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June 03, 2008

The UK's 1960s did not mark a radical break with the past - in fact they were quintessentially English, argues Richard D. North: Filth - The Mary Whitehouse Story & Andrew Marr's A History of Modern Britain

Posted by Richard D. North

Filth - The Mary Whitehouse Story
BBC2, 28th May 2008

Andrew Marr's A History of Modern Britain
BBC, 2007 and May 2008

Now the reviews are in, it seems a good time to review Filth, the BBC's flawed drama-documentary about Mary Whitehouse, the anti-smut campaigner. Along the way, I'll take a swipe at Andrew Marr's well-received A History of Modern Britain.

Mary Whitehouse always seemed to most people to be rather absurd and very far from wrong. That is roughly speaking how James Delingpole reads her in his Spectator review of Filth, only he says he is a late convert to her merit.

I have seen several accounts which suggest that it is only now that her value can be discerned, since society has gone to pot. I don't think that's fair. She was always valued and society hasn't especially gone to pot. Or rather, lively Britain has always gone to pot in some way or other.

So my beef with Filth (and the Marr) enterprise is that they misinterpret the cultural changes they affect to describe.

Filth first - a case of caricatures
Filth worked on the sound dramatic principle of surprising us. The BBC's director-general, Hugh Carleton Greene, was portrayed as an assertive liberal but also an arrogant sexist. Mrs Whitehouse was portrayed as strident and silly but also a sexy, smiling and kindly wife, mother and teacher. From this you might think that Filth was telling us that Greene's was the unhappier and narrower mind, and as a general point about complacent militant liberalism, it would have been well-taken.

Actually, the difficulty was that we suspected that Filth's portrayal of Greene was grotesque. John Lloyd reminded us in the Financial Times that the director-general had an impeccable record of courageous journalism which was ignored in this telling.

The Whitehouse depiction was a bit pat too. But the real problem is that the show failed to convey the liveliness of the social scenery against which these two acted out their drama. They were protagonists in a culture war whose texture the show quite missed.

What was Mary about?
In her heyday Mary Whitehouse was despised only by her targets, the self-consciously militant liberal elite who had indeed taken the commanding heights of the culture - the BBC and the universities - by storm.

Mrs Whitehouse was articulating a widely-held belief that society was becoming too permissive. Its moral standards in action and speech were being challenged. But because hers was a media campaign it is fair to say that she was worried about how things were depicted, not how laws were made. This matters. I think many people accepted that there should be some more liberalism in the Home Office. Probably rather more felt that a tidal wave of smut might not be all good.

The polite society
Mrs Whitehouse's core belief seems to have been that lots of things were best not paraded in public. This was true of emotion in general. In particular, sex and violence were realities and necessities, and capable of being glorious, but were to be handled with care because they were also inherently animal. Some of this was to do with reserve and dignity, but politeness was very important too. Mrs Whitehouse may also have felt that there was deliberate lefty subversion of society (and John Lloyd seems to think she may have), but I have no idea whether she did.

Forty years ago reserve and politeness were a defining part of how many people thought civilization worked. Many more people intermittently accorded reserve and politeness an important place in social mores. I was and remain in the latter rather loose category.

Almost everyone was much more inhibited in their speech and manners than nearly anyone is now. But it is a common modern mistake - the mistake of the liberal intellectual - to think that people were much more nasty in their attitudes and behaviour than they are now.

The "liberal" mistake
The paradox is well seen in the extreme case of the Conservative Woman, the blue-rinsed hangers and floggers amongst the party's female supporters. We youngsters would watch them with awe on TV during the annual party conferences, and I know they (and a general Tory smugness) stopped me voting Conservative. What we long-haired types didn't recognise was that these same "illiberal" people were the backbone of a vast amount of charitable local activity.

It isn't right, anyway, to equate social reform with kindness. But even if you do make that kind of equation, Britain has been a patchily reformist country for hundreds of years, and the early twentieth century had made huge steps on women's rights, sexual freedom, law and order, and electoral enfranchisement.

