In my short tenure overseeing Special Collections, I’ve given a few lectures on the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVALA) archives at several events in Essex presenting an overview of the material we have stored in the Albert Sloman Library. During the questions everyone had a story about Mary Whitehouse, the NVALA President: she polarised opinion during her campaigning years of 1964-1994, and she continues to polarise opinion now. She was a controversial figure, whose moral and religious campaigns directly affected the lived experiences of the people she targeted.

During the first lockdown, we were approached by the BBC who were interested in producing a documentary on Mary Whitehouse. For 18 months, we worked closely with them going through the boxes on her various campaigns researching the material we have in Special Collections. 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 David Sullivan, a former pornographer who founded the soft-core magazine Whitehouse, named after Mary herself.

How did Essex acquire the NVALA archives?

The Archives of the NVALA arrived at Essex in 1993 after some debate as to which university they would be best placed. 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.

Material in the Archive spans from the founding of the Clean Up TV campaign in 1964, to its rebranding as the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association in 1965, and later to Mediawatch-UK in 2001. We’ve kept the material in its original archival integrity, which means that these are how you would have found them in the NVALA offices. 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
  • her private prosecution of the National Theatre’s 1982 production of Romans in Britain on grounds of ‘procuring an act of gross indecency’ and the publication of James Kirkup’s poem ‘The Love that Dares to Speak Its Name’ in a 1977 edition of Gay News on the grounds of blasphemous libel
  • material relating to the Nationwide Festival of Light in the early 1970s
  • correspondence between her and 10 Downing Street during her campaigning years, the most notable being her correspondence with Margaret Thatcher

We’ve had academics from across the UK and the world, visit us at the Albert Sloman Library to study the NVALA Collection and use the material in their research – from her campaigns against pornography, the BBC, her support of Section 28, and the Obscene Publications Bill. 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. In Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack, Richard Ovenden writes that ‘libraries and archives share the responsibility of preserving knowledge for society’ and this preservation allows us to learn, develop, and, in the case of Mary Whitehouse and the NVALA Collection, to continue to debate from this knowledge.

‘Banned! The Mary Whitehouse Story’ part one airs on Tuesday 29 March at 9pm on BBC2. The second part airs Tuesday 5 April at 9pm on BBC2.