In the years before Big Brother there was a big sister trying to protect the country’s morals by monitoring its’s telly watching habits. Ellie Genower talks to Julie Walters about her role as Mary Whitehouse.
With Big Brother’s brazen nudity, Gordon Ramsay’s bad language, and the soaps’ racy storylines, Mary Whitehouse would probably be doing a 180-degree turn in her grave if she knew what was being shown on TV today.
“She would be campaigning about Big Brother now, definitely,” says actress Julie Walters who dons a wig and Mary’s trademark glasses to play the late moral campaigner and legendary battleaxe in a new one-off drama, based on Mary’s clash with the BBC in the 1960s.
“With the sex, swearing, and just general sort of unbridled behaviour, I think she’d be really troubled about kids getting into that.”
During the early 1960s when Mary, an ordinary Midlands housewife, first came to prominence, Britain’s sexual revolution was in full swing and TV was being overhauled by BBC Director General Sir Hugh Carleton Greene.
Outraged by what she saw as the ‘tide of filth’ on the box, Mary began to lobby for TV to be cleaned up, launching her own pressure group NVALA (National Viewers and Listeners Association) to monitor national media output.
“She was a busybody and she was terribly lampooned, and cruelly so,” says Julie. “She got a huge amount of flak, her whole family were targetted and she did nearly give up her campaigning.”
Julie was keen to play Mary in the 90-minute drama after reading what she says was an unusually sympathetic and balanced script.
“It’s very easy to take the mickey out of somebody like her,” the actress explains, “and I remember her from my teens and twenties. When I wear the costume, the glasses, it’s so nostalgic for me.
“At that time, the sexual revolution seemed enormous and Mary Whitehouse represented, for my generation anyway, my parents. Like my mother’s friends, it felt like she was someone who was spoiling the fun and she represented middle-class reactionary conservative thinking and that was deeply unfashionable.
“But the script is delicate. It’s funny, but it also explains who she was, where she was coming from and the battle with Hugh Carleton Greene.
“It was fascinating because they were as self righteous as one another. He was revolutionising television, and she wanted to put the brakes on.
“While Hugh Carleton Greene did amazing stuff for television, he was ex-public school, very smug and rather self-righteous and he just completely dismissed her. As far as he was concerned she was just a silly unintelligent sort of person who didn’t matter. And that was his downfall in the end.”
Starring alongside Julie are Jim Broadbent as Carleton Greene and Alun Armstrong, who plays Mary’s devoted husband Ernest.
Despite television having changed irreconcilably since the 1960s, there is still some debate about censorship. Should there be a watershed? Can people be influenced to commit violent acts from television shows?
Julie believes there should be some responsibility by broadcasters.
“There are certain individuals who will be influenced,” she says. “Most of us aren’t going to see a murder on television and think, ‘I’d like to do that.’ “But some people already that way inclined might think, ‘That’s a good way to do it.’
“So, there does have to be a degree of censorship. I’m all for freedom of expression and speech but I approve of that we have a watershed, especially where children are concerned.
“Children shouldn’t view things that they’re not emotionally able to deal with.”
As a parent, Julie had to keep an eye on what her daughter Maisie watched on TV when she was younger, and says her daughter always had a ‘proper bedtime,’ meaning she didn’t see unsuitable programmes past the nine o’clock watershed.
“I’m sure there have been odd things where I’ve thought, ‘That’s a bit much,’ around Maisie,” Julie admits. “I remember when Maisie was little and watching TV - although I don’t know what programme it was - Maisie asking, ‘Why has she taken her knickers off?’ I said something like, ‘I think it was by accident!”’
However, she confesses to having her own low-brow TV addictions. “I was glued to Celebrity Big Brother I’m afraid,” Julie says, smiling. “I really felt for poor old Jade Goody actually. Quite sad. She couldn’t deal with it all. It’s rather grubby old stuff in some ways, but I absolutely couldn’t turn it off.
“We’re used to these TV shows really. It’s part of life and art reflects what’s going on in life. So there aren’t any programmes I have a Mary Whitehouse attitude towards.”
Mary would, thinks Julie, probably disapprove of much of her own body of work, but would secretly rather like seeing a programme made about herself, especially after battling against bad taste TV until her death in 2001.
“It was a genuine battle and vocation,” says Julie, “as she thought she was on a path to saving people and blamed the BBC for the moral collapse of the country. She was still being talked about and campaigning right into the old people’s home.”
Unlike many older actresses, Julie - now 58 - has defied the odds and continued to appear in a whole host of meaty roles, from Annie in Calendar Girls to Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliot, and of course, winning a whole new audience as Mrs Weasley in the Harry Potter movies.
“It’s people who matter, especially as you get older,” she says. “I have had some great roles but that’s the luck of the draw in some ways.
“I still think it’s true that it’s harder for women as they get older but it is improving because there are more women writers and more women producers.”
Next up for Julie is continuing to write her long-awaited autobiography. “It’s like the biggest piece of homework ever,” she says with a sigh. “I’ve written about 13,000 words and I’ll probably rewrite them all.”
“The most difficult thing is writing things I don’t want to write about - things I’ve found painful.”
But to lighten things up she can always write about her turn alongside Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan in a film recreation of the hit Abba Musical Mama Mia!
Julie joins in the singing on hit numbers like Take A Chance on Me, Super Trouper and Dancing Queen alongside the elegant and usually dignified and aloof-appearing Hollywood star.
“Meryl is great,” says Julie. “First I met her, then five minutes later we’re all round the piano with Benny Anderson from Abba, and I’m trying to remember the harmony from Super Trouper. It was quite extraordinary!”
Mary Whitehouse Factfile:
* Mary Whitehouse was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, in 1910, and died in Colchester, Essex in 2001.
* Her husband Ernest died in 2000. They met at a Moral Re-Armament [an international religious group] meeting, and married in 1940. They had five children, although two died in infancy.
* She began campaigning against the media when, as a sex education teacher in the early 1960s, she was shocked by the morals of her pupils. She blamed the declining standards of the media for such attitudes.
* It’s well known what she didn’t like on television – blasphemy, sex, violence and bad language, mainly – but she was a big fan of the political comedy Yes, Minister.
* Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story is on Wednesday, May 28 on BBC2