Nov 11, 2008

Filth Will Air on Masterpiece Contemporary November 16

One of the burdens of living in a free society is being exposed to thoughts, ideas, and beliefs that we find offensive. While I don’t mind a few swear words in films and movies or non-pornographic sex scenes that are tastefully filmed, I find any gratuitous violence – the kind designed to titillate and entertain – extremely offensive and harmful. Living in a free society I have a choice: Don’t read, look at, or listen to anything that contains unnecessary violence.

Easier said than done. In our culture, violence as entertainment is hard to ignore, and no matter how diligent I am in trying to remove such images from my life, I cannot totally erase them. That is the burden of living in a democracy: we simply cannot regulate everything to our liking. For every person who abhors violence, there is a person who enjoys such dramas. Who am I to force them to think otherwise through legislation?

Mary Whitehouse, the heroine in Filth, was put off by anything that had an overtly or implied sexual theme, including Chuck Berry's song, My-Ding-A Ling. According to Mary's lily white, middle class, Anglo Saxon point of view, the BBC needed to be cleaned up and watched carefully. In the 50’s and 60’s, most families owned only one television set and they gathered around it to watch a show together. Any jarring or embarrassing scenes were seen by all, including the pastor who stopped by for dinner. Like me, Mary Whitehouse had a choice, but instead of turning off her television set, she became a one-woman crusader for family values. The trouble was: whose values did she stand for?

Filth, an odd name that does not accurately reflect the humor in this PBS film, is the story of Mary Whitehouse's real life crusade against the BBC. As described by PBS, "Filth is the true, timely, and hysterically funny story of Mary Whitehouse, a moral watchdog barking at the heels of swinging England in the 1960s. Shocked by the teatime broadcast of a BBC program about premarital sex, Whitehouse (played to uptight perfection by Julie Walters) rises from her quaint suburban life to do battle with the innovative, taboo-breaking head of the BBC, Sir Hugh Greene (memorably played by Hugh Bonneville, below)."

As played by Julie Walters, Mary is a charming, determined, and resourceful woman. A middle class, past-her-prime, ungifted art teacher, Mary’s primary focus in life are her husband (Alun Armstrong in photo at bottom) and three sons. While Mary is incensed at the filth she sees on television, the film depicts her as blindly unaware of the actual events going on around her, such as the wife beater who lives in her neighborhood, or a male couple having sex in the woods as she walks by them. She is so single-minded in her role as moral watchdog, that she fails to notice the rather inappropriate acronym created by her slogan. The film is filled with these deft and often humorous touches.

The costumes and sets are spot on and every inch as beautiful as the1960's sets designed for Mad Men, an award winning t.v. show set in that era. The cinematography is unforgettable. I was mesmerized by the closeups of Mary's/Julie's hideous glasses and enjoyed the frequent unusual juxtaposition of costume, setting, and camera angles as seen in the two images below.

Mary before her first big rally.

Mary walking down the stairwell in her home.

The plot is weightier than the movie at first implies. With its light musical score and idyllic English village setting, it seemed similar to Calendar Girls, another film in which Julie Walters starred. But the tone of the film changes when Mary sees a sex scene at tea time, and from that moment on the film takes on an edge. In real life "Mary Whitehouse's bête noire was Hugh Greene, the Director-General of the BBC from 1960 to 1969, who ignored her campaign and refused to meet her, and it was the renewal of the BBC's Charter in 1964 that gave her a chance to act. She drafted a petition objecting to the "propaganda of disbelief, dirt and doubt" broadcast by the corporation, and attracted nearly half a million signatures in the next two years, transforming her crusade into the National Viewers and Listeners Association."

The real Mary Whitehouse at left

Forty-five years after Whitehouse began her campaign, the issue of what is and what is not acceptable for broadcast television is still alive and well in this country, as evidenced by the US Supreme Court decision to revisit the issue.

To clean up what could be construed as filthy language, PBS has remastered portions of the movie. Click here to see what I mean.

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