A documentary has started airing about the controversial life of a campaigning anti-sleaze crusader who lived in north Essex.

Mary Whitehouse, who lived in Ardleigh, campaigned against social liberalism and the mainstream media which she believed led to moral decay in the British society.

Banned! The Mary Whitehouse Story began airing this week and looks back into her campaigning life between 1964 and 1994 using archive from University of Essex’s Special Collections.

The documentary follows Mary’s boycotts against films like Last Tango In Paris and reflects her contention that pornography was made mainly by men for men and would not lead to greater happiness for society.

Her 30-year campaign to clean up TV has been viewed as either a figure of fun or a prude who appointed herself as the nation’s moral watchdog.

Many of her opinions, especially regarding homosexuality, are now massively out of step with prevailing attitudes.

Mary was born in Warwickshire in 1910 and went on to become a teacher.

She married Ernest Raymond Whitehouse in 1940.

Mary began her activism in 1963, leaving her career as a teacher a year later to pursue it full time.

Her first target was the BBC, with Director General Sir Hugh Greene her key adversary - a man she saw as heading a metropolitan elite whose desire was to revolutionise society through television.

Chelmsford Weekly News:

Her campaign of complaints was about programmes as varied as Til Death Us Do Part and The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, and by 1970 she’d become a keen manipulator of the media herself, consolidating her position as self-appointed watchdog for the nation’s viewers and listeners.

The new decade saw her broadening her targets to include sexually explicit scenes in films, and with the advent of pornography as big business, she came up against then porn baron David Sullivan, who was ready for the fight.

The documentary hears from some of her adversaries, including Sullivan, who made the audacious move of calling his flagship porn magazine Whitehouse.

Meanwhile, Mary was also becoming, in the words of Geoffrey Robertson QC, ‘Director of Private Prosecutions’, as she launched legal campaigns against Gay News for a poem she deemed blasphemous, and a play The Romans in Britain.

In the 1980s, her profile was raised again by her battle against video nasties.

Mary was made a CBE in 1980.

Speaking to the Essex County Standard from her Ardleigh home Mary, then 72, revealed her favourite TV of the time. 

Chelmsford Weekly News:

Among those top of her list were Panorama, Match of the Day and The World About Us. 

There was also an honorable mention for comedy show Hi-de-Hi. 

She said: "I think people want comedy and light entertainment after a heavy day's work. 

"For instance, working mothers who have been at the factory all day come home and just want to be entertained."

But the problem she added was "they can't relax, because they think they are going to get some double entendre or dirty joke pushed at them." 

The driving force behind Mary's campaigning was her religion. 

She admitted in the interview the attacks by her opponents had hurt her. 

"The attacks which portrayed me as a person with a bun on top of her head, flat shoes and dowdy clothes and the like," she said. 

Chelmsford Weekly News:

"I used to read them and think 'What me?'"

She claimed God personally intervened to rescue her. 

Adding: "There was one particular time of crisis when I was walking in Fleet Street, of all places.

"Now I am not one given to visions and it wasn't a vision, but I heard a voice so clearly. 

"He said 'Mary if you continue to take these things on yourself they will destroy you. You are doing my work to the best you can and the burden is mine'." 

She died in 1991 in Essex and is buried at St Mary’s church in Dedham.

For the past 18 months, curator Dr Sarah Demelo has worked alongside the BBC looking through archives from National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association which Mary led.

Dr Demelo said: “We identified over 300 pieces of archival material which were scanned to be used in the documentary to illustrate the debate and testimonies of those interviewed, such as activist Peter Tatchell, filmmaker Ken Loach, writer and activist Beatrix Campbell and publisher David Sullivan, who founded the soft-core magazine Whitehouse, named after Mary herself.

“Contained within each of the boxes are pages of correspondence, media, photographs, piles of newspaper clippings each related to her individual campaigns, such as correspondence between her and the BBC for shows such as Doctor Who and the playing of Alice Cooper’s School’s Out on the radio, which she believed, would cause an increase in anarchy in UK schools.

“The material in the NVALA Collection is contentious, often shocking in its subject matter, and illustrative of a woman who was relentless in her moral and religious campaigns. “ Dr Demelo explains the archives arrived in Essex in 1993 after some debate as to which university they would be best placed.

She added: “ Whitehouse thought that the Archive would be best at Essex – close to where she lived and to where she had done so much of her campaigning in her later years before her retirement from the NVALA in 1994.”

The second part of the documentary airs next Tuesday at 9pm on BBC2.