It was the most extraordinary phone call anyone had ever asked me to make. The elderly, bed-bound lady I was visiting handed me a number, said she couldn’t see too well and would I mind dialling it writes Shirley Tart.
Of course, I obliged . . . and found myself through to the Home Secretary’s office.
Swiftly handing back the phone like the proverbial hot potato, I watched fascinated as she demanded politely but firmly to speak to Mr Jack Straw.
He wasn’t there but she was treated with courtesy and respect, a message was taken reflecting her concerns about a TV programme and she put down the receiver reasonably satisfied. I was open-mouthed; at the age of 90, Mary Whitehouse was still in robust action!
But while the body by now confined her to bed much of the time and her sight was vulnerable, there was little wrong with the great campaigner’s mind in that encounter, shortly before her death. Sharp as a razor.
I first met Mary in 1963 when she was senior mistress at the old Madeley Modern School in Shropshire. She went on to set up the Viewers and Listeners Association in 1964, the year the Shropshire Star was first published.
She died in a Colchester nursing home 11 years ago this month. And by a quirk of fate, her memorial service the following April was the day after the Queen Mother’s funeral at Westminster Abbey. The Whitehouse memorial was at All Soul’s Church in Langham Place – ironically almost on the doorstep of the BBC which had for so long been at the sharp end of her pen, telephone line and tongue.
The Queen Mum was 101 when she died, and universally loved. Mary, 10 years younger, had for the second part of her long life been universally derided and scorned as a self-appointed moralist. But both left an indelible mark on the national scene.
Coincidentally, this autumn sees the first-time publication of lively letters from both of them. One set, authorised by the Queen to mark her Diamond Jubilee, has warm and fascinating extracts from Queen Elizabeth’s private letters and journals over all 10 decades of her life.
The other is aimed at whoever takes up the poisoned chalice as new director general of the BBC, plus anyone else Mary Whitehouse saw as undermining decency, the quality of life, and especially the setting of good examples to children.
There were a good many usurpers around, in her opinion, and none important enough to escape her attention. Indeed the more influential, the better.
While she was scorned during her lifetime, she also earned the support and admiration of many also concerned about the way society was drifting.
And since she left the national stage in a flurry of curly perm and Dame Edna glasses, Mary also left a legacy which at least kept the nation thinking on the kind of environment it wanted for generations to come.
A dozen years after she laid down the pen, what would Mary Whitehouse now make of the kind of society in which we live?
The internet and its potential would stagger her, and who on earth would she have complained to about that? Fifty Shades of Grey would not have escaped, nor would the trend for sex education and free condoms to kids. She’d have been appalled.
Because while she spread her net of concern and disapproval very much wider, it was television and parental control which were to be the first targets. Largely because Mary reckoned youngsters were dropping off at their desks from lack of sleep and watching questionable TV too late at night.
With the BBC in its present turmoil, the recent history of phone-hacking, the exposure of rampant child abuse and an anything-goes culture, she would have run out of ink long before running out of righteous indignation.
For those who might not have remembered or ever knew of Mary’s targets, a new book called Ban This Filth: Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archives, edited by Ben Thompson, fills in the startling details.
From Dr Who (‘Teatime brutality for tots’) to Dennis Potter (whose mother sued her for libel and won) and the Beatles (whose Magical Mystery Tour escaped her intervention by the skin of its psychedelic teeth) – the list of her targets reads like a nostalgic roll of honour.
Yes, she bungled the method of some protests – witness Mary and Lord Longford being photographed while prowling round a porn shop, manna for the mockers – but her heart was always in the right place.
Her journey from Madeley to Essex had been extraordinary. And if we wanted just one example of how worthwhile the schoolteacher’s campaigning was, Mary Whitehouse spearheaded the battle against something very nasty called the Paedophile Information Exchange which opposed the banning of child pornography and wanted to abolish the age of sexual consent, meaning young children could be abused at will.
Mary’s anti-pornography petition was signed by more than one and a half million people, leading to the Protection of Children Act which criminalised pornographic images of children.
And for that, if for nothing else, we should thank Mary Whitehouse and remember her with gratitude.
Ban This Filth (£16.99 in hardback) is out this week, published by Faber and Faber.