God squad in a tizzy over Springer musical
Jerry Springer – The Opera (BBC2)
Reviewed by Andrew Johnson
12th January 2005
The organised religious outrage over the last couple of weeks around the BBC’s screening of hit musical Jerry Springer – The Opera has been quite extraordinary. In Britain, one of the most secular countries in Europe, militant religious protest is extremely rare, a small Islamist fringe notwithstanding. Why has Britain’s Christian right got itself so worked up about a musical themed around the former Mayor of Cincinnati and his notorious talk show?
Jerry Springer – The Opera started out as a throwaway gag by comedian Stewart Lee, who had been watching rather too much of the Jerry Springer Show and observed that it had a certain operatic quality – lots of fat people screaming at each other and you couldn’t understand a word. Teaming up with composer Richard Thomas, Lee turned this simple gag into a stage production which made a big splash at the 2002 Edinburgh Festival and, in expanded form, has been a runaway success in the West End. It was this theatrical version that BBC2 broadcast in its entirety.
And it really is an opera, despite its obvious fringe theatre origins. The staging and orchestration have been quite meticulous, and if you can get away from the cast singing in American rather than Italian and wearing sweat pants and chav jewellery rather than evening dress, the show fits perfectly well into the conventions of the genre. The only spoken word part is that of Springer himself (a charismatic performance by 70s crooner and Starsky & Hutch star David Soul). This works very well as a Brechtian alienation device, underlining Springer’s ironic distance from his guests and audience.
The show divides into two parts. Act One satirises Springer’s show by simply portraying it in a slightly exaggerated form. The sideshow prurience of the original is evoked with ladyboys, adult babies, pole dancers and the Ku Klux Klan all present and correct. The tap-dancing Klansmen, a straight steal from Mel Brooks’ The Producers, are an especially nice touch. The play captures the contradictory nature of the Springer show, giving trailer trash a voice while simultaneously holding them up to derision. This is all done with quite a bit of style and wit.
Act Two is what has got the Beeb into trouble with the fundamentalists. The show takes on a more overtly fantastical form as Springer, dying from a gunshot wound, hallucinates his own personal hell. He is forced to mediate a very Springer-style dispute between Satan, portrayed as an egomaniacal prima donna, and a petulant and childish Jesus. In one especially funny sequence, Mary turns up to take a swipe at her deadbeat son. Again, this is not strictly new – South Park featured Jesus and Satan facing off on a Springer-style talk show years ago – but the verve of the production carries it off well.
On an artistic level, this viewer thought the production was a success. While sometimes incoherent, the play was extremely funny and delivered an insightful take on our modern media culture. It was also a refreshing change from the usual Saturday night TV line-up.
The Christian right
But this does not begin to explain the ferocity or unprecedented scale of the religious protest. The fundamentalist churches had obviously put in a good deal of groundwork – the BBC reported 47,000 complaints logged before transmission (compared to only 900 after transmission). The perennially outraged MediaWatch (the late Mary Whitehouse’s NVLA trading under a new name) is vocal, but does not dispose of many troops. It was the fundamentalists who were key, with Big Ian leading the picket of the BBC in Belfast while in London “Bishop” Michael Reid’s Essex-based Peniel church – a sect with serious influence in the Tory Party – was prominent.
The organised nature of the protest was also clear to anyone following the letters pages or phone-ins. Many of those complaining were quite obviously working from mass-produced briefing sheets, as the same complaints were repeated, word for word, by people who admitted to not having seen the show. The fraudulent figure of 8,000 swear words – arrived at by multiplying the number in the libretto by the number of actors singing them – is a case in point. But there is another agenda at work here.
One of the most striking repeated complaints was that the media would never dare insult Islam or Sikhism (the latter referring to the Sikh protests in Birmingham which got Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti cancelled). There is a nasty racial undertone here, quite apart from it not being true. Muslim-baiting is a regular theme for Britain’s right-wing punditocracy, as can be confirmed by a week of reading the tabloids or listening to radio discussion shows. For a country supposedly under a politically correct jackboot, attacks on Muslims are extremely easy to come by.
Take for example Robert Kilroy-Silk, the cancellation of whose own Springer-lite show has hardly reduced his media profile. Or Simon Heffer, the hagiographer of the late Enoch Powell. Or the former socialist Peter Hitchens, who claims that Muslims (around 3% of the British population) are taking over the country. All three of these characters like to portray themselves as fearless dissidents hounded by PC commissars, and all three are rarely off the airwaves, quite apart from their acres of space in the tabloids.
No, the idea being promoted that “Christianity is the only religion you can insult” has a clear political edge. A clue here is the pressure group Christian Voice’s attempt to bring a private prosecution against the BBC for blasphemy, echoing Mrs Whitehouse’s famous 1977 case against Gay News. Now the Blair government has been planning to replace the 1697 Blasphemy Act with a law against “incitement to religious hatred”. Nobody seriously expects this to have much effect – a similar law has been in place in the Six Counties since the early 1970s, having zero impact on sectarianism – but it might serve the opportunist purpose of winning back some of the Muslim voters who have abandoned Labour over the Iraq war.
This change in the law is quite significant, as the current blasphemy law protects the Church of England and no other denomination. Punters may have abandoned the C of E in droves, but the law still says that England has a state church and other religions – even other Christian denominations – exist there only on sufferance. The Christian right cannot tolerate a situation where non-Christian religions – mainly professed by ethnic minorities – have legal equality.
The religious right in Britain has neither
the numbers nor the money of its American counterpart, but it certainly
does not lack the determination. The Whitehouse brigade would dearly love
to have a mass Moral Majority in Britain. Such a movement does not yet
exist, but the Springer kerfuffle does serve as a useful focal point for
those trying to create one. The battle for a secular society is by no means