Three figures approach a doorway, lured in by the promise of a ‘stupendous’ time, their shapes thrown into relief by the bright lights of the picture house. The image comes from Shall We Go to the Pictures?, written by Lilias Edwards in about 1955 for the Mothers’ Union, an organisation made up of some half a million women who had taken it upon themselves to safeguard the morality of society. For me the image seems to capture the feelings of the MU towards the ever-growing influence of the film industry: just as the family is drawn in, so too is the MU excited by the opportunities the cinema seems to offer, yet somehow, the silhouettes can’t help but add a slightly ominous tone, a sense of the unknown and possibly dangerous, of something to beware.
Long before Mary Whitehouse took an interest in the effects of the screen, the MU was out and about dispatching official ‘Cinema Visitors’ to report back on the latest releases. Disseminated among the society’s membership via its journal, the Visitor’s warnings and recommendations furnished the mother with the necessary information to guide her family in film-watching. And what was it they learned? James Bond films created ‘incentives to murder, violence and promiscuity’ and depictions of marriage and divorce in films were not what the well brought up teenager should be exposed to.
So, a bunch of reactionaries out to stop some harmless fun? Perhaps not. A further rummage through the papers of the Cinema Sub-Committee suggests it was far more sympathetic to developments in the industry than you might imagine. But first, to go back to the beginning: the British Board of Film Censorship had been set up in 1912, but was established by the industry, for the industry; the Mothers’ Union felt the audience’s views needed to be heard. So it set up its own group to attempt to dissuade the industry from portrayals of immorality and stimulate debate on censorship. These were, after all, concerns shared more widely than by the MU alone. The 1920s saw the public scandalised by the conduct of Hollywood actors, and the drawing up of the Hays Code in the US to ensure that the morality of the audience was not lowered by what they saw on screen.
Although when the Cinema Visitors were established in the 1920s, they fell within the ‘Watch and Social Problems Department’ (whose name has less than positive connotations!) the MU was as interested in the potential benefits of the medium as the damage it could cause. In fact in the next decade, it found itself denouncing not the films at all but the criticism levelled at them by the general public, which it felt to be exaggerated and founded on inadequate observation. Educational films were something that the MU quickly latched on to, a genre which the Lord Mayor of Leicester hoped might divert the ‘young people who wander the streets of Leicester on Sunday night and give trouble to the community’. The author of Shall we go to the Pictures? extols the virtues of the medium for the opportunities it offered to learn anything from fruit-preservation and surgery to swimming technique and sex education. By the late 1930s the MU’s cinema campaigning had brought it recognition from the British Film Institute, who would regularly turn to the society for evidence on which to base its research.
The records of the Cinema Visitors show how diverse the material shown at the cinema was in the mid-twentieth century, compared to today’s focus on entertainment. But above all, these pamphlets indicate just how seriously the women of the Mothers’ Union took their role in shaping the morals of the next generation, upon which they saw the future strength of the country resting. Shall We Go to the Pictures? is part of the archive of the Mothers’ Union at Lambeth Palace Library. We’re hoping to make these papers available to researchers from April 2010, which will let people explore the society’s evolution from a proponent of Victorian ideas of womanhood to a pressure group campaigning on a huge range of social and religious issues, and to see the changing attitudes of women towards women and their place in society.
Rachel Freeman works for Lambeth Palace Library.