Filth: the Mary Whitehouse Story

It was hard to see who might come away pleased by Filth: the Mary Whitehouse Story. Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, BBC director general through the 1960s and hero to many, was portrayed as something of a buffoon. I reckon the hope was that this would balance any criticism of Mary Whitehouse and that strategy seems to have worked. Her successor, John Beyer seems pleased with Julie Walters portrayal.

John Beyer does not appear at all bothered that his hero is seen to turn a blind eye to racism and domestic abuse (in her real world, rather than on TV), so I guess we should accept that this is what she was like. And that fits with someone so offended by a discussion of pre-marital sex, which is hardly an issue today. Mary Whitehouse insisted such things did not go on in her native Wolverhampton.

Most importantly Mary Whitehouse failed in the way that the socially conservative are almost certain to fail. The tragedy of the social conservative is not only that change is an inevitable fact of life, but that their own lifestyle is not always admired by others and their response to less pleasant change tends to overestimate the power of the state: they think we can simply ban things or collectively ignore them until they go away.

Society is unstable and the future belongs to those who best understand the causes of change, adapt accordingly and so influence progress.

And one driver of change is technology. Television was born in Mary Whitehouse’s lifetime, enabling national debate and bringing art that sometimes reflected real lives – lived to values she despised – into homes that liked to think everyone was a particular type of upstanding Christian.

Inevitably the social conservative blames the messenger. Society is changed by open discussion of its faults, but solutions are never found by those who brush problems under the carpet. Social conservatism simply gets in the way of those determined to make the world a better place.

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