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TELEVISION REVIEW

A charming look at a '60s crusader against 'Filth'

November 14, 2008|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

Crusaders, by their very nature, are difficult to portray dramatically. Lean a bit to one side and you've got satire, go the other and you have propaganda. "Filth," which debuts on Masterpiece Contemporary on Sunday night at 9, falls into that rare and wonderful Category C -- a lively, thought-provoking and often humorous quasi-biopic of a real-life crusader in which there are no angels, or devils either, just a nation in the midst of change for which not everyone is prepared.

Written by Amanda Coe, "Filth" tells the story of Mary Whitehouse, a British homemaker who, appalled by the increased sex, violence and profanity on television in the early 1960s, launched the Clean Up TV Campaign and became a national icon. By the time of her death in 2001, only Margaret Thatcher's name drew greater ire from Britain's liberal/creative community.

With her steel-framed specs, helmet hair and sensible shoes, Whitehouse seems the very model of social repression. But underneath her church-going hats roils a brisk and merry intelligence, because Whitehouse is played by the marvelous Julie Walters, who shatters any prim-and-proper prejudice with a glance.

Walters, last seen in "Mamma Mia!" and as Mrs. Weasley in the "Harry Potter" movies, is a genie's bottle of effervescence and lends Whitehouse such an air of good-natured common sense that her outrage over a documentary about premarital sex, being broadcast, if you can imagine, at tea time, seems perfectly reasonable. Why shouldn't a perfectly respectable suburban woman be able to sit down with her husband and three sons without hearing such shocking and revolutionary talk? And from the BBC!

It's not that Whitehouse is against sex -- she and her husband, Ernest (Alun Armstrong), are, as she would say, happily married; she just doesn't want to see it, or so much drinking, smoking, killing and swearing, on television.

Her efforts to reduce the "poison" pouring into British sitting rooms through "the box" are soon concentrated on Sir Hugh Greene, director general of the BBC, and, as played by Hugh Bonneville, a more supercilious member of the media elite you could not hope to find. As Whitehouse and her organization grow in size and visibility, Greene, with increasing personal agitation, refuses to acknowledge even her right to an opinion. Anyone attempting to stand in the way of television's mandate to be "with it" is, according to him, an ill-educated nutter.

Tensions escalate as the media use Whitehouse as both a weapon against the BBC and an object of fun. Soon she is the subject of threats, derision and national satire as well as support. But only when the criticism extends to her husband is she rattled.

Indeed, the heart of "Filth" is the Whitehouse marriage, and Armstrong's Ernest is a wonder to behold. Whether keeping his face very still while his wife muses about this thing she's just heard about called oral sex or sitting in his undershirt and reminding her of the fire she has always possessed, his evocation of the sharp-edged tenderness of a long-term happy marriage will bring tears to your eyes.

It would be easy to make Whitehouse and her campaign quaint. It's not like she wins; one glance at Showtime would have given her a seizure. But "Filth" is not just about Whitehouse or even the still controversial subject of sex and violence on television. At the core of Coe's multilayered script is the relationship between media and their viewers. For Americans, for which the term "media" has became increasingly synonymous with "media elite," "Filth" will no doubt resonate in many ways.

But power corrupts on all levels, and just as Greene's imperiousness turns on him so does Whitehouse's stubbornness. In the end, much of her righteous indignation has become simple self-righteousness. The '60s are in full swing, and cataloging the number of "bloodies" in a comedy program or protesting the Beatles isn't going to change anything.

Mary Whitehouse seems an unlikely subject for a tour-de-force performance, but in the end, that is what "Filth" is. Under those carefully set gray curls and the sensible hats, Walters give us a remarkably complicated woman -- a scene in which Whitehouse unexpectedly comes upon two local lads trysting in the woods is utterly priceless -- who sacrifices much to do what she thinks is right for her country. Whether her country agrees with her or not.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Masterpiece Contemporary: Filth'

Where: KCET

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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