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Television Review

No smut, please, we're British!

Julie Walters plays Mary Whitehouse, the woman who took on the BBC in the 1960s, in ''Filth.'' Julie Walters plays Mary Whitehouse, the woman who took on the BBC in the 1960s, in ''Filth.'' (Laurence Cendrowicz for Masterpiece)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / November 15, 2008
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When we first meet Mary Whitehouse, the famous crusader against smut, she's pedaling her bike through a cozy British suburb in the early 1960s. The image immediately raises the question: Will "Filth," the new installment of PBS's "Masterpiece: Contemporary," portray this longtime thorn in the British media's side as an Elmira Gulch, a.k.a. the Wicked Witch of the West? Will the fact-based "Filth" ridicule the lady who even protested TV's use of the Beatles song "I Am the Walrus" for its reference to "knickers"?

The answer is: Not at all. "Filth," tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 2, is not a satire looking back on the days when hearing the phrase "premarital sex" on TV was enough to cause Mary (Julie Walters) to literally drop her teapot. The movie is a blandly sincere effort to give us Mary's point of view, to show how the devout Christian's grass-roots culture war devolved from sweet naivete to sour obsession as she met with increasing resistance from the BBC.

Tensions about TV censorship rage on, but "Filth" doesn't look back at the early days of the war with any relevant spin. The screenwriter, Amanda Coe, appears to see Mary's narrow fixation as mostly quaint and noble.

As Mary, Walters makes the movie seem like more than it is. She gives us a fully dimensional woman - an art teacher - who is idealistic, self-righteous, humorless, God-fearing, affectionate toward her students, driven, and not any one of those qualities to a great extreme. Walters doesn't soft-sell Mary's growing fury and bigotry; but she makes Mary matronly and genuinely prudish enough to be tolerable.

I loved Walters in the scene in which, with her loyal husband (Alun Armstrong) playing poker face, Mary marvels at the very idea of oral sex. She is so clearly falling behind the times, as 1960s-style freedoms emerge all around her. At one point, as her frustration with the BBC has begun to turn to venom, she yells at kissing hippies in a van beside her at a stop light.

I suppose if anyone is ridiculed in the movie, it's BBC exec Sir Hugh Greene (Hugh Bonneville), the person whom Mary holds responsible for every sexual reference that makes it to air. Hugh is portrayed as a cold, sneering, urbane man who leers at his secretaries and throws spitballs at a painting of female breasts in his office. He refuses to meet Mary, as she gains public support, and he rolls his eyes at a colleague who says, "What if she's not a crank? What if she's the voice of the people?" At dinner, he barely looks at his wife and kids.

Eventually, Sir Hugh becomes weary, and sympathetic, too, when his new boss at the BBC begins to pay special attention to Mary and her minions. But still, "Filth" never does justice to any worthy motives he may have had in defending artistic freedom.

"Filth" doesn't throw Mary and Sir Hugh together for fireworks, which is an interesting approach. They gradually become the center of each other's lives, and yet they never actually sit down together. The two extremes never meet. For each of them, the enemy, the central object of hatred, remained unknown.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

Television Review

FILTH Starring: Julie Walters, Hugh Bonneville, Alun Armstrong

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Tomorrow night, 9-10:30

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