All this matters because many commentators who are old enough to know better characterise the 1960s as a period of liberation in which a modern counter-culture swept away an old stuffy, class-clogged, elitist hegemony of social control. John Lloyd, nuanced and important as he is, makes some of these assumptions.

This is broadly how Andrew Marr presented the late 1950s and 1960s in his television history. He did not usefully describe how Britain turned leftwards during the Second World War, nor how wealth creation got started again after it.

But what really matters is his confident portrayal of an ancien regime epitomised by Harold Macmillan's tweedy but sleazy government and its downfall at the hands of lefty satirists and general distaste. Actually, Harold Macmillan's cabinets were populated with men of a calibre any government now would be proud of and many of them - some high-born and some definitely not - were reformists. What's more, of course, he did not attempt to undo the post-war corporatist and welfarist settlement. The socialist alternative was only briefly admired (or even very different in outcome.)

British bohemianism
What matters more, in the context of Filth and the Marr history, is that the counter-culture was only the latest expression of a liberal, often leftish, bohemian strand in British society which had been evident for centuries. This bohemian strand became more vocal, more widespread and more powerful than it had ever been. But it is also important to see that it had always played an important part in shaping the manners and morals of most of society. Its attitudes to inebriation and indebtedness especially figured in the upper and lower reaches of society. But swathes of the middle class felt it too. It was present wherever people valued literature and art - were fashionable, or "cultivated".

Young readers of this piece will know this to be true if they have read any E M Forster or Henry James or J B Priestley. Look Back in Anger and especially Beyond the Fringe and TW3 were all welcome breaths of fresh air, but they weren't sudden flashes of genius in a cultural desert. In the long haul, Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward can stand comparison with John Osborne and Dudley Moore, and not least for the piquancy of their social alertness.

Mary, the lower middle class art teacher
Now we come to Mrs Whitehouse and her kind. She was an art teacher, and for all I know she was an aesthete. But she was also, I think, a representative of the lower middle class. This group flourished for about a century (let's say 1880-1980). It was defined by its horror of the bohemian. This quite temporary phenomenon arose because great portions of the old working class had been enriched sufficiently to become "respectable". And like it or not, and laugh at it or not, that respectability was an aspiration, an affectation, they willed on themselves.

Anyway, Mrs Whitehouse and her supporters - like Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances - invested a great deal in the idea of what was "proper", "decent", "respectable". They were often snobs. The paradox, of course, is that such people were "common" and had a horror of being "common".

Understanding that their aspiration was charming but misplaced was a key part of Noel Coward's brilliant This Happy Breed (play 1939, film 1944). In this piece about Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, Ethel Gibbons longed for respectability, but her husband Frank thought that that such an aspiration was a killing waste of effort. He was doing well, and could enjoy his modest affluence (and be an unassertively moral person) without lumbering himself with airs and graces. This is on a par with Filth's richly sympathetic portrayal of Mrs Whitehouse's husband, Ernest, who seemed not to see quite what the fuss was about but was determined to stand by his woman anyway.

There was something about Mary
The underlying problem with the standard portrayal of the 1960s social revolution is that one has simultaneously to acknowledge its noisiness and impact whilst noting that in many important ways nothing very much changed. I have tried to get it across that Britain has always been on the move, and to that extent the 60s were only a moment in a long dynamic history.

It is just as important to say how much has stayed the same, and how much of what Mrs Whitehouse stood for remains in place. She was robustly unintellectual: so were and are many Britons. She was unimpressed by social idealism, revolution, class war: so were and are many Britons. She was appalled at the weakness of much of the social fabric around her: so were and are many Britons. She was like most people in her dislike of a modern tendency to sloppy permissiveness in word and deed. So were and are most of us. The difference is that she thought it was worth trying to hold the line, and most of us don't. She made a fool of herself doing so. Many of us wish we had done the same. And then we hear Ann Widdecombe and think, no, you're alright, leave it to the battle axes.

