Strictly speaking, this TV movie doesn’t tell the Mary Whitehouse Story, which went on for tragicomic decades beyond the sliver of her career covered here. It boils the self-appointed guardian of morality’s crusade down to her remote battle with Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, Director-General of the BBC, and ends with her apparent triumph at his resignation. After decades of Barry Humphries and Caroline Ahearne copping Whitehouse’s specs and mannerisms, it would be impossible to play this story straight, though a thorough documentary would be a worthwhile effort. Amanda Coe’s script and Andy DeEmmony’s direction are mostly comic – excepting a sobering dollop part-way through about Ernest Whitehouse’s traumatic involvement in a stranger’s suicide which stands out weirdly. Julie Walters and Hugh Bonneville play Mary and Greene as cartoons of people who might have had cartoonish sides but were fundamentally serious — and whose actions had long-lasting ramifications, for good or ill, within British broadcasting and even British culture in general.
We begin with Mary cycling through a Toytown-coloured small village and a cover of Flanders and Swann’s ‘Pee Po Belly Bum Drawers’, then find this blithely prudish art teacher, appalled by subjects discussed or shown on television and the reach of the medium among her pupils. She goes through the arcane processes of complaining to the BBC and, after a sympathetic official has been removed, forms a pressure group (Clean Up TV) which eventually evolved into the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association. Coe invents funny moments, like Ernest (Alun Armstrong, profitably underdoing it) whispering to Mary to dissuade her from going with Clean Up National TV as a title (this will become an urban myth) and her continued failure to notice sexual activity or reference in the changing world (she catches two blokes having sex in the woods and comments ‘nice day for a nature ramble’) or even accept the fact that normal people, out of her earshot, are casually using language much stronger than was then heard on TV (the irony, of course, is that this mostly sympathetic biopic is full of elements she would have tirelessly and tediously complained about). Whitehouse’s dissociation from reality is more affecting (and probably truthful) in a quieter scene where she is aghast at the very notion of oral sex while her tactful, patient but perhaps savvier husband (‘yes I have heard of it as a matter of fact’) holds back his real feelings.
As if wary of old charge that the BBC had a systematic campaign of lampooning Whitehouse – which had some truth to it, though she clearly made herself an irresistable target – the film ‘balances’ jokes about her with an extreme caricature of Greene as an arrogant, foul-mouthed, lecherous, humourless hypocritical creep Bonneville can find no workable way of playing. It’s possible that this was pre-emption against complaints from the NVALA’s heirs – Greene comes off much worse than Whitehouse here, which is to say the least grossly unfair. A sub-plot about a feud with TV writer David Turner (William Beck), who reacted to Whitehouse’s complaints about his radio play Trevor by caricaturing her in a TV show called Swizzlewick which infuriated her (seemingly lost, this was more a drama than the knockabout comedy suggested by the new-made recreations) to the point when she lobbied the Postmaster General (who has notional control over the BBC) to have scenes cut (which suggests the perhaps-scary power simple persistence grants a pressure group). Beck’s portrait of the writer as a nasty piece of work is perhaps the most tasteless thing here: I’d not registered Turner’s name before – and indeed assumed he was a fictionalised Dennis Potter – but, looking him up, he has substantial and worthy credits. There are weird flights of (Potteresque?) fancy, including the ridiculous imputation that Mary had erotic dreams of being molested by Greene, and when the portrait of the protagonist gets darker, Walters doesn’t quite stretch her performance: Whitehouse becomes media-savvy quickly, asking about her keylight as an interview is being set up, and dodges a pertinent question about just who has given her a mandate with a nasty look, but is less credible when spitting hatred at a cheery free-loving hippie girl who gives her a peace sign or sitting in the new DG’s office with a smug, scary smile as if she now owns Broadcasting House.
A lot of good material is covered: the black neighbour who first assumes Mary and her vicar’s wife sidekick (Georgie Glen) are from the racist gang who have been persecuting her; her weirdly specific grudges against Greene, Doctor Who, the Beatles and even Pinky and Perky; the parallel of Greene binning her complaints with Whitehouse tossing away abusive letters (no sensible, reasoned, polite arguments against her position are shown to have been advanced – which is a serious omission); her seduction-via-biscuit by smooth ITV supremo Lord Hill (Ron Cook) who becomes Greene’s boss (she was never quite as impassioned by ‘the other side’, who weren’t license-funded – perhaps because commercial TV stations handled her better, and perhaps because she rarely seemed to notice indecencies in their output, or indeed their ads). Some elements are wilfully distorted, such as the depiction of Whitehouse as a Tory railing against the BBC’s left-wing bias (she was a Wilson supporter) and post-1970 events are covered by funny captions that don’t quite cope with the Gay News blasphemy case or the Romans in Britain indecency trial. It’s mentioned that the BBC had to pay libel damages when someone (actually, Johnny Speight) called her a fascist on air, but not that (with horrible irony) the corporation also had to pay damages when she herself libelled Dennis Potter’s mother in an interview.