Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Whitehouse, Mary (1910-2001)

'Clean Up TV' campaigner

Main image of Whitehouse, Mary (1910-2001)

For four decades a figurehead for little-Englander moral conservatism, Mary Whitehouse waged a tireless crusade against the tide of filth she saw engulfing British society. With her concrete-set hairdo, horn-rimmed spectacles and sternly reproachful tone, she always resembled the provincial 1950s schoolteacher that she had once been, but her frumpy image disguised a canny operator who, for all her distaste for the media, was more than capable of manipulating it to advance her cause. Nevertheless, despite a consistently high public profile from the early 1960s to her death in 2001, her influence on the development of British culture in general, and television in particular, was limited.

Actively Christian all of her life, in the late 1930s she became involved in the Oxford Movement (later Moral Rearmament), in which context she met her husband of 60 years and father of her three sons, Ernest Whitehouse. It was while teaching art and sex education in a Shropshire school that she became convinced that television was responsible for her pupils' inappropriate attitudes to sex. What began as a one-woman crusade built up steam until, in 1964, she called a public meeting in Birmingham town hall which brought in supporters from across the country, more than filling the venue's 2000 seat capacity. It was at that meeting that the Clean Up TV Campaign came into being, evolving in due course into the organisation the National Viewers' and Listeners Association.

Mrs Whitehouse's crusade drew support not just from her natural constituency of conservative, middle-aged, middle-class, middle-Englanders, but from a broad subsection of British society alarmed at the rapid arrival of the 'permissive society': the rise of promiscuity fuelled by the pill and the coming of age of the confident baby boomer generation; the clamour to legalise homosexuality; the increasing prevalence of casual drug use; the relaxation of censorship of stage and screen. Whitehouse shared these concerns, and offered a simple villain: television, or at least those controlling television who, for reasons of profit or ideology, used the medium to chip away at the edifice of British moral life. Television, she argued, had a unique influence due to its occupation of the family living room which brought with it a unique moral responsibility.

Her chief target in the early days was Hugh Carleton Greene, director general of the BBC since 1960. Instinctively liberal, Greene was irritated by Whitehouse's attacks but refused to acknowledge her authority, treating her with a patrician disdain which only strengthened her vitriol. She claimed credit for Greene's downfall in 1969, although the true reasons were more complex, involving internal BBC machinations and the behind-the-scenes manipulation of prime minister Harold Wilson.

In the early '70s, she joined forces in the 'Festival of Light' movement with Malcolm Muggeridge, Lord Longford and Cliff Richard, among others, and successfully brought a private prosecution against Gay News for publishing a poem depicting Jesus's homoerotic attraction to a Roman soldier while on the Cross. The counter-culture magazine OZ was another common target.

But her obsessive focus on sex and sexual or blasphemous language blinded her to subtleties, laying her open to dismissal as narrow-minded and reactionary, and often causing her to miss more worthy targets. She overlooked the satire in Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1966-75), and missed the powerful moral convictions underlying the works of Dennis Potter. Moreover, her single-mindedness meant that she increasingly fell out of step with those who considered television violence a much greater concern.

With the election of the superficially similar Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Whitehouse might have expected to find a powerful ally. But while Thatcher spoke fondly of a return to Victorian values, any wish to impose such values on television was pushed aside by the far greater imperative of market deregulation. In a further irony, it was the first Thatcher government that established Channel 4, which was to become the moralists' greatest bugbear in the ensuing decades.

Despite her best efforts and a few minor victories, British television at her death in 2001 was unrecognisably more liberal than the medium she had begun opposing so vociferously some 37 years earlier. But the community she represented has not departed, and may even have grown stronger since her death, as indicated by the recent frenzy surrounding the BBC's broadcast of the stage musical Jerry Springer: the Opera (tx. 8/1/2005).

She was awarded a CBE in 1980 and, even after stepping down as Chair of NVALA in the 1990s, she remained the visible figurehead of the movement she founded. Since her death, on 23 November 2001, the organisation renamed itself MediaWatch-UK, but under Mrs Whitehouse's successor, John Beyer, has yet to regain the prominence she brought it.

Mark Duguid

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Thumbnail image of John Mortimer: The Guardian Interview (1994) John Mortimer: The Guardian Interview (1994)

On Rumpole's success and broadcast campaigner Mary Whitehouse

Selected credits

Related collections

Related people and organisations