The Greene-Whitehouse Nexus
The great thing is that Mrs Whitehouse emerges as a version of millions of English people who have always been recognisable and are so today. That's the big surprise. I hear elements of her attitudes everywhere in modern society, as I always have. They've never completely fitted with my own, but I have at least recognised them as the more stalwart beliefs of people more stalwart than me.
On the whole, I am glad Mrs Whitehouse lost her battles (and it seems perverse of A A Gill to argue that she sort of won them).

We have to learn to live with and grow out of our current disinhibited chavviness - we can't censor it, and still less ban it.

What is interesting, though, is that these things are a matter of fashion, and fashions are changing.

The new tone, if it becomes more dominant, will have very little that is obviously Whitehouse. Her primness, the implied twitch of the net curtain, is unlikely to make a comeback. Indeed, we seem to have internalised both the Greene and the Whitehouse attitudes.

It is rather likely that the Greene-Whitehouse Nexus is going to assert itself a little more quite soon. As Minette Marrin wrote in the Sunday Times, no-one would have believed that cosmopolitan Britain would contemplate being governed by a Conservative Party led by family-minded, relaxed, attractive, socially-liberal, thoughtful young men and women, many of them toffs and plenty not. Still less that the Tories seem somehow more modern than their Labour opponents.

Tony Blair rather wanted to articulate and help form the sort of society that I suspect David Cameron wants. But Blair was not very clear about what he wanted, and it is perhaps Blair's muddle which helps Cameron see more clearly what might work.

Both Filth and A History of Modern Britain sold the British short. The shows didn't savour our evolutionary social story. We are a complicated lot. We relish reserve and rowdiness. We are liberal and unreconstructed. We are permissive and authoritarian. We are sophisticated and Anglo-Saxon. We are all these long before the 1960s. It is time the Baby Boomers stopped preening themselves in front of newsreel of their younger selves. They never understood how little they really mattered.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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By and large I agree with the analysis of the final paragraph. Indeed, we can extend it beyond Britain.
Here is a quote from the biography of Benjamin Olinde Rodrigues (1795 – 1851), French socialist banker and mathematician.

Rodrigues was one of two joint leaders of the Saint-Simonian School, the other being his former student Prosper Enfantin. . . . By 1832 Enfantin began to argue for extreme views, particularly on sexual freedom, which went further than Rodrigues was prepared to go and Rodrigues left the Saint-Simonian School, declaring himself the true disciple of Saint-Simon.

However, a slightly younger friend of mine, who was a teenager towards the end of the “Swinging Sixties”, refers to the time as “our Cultural Revolution”. His view is the nearest to that of “the Man on the Clapham Omnibus” that one can find this far west of London. So, can the two views be reconciled? I see no contradiction: it was the time that the dam burst. The baby-boomers, myself included, may be intellectual featherweights (just look at our politicians!) but it is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.

On this page one can also see:

The fact that some traditional two-parent families are joyless places is no reason to damn the institution wholesale - yet that is what much of bien-pensant opinion seeks to do, argues Theodore Dalrymple

I am under the impression that the BBC, Channel Four, Hollywood, the music industry are crammed with people whose lifestyles are, let us say. “irregular”. They are also self-selecting for that sort of people, the BBC by advertising in the Guardian, Hollywood through the Casting Couch. And they can always find plenty of the above-mentioned bien pensants to reinforce them in their self-righteousness.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 9, 2008 07:04 PM

For many of the leftish types at the BBC and elsewhere the counter-culture "victories" of the late sixties seem more important than the victories of the second world war.
But when you strip it all down, all the stuff about Vietnam, Northern Ireland, civil rights etc. That was just window dressing. They may have marched a lot but they never went over and suffered with their comrades.
The real -perhaps only - issues were to do with drugs and sex, and freedom to as much of both as you could manage. That was what got them really excited, then and today. It is what is closest to their heart.
The rest just provided a fig leaf of virtue and coherence.

Posted by: Barry Wood at June 21, 2008 12:17 AM
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