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Thursday, 29 May 2008

Quite contrary

Filth, last night's BBC2 drama, was not what I expected – but, then, I'm not sure what I did expect. What I didn't expect (perhaps naïvely) was something like a kids' feel-good movie with the goodies prancing about to jaunty music and the baddies acting like clowns.

What we got was not a blow against bigotry but a paean to prudery, in which the goodies, in the form of Mary Whitehouse and her husband and friends, were set up against the baddies, personified by the director general of the BBC, Sir Hugh Green – a villain in a jester's hat.

Much as I'd have liked to see issues dealt with on more than a superficial black-versus-white level, the performances (notably from Julie Walters as Mary Whitehouse) were good and the piece itself worked well as an adroitly directed slice of drama with comedic elements. But, for me, that is as far as it went in what was clearly Mary's story, told entirely from Mary's point of view. More complexity in this analysis would have been welcome.

From the start, our sympathies were made to be with Mary – the underdog at that stage in her, no doubt well-meant, campaigning. And that's fine. Dramas often work that way. However, what we probably expected was a turning point. But there was no turning point.

Anyone of a neutral frame of mind watching this drama would have come away convinced that Whitehouse was always right, and that only wholesome, man–woman relationships among people with no social or personal issues should be depicted on television; that only wholesome comedy – definitely not of the satirical or Alf Garnett kind but comedy that didn't poke fun at would-be censors or pompous politicians – should likewise be depicted on television.

Life isn't like that, and mature people look to television for, yes, enjoyable, "wholesome" programmes of the type Whitehouse would have approved of, but also programmes designed to reflect real issues in challenging ways. Television, like film, can go too far with gratuitous violence sometimes (and a lot of what is on the box is pure crap shared around too many channels with moronic continuity announcers who should have been strangled at birth). But the type of censorship Whitehouse was wanting went far beyond calming down the gratuitous violence.

As for the Gay News trial, it wasn't mentioned, except in a caption at the end. The drama didn't go that far into her career as a busybody. It was an important step in that career, so one could have been forgiven for thinking it would be depicted. But, like most people, I was coming at it as someone who had read the little blurb in the listings, and that was that. Perhaps that is for another day.

Two humorous moments stick: one was a bit of verbal (no doubt entirely fictional) slapstick when the Whitehouse campaign team had decided on the name Clean Up National TV, and Mary's husband Ernest pointed out, with a polite cough, the acronymic possibilities (minus the V, of course); the second was when Whitehouse, already into her campaigning, said to hubby as she turned on the TV, "Just in time for The Wednesday Play: there's a masturbation scene ten minutes in."

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