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Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Bloody Mary!

It's 31 years next month that the law of blasphemous libel was last used in this country. It was against Gay News, and was brought by the rabidly Christian, horn-rimmed-spectacled Mary Whitehouse.

Why are we talking of something 31 years on? It's not the usual round-number anniversary. No, but you may like to look in on Filth tonight. It's a 90-minute drama on BBC2, which stars the wonderful Julie Walters as the formidable Mrs W. That famous – or, rather, infamous – trial will probably feature.

In 2002, Gay & Lesbian Humanist magazine produced a 25th-anniversary special on that trial, containing a number of articles by different people, each bringing a different angle on things. Brett Humphreys looks at the background to the trial and the events surrounding it; one writer, Rictor Norton, claims responsibility (he was working at Gay News at the time); another asks whether we were really "glad to be gay" in the seventies (all right, that one's my article); Neil Richardson, a priest, sat through the trial; John Beyer, is the current head of the organisation Mary Whitehouse founded: it was the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association then, but it's Mediawatch-UK now, and, give him his due, he wrote an article for a magazine whose views he was very much at odds with.

There is a cultural look-back, too, by Stephen Blake (one of the team of writers for this blog): what were we doing and listening to and wearing back then? In an article called "Justice ancient and modern", a veteran humanist campaigner, George Broadhead (another of the team of writers for this blog), reviews two important books relevant to the case. And one of Britain's veteran gay-rights campaigners, Griff Vaughan Williams of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), looks at the trial through the eyes of, well, a veteran gay-rights campaigner.

See also "An immaculate conception", an article in which George and another of our team, Dean Braithwaite, muse on the news of Whitehouse's death in November 2001 and look back to the start of the gay humanist movement. And visit the Knitting Circle website for more information on Gay News and its editor Denis Lemon.

This special issue received shining praise from several quarters, including this from no less a personage than the current president of the National Secular Society, Terry Sanderson, who said:

I want to congratulate you on the absolutely superb "blasphemy" edition of the Gay & Lesbian Humanist – surely the best in its whole history! The depth of research and the sheer excellence of the content will keep me happy for hours. And this is one journal that is going into my archive for future reference as a goldmine of eyewitness history.

The Beeb's press release on tonight's Whitehouse drama says:

Remarkably, in the middle of such a liberal decade – an era that spawned Carnaby Street, the Profumo scandal and the Fab Four – Mary Whitehouse was the voice of a majority that had no desire to join the permissive age. Armed only with her own sense of good Christian values and a sharp tongue, Mary Whitehouse embarked on a David[-]versus[-]Goliath mission to stop "filth" entering family homes via the television. Backed by her loyal husband Ernest (Alun Armstrong), Mary set out to fight an almighty war with some heroic and surprising victories along the way.

And one of those "heroic", though, given the climate of the times, not entirely "surprising", victories was the one over Gay News. Read the articles before seeing the drama. They'll be good background on what was a major campaign in Mary Whitehouse's campaigning life.

Before she died in 2001, aged 91, Whitehouse campaigned against everything from Romans in Britain to Pinky & Perky, Alf Garnet to Jackanory and Dennis Potter to Doctor Who – goodness knows what she'd make of Russell T Davies's version.

You may also be interested in this piece from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in Monday's Independent, which asks whether Whitehouse may have sometimes been right; and this one from Bel Mooney in the same day's Daily Mail, which is headlined "I may have been a fully paid-up Sixties liberal – but now I believe Mary Whitehouse was right".

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