Book review: Ban this Filth: Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive

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IT’S hard to remember what a totemic and divisive figure Mary Whitehouse was in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.

Ban this Filth: Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive

Edited by Ben Thompson

Faber, 304pp, £16.99

To her supporters, this Nuneaton housewife and former art teacher stood up against the “disbelief, doubt and dirt” undermining Britain’s moral fibre. To her critics, she was nothing but a busybody from the screwball Christian Right.

Ben Thompson takes us on a playful tour of her archive, at the University of Essex. It’s all here, too much of it: the endless letters to BBC director-generals; the protest about a scene of “strangulation … by obscene vegetable matter” in an episode of Doctor Who. Thompson’s most telling stroke is to expose her appalling, evasive behaviour when she mistook Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective for fact, claimed the writer had seen his mother having sex with a stranger, and was duly sued for libel by the blameless Mrs Potter.

More background would have been useful on “the break-up of her parents’ marriage [and] the loss of twins who died at birth after she refused the abortion doctors had recommended”. Mostly, Thompson just gives Whitehouse enough rope to hang herself, as when she anonymously posts “a catalogue advertising child pornography” to Cardinal Basil Hume’s press officer to inform his stance on the Protection of Children Act.

Whitehouse emerges here as an absurd, sad figure who was mostly, but not always entirely, wrong.