effective a disruption this was, of course, is open to question – a valid protest, certainly, but one that perhaps made as many people sympathise with the NFOL than with the protestors.
Some seventy regional rallies followed in quick succession. Bristol Cathedral was packed, as people opposed to the opening of a local sex shop in the city saw the chance to protest. A Nationwide Day of Prayer took place on the 19th, and four days later, beacons were lit across the country – Cliff Richard lit the one in Sheffield. It was claimed that 100,000 people took part in these protests, and to the casual observer, it might have looked as though the nation was united in anger against the permissive society. A more accurate interpretation might have been that 100,000 was the total number of people who really cared – but as with many protests, huge crowds look impressive and can be claimed as the voice of the people.
The Nationwide Festival of Light’s public high spot were the mass rallies in Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park on September 25th, the former attracting some 45,000 people (though 100,000 had been expected, and figures do not tell us how many of the attendees were protesting against it). Whitehouse and Muggeridge spoke – of course they did – alongside Bill Davidson of the Salvation Army, and Whitehouse immediately became the face of the movement. In Hyde Park, the main speaker was street evangelist Arthur Blessitt, who had achieved fame for travelling the world carrying a twelve-foot crucifix. Blessitt railed against “immoral entertainment and illicit behaviour”, and said that people needed to find a personal relationship with Jesus.
After this triumphant moment, the Nationwide Festival of Light stumbled. No one quite knew what to do next, and the various factions within the movement all seemed to want different things. Some wanted to simply protest and point the way to a more moral life, while others wanted legislation. From the outside, it seems that the organisation somewhat fizzled out of sight after this brief moment in the sun. But the NFOL had more impact than people understand. Unlike Whitehouse’s NVALA, which concentrated on protesting national organisations like the BBC, the Nationwide Festival of Light understood the power of local action. Just as the British Board of Film Censors actively encouraged the Greater London Council to grant London-only certificates to films that the Board had banned – on the dubious basis that London audiences were more sophisticated than the rest of the country – so the NFOL worked on a local basis. In fact, they banked on the idea that local councils – which retained the power to override BBFC decisions – would decide that what was fine for London was absolutely not acceptable in their towns, and organised campaigns against many of the more controversial films of the day – Last Tango in Paris, A Clockwork Orange, The Devils and Straw Dogs amongst them. All of these films had their national distribution disrupted with local bans – in some cases a handful, in others quite extensive. That some councils banned the films without even watching them reveals the joke of the situation, but at the time it was deadly serious, and threatened to undermine the whole purpose of the BBFC – and not in a good way. The possibility of local authorities taking control of film censorship without any of the knowledge or nuance that even the BBFC had was something that worried film distributors, the BBFC and the government, all of whom could see the potential for anarchy. But censoring films proved exhaustive and, once it became clear that few were as titillating as The Devils, rather boring for councils, and although there would be blips of interest from time to time – and the GLC continued to act as a London-only censorship board until 1976 – most local authorities abandoned their censorial zeal by 1973. This was helped by the fact that the BBFC was clearly being very strict on sex and violence, and few films were as headline-grabbing as those released between 1971-72. The press loves a moral panic, but soon tires of it and moves on to something else.
The other – ultimately worthless – achievement of the Festival of Light was to inspire Lord Longford’s inquiry into pornography – less an investigation, more an answer (‘porn is bad’) in search of a question. The press had a whale of a time following Longford into British cinemas showing X-rated films that he would then storm out of, and over to Denmark, where he felt that he had to take in a live sex show in order to know exactly what it would entail. Longford’s commission consisted of the great and the good, including the noted upstanding paragon of morality Jimmy Savile, who called it “a worthy and well-meaning attempt to sanctify Sodom before it’s too late.”
For Mary Whitehouse, the prospect of sharing the glory with others was an unpleasant one, and she would begin to quietly distance herself from the organisation as the decade progressed. She had eagerly taken part in the local campaigns but was happier working on a national scale. And she butted heads with the Festival of Light’s new director Raymond Johnson, a man as ambitious as she was. Something had to give, and in March 1977, she wrote a lengthy, rambling letter that was part resignation (from an organisation that she wasn’t a part of), part dismissal of their achievements and all egomania – once again, she takes credit for inventing the name and the idea.
Whitehouse could afford to split from the Festival of Light; it could not afford to lose her. Already, it was something of a forgotten organisation and had by now dropped any pretence of being anything other than an evangelical Christian lobby group. In 1983, it changed its name to Christian Action Research and Education, or CARE, and continued to promote family values. CARE is arguably more powerful than the Nationwide Festival of Light ever was. They are widely considered to be responsible for the notorious Section 28, introduced by the Thatcher government to outlaw the promotion of homosexuality; they have been active in promoting Satanic Panic fears; they have promoted gay conversion therapy, and are listed in the UK Parliament’s register of all-party groups as the secretariat of the All-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, a pressure group to encourage “government action to tackle individuals who create demand for sexual services”. They are one of the lobby groups invited to respond to government consultations on porn, sex work and other moralistic issues, and were active in the video nasties campaign, helping draft the widely discredited research paper that was used to justify video censorship. They remain a malignant influence on society, long after Whitehouse’s NVALA (itself rebadged as Mediawatch-UK) had faded into obscurity and irrelevance.
Thanks to Henrik Bromley for inspiring this and digging out Muggeridge quotes.
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