23rd November 2001. Vice or Virtue.
Mary Whitehouse who died Today in 2001 and concerned about the BBC’s ‘bad taste and irresponsibility’ in its output set up the National Viewers and Listeners Association in January 1964 and in the process became the bete noir of the liberal chattering classes and the BBC.(1)
Her manifesto stated that: ‘we women believe in a Christian way of life and is against the disbelief, doubt and dirt which the BBC pours into our homes and that crime, violence and illegitimacy are increasing and that plays presented promiscuity, drink and infidelity as normal and inevitable.
If nothing else Whitehouse’s campaign’s demonstrated that whatever was meant by ‘Christian way of life’, these concerns have bothered social behaviour ‘reformers’ intermittently down the ages as in the 17thc Restoration period when Jeremy Collier a theatre critic and later non-Juror bishop, took it upon himself to ‘do a Whitehouse’. (2)
No television then, Collier was against profanity on stage, the satirising of clergy and lack of poetic justice where libertines are rewarded, or as a William Congreve title said, ‘one can’t avoid the Way of the World’.
Collier attacked all the playwrights of the day for: ‘profanity, blasphemy, indecency and undermining public morals by sympathetic depiction of vice regarding the business of plays’.(3)
Collier in his ‘Short View of Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage’ (1698), was particularly aimed against William Congreve and John Vanbrugh, Restoration stage playwrights who were reacting against the Cromwellian inspired puritanical restrictions against pagan and immoral plays.(4)
As Whitehouse later was concerned, Collier was particularly against gratuitous swearing: ‘Tis used by all Persons and upon all occasions: By Heroes and by Poltroons; by Gentlemen, and Clowns; Love and Quarrels; Success and Disappointment; Temper and Passions; must be varnish’d, and set with Oaths’.
However Collier admitted swearing had its place. ‘At some times, and with some Poets, Swearing is no ordinary Relief and stands up in the Room of Sense, gives Spirit to a flat expression and makes a Period Musical and Round’.
Restoration Drama inevitably drew comparison with that of the Classical and Elizabethan ages, but in which all Collier found was vice and profanity.
Many playwrights attacked Collier, but Congreve decided to cease writing especially as his ‘Way of the World’ play had failed in 1700. Times were changing, a bourgeoisie was succeeding a rakish aristocracy, and more easily outraged.
In the final analysis Collier was successful because he was in tune with the times, with the Proposals for National Reform of Manners (1694) and laws against drinking ‘whoring’ and profanity were beginning to be enforced.
In 1960.s Britain Whitehouse was not in tune to the Zeitgeist or spirit of the age.
(1) It was on 27th January 1964 that Whitehouse and a Staffordshire ‘parson’s wife Norah Buckland launched their campaign in a brochure.
(2) Non- Jurors refused to swear an oath to William of Orange.
(3) William Wycherley, John Dryden, William Congreve, John Vanbrugh.
(4) Instances of all these kinds may be mette (sic) with in The Old Batchelour, Double Death, and Love for Love, by Congreve. And to mention no more Don Quixot (Henry Fielding). The Provok’d Wife and The Relapse, by Vanbrugh (designer of Blenheim Palace), are particular Rampant and Scandalous’.
The Provok’d Wife contained a scene of a decadent aristocrat Sir John Brute who goes on the rampage dressed as a clergyman, always fair game for mockery and parody down the centuries.