Mary Whitehouse recruited teachers in fight against ‘video nasties’

Mary Whitehouse's campaigning made her a figure of fun to some
Mary Whitehouse's campaigning made her a figure of fun to some

Mary Whitehouse sent letters from teachers worried about the impact “video nasties” were having on their pupils to the highest echelons of the government as part of her long fight against obscenity.

As the voice of conservative Britain, Mrs Whitehouse spent decades campaigning against what she perceived as the increasing liberalisation of society and the media and a general decline in moral standards.

Her years of activism from the 1960s onwards made her both a figure of fun and a thorn in the side of the government and the BBC, which she repeatedly attacked over her belief that it excessively portrayed bad language, violence and sex.

But according to files released by the National Archives in Kew, west London, during her fight in the early 1980s against overly-violent films – so-called “video nasties” – she appeared to find an ally in the then-Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

In a reply to Mrs Whitehouse after she phoned the Prime Minister’s office in early 1983 urging fresh action on obscenity legislation, Mrs Thatcher wrote: “I fully understand, and indeed share, your deep concern about the decline in moral standards in this country.

“Like you, I deplore those who seek to make profit out of exploiting the weaknesses of others and in so doing undermine our traditional standards of decency and respect for family life.”

Mrs Whitehouse, the president of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, wrote to Mrs Thatcher in June 1983 to express disappointment that legislation promised in the election to control obscenity and video nasties had not been mentioned in the Queen’s speech, and pressed her on whether it would indeed come about.

And accompanying a letter to the Home Secretary Leon Brittan in July that year in which she questioned him on whether the government intended to amend the Obscene Publications Act (1959/64), Mrs Whitehouse sent letters from teachers highlighting their concerns over pupils watching unsuitable films.

One teacher wrote: “I have a class of seven and eight-year-olds and have become increasingly worried about the films they tell me they watch. Several children were discussing how frightened they had become by watching ‘The American Werewolf In London’ at another child’s birthday party.

“On another occasion a girl told me that she had screamed so much whilst watching ‘Friday 13th’ that she had to be slapped.”

Another letter read: “Several of my colleagues and I have found even primary aged children rent ‘X’ type films to show on videos when their parents are out. In certain families the children watch these films with their parents.

“In one particular case they have ‘porn on Fridays’ because the father would rather his 12-year-old son watched such films with his parents, than secretly with friends. Many children (again including the under 11’s) have bedroom TV sets and watch video ‘horrors’ etc on their own there.”

On September 2 1983 Mrs Whitehouse wrote to Mrs Thatcher asking to meet privately, saying she would “value such an opportunity more than anything” to discuss the control of video nasties with her.

A briefing memo to the Prime Minister ahead of the meeting revealed the Home Secretary conceded the obscenity laws were deficient, but that there was no consensus for new legislation.

And there were concerns that if new laws were to define what was prohibited through the creation of a list of specified activities, as Mrs Whitehouse wanted, then “the extremely violent scenes in eg Macbeth or King Lear would have to be banned”.

Following the meeting a letter from Tim Flesher, the Prime Minister’s private secretary for parliamentary affairs, to the Home Office revealed Mrs Thatcher “remains unconvinced by the Home Office approach to the question of obscenity legislation in general”.

It added: “She agrees with Mrs Whitehouse that piecemeal legislation on obscenity is unsatisfactory and that the Government ought to be bringing forward proposals for a general reform of the Obscene Publications Acts, which she believes to be ineffective.”

Mrs Whitehouse’s efforts led to the passing of the Video Recordings Act 1984, which banned video nasties, albeit temporarily.

But she was still not satisfied, again writing to Mrs Thatcher in July 1986 to say she was bitterly disappointed that Home Secretary Douglas Hurd could not promise any new legislation on obscenity, and again asked to meet her.

On a memo about the discussions between Mrs Whitehouse and Mr Hurd, the Prime Minister wrote: “I will of course see Mrs Whitehouse. But first I must have a meeting with the Home Office ... We have been doing nothing about this subject for years. Of course she is upset.”