Jerry Springer and the Christian fundamentalists

Religion has taken a battering lately, with the disastrous misadventures of that pair of faithful believers Messrs. Bush and Blair, the murderous activities of various Muslim fundamentalists, the success of the Sikh theatre censors in closing down by violence a play which they didn’t want Birmingham theatre-goers to see, and now the demonstration by tsunami that if there’s a God, he (or she) is either not omnipotent or not benevolent, a logical imperative from which the agonised hand-wringing of the media theologians has offered no escape.

You’d think, wouldn’t you?, that against this backdrop the Christian faithful might show a decent reticence in the face of the BBC’s decision to broadcast on television, late in the evening, an award-winning satirical musical comedy, Jerry Springer – The Opera, which has been running in London’s West End to admiring reviews and audiences since October 2003 after a triumphant run at the National Theatre, following equally successful runs at the Battersea Arts Centre and the Edinburgh Festival (its first working draft was performed in August 2001). Not a bit of it. According to the BBC, “[it] has received more than 15,000 complaints about its decision to air the musical Jerry Springer – The Opera. Campaigners Mediawatch UK have railed against the show going out on BBC Two on Saturday because of the high level of swearing. There have also been thousands of complaints to TV watchdog Ofcom.” Crowds of fundamentalists with banners demonstrated outside the BBC studios demanding cancellation of the broadcast. An article in a publication called ‘UK Christian News’ reported that:

‘A Christian activist group, Christian Voice, run by Stephen Green, is organizing the protests to take place on Friday 7th and Saturday the 8th January. With protests confirmed outside BBC London, BBC Birmingham, BBC Manchester, BBC Plymouth, BBC Glasgow, BBC Cardiff and BBC Norwich, the organizers hope that Christians in the UK will send a clear message to the internationally famed television broadcaster that the program is in no way endorsed by the Christian community [my emphasis].
‘Citing a recent large protest by Sikhs, Green, in a recent email newsletter to Christian Voice supporters says "It is interesting that this story should break a week after four hundred Sikhs felt strongly enough about the play Behzti (Dishonour), which depicted sex abuse and murder in a Sikh temple, to protest outside (and inside) the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. There were some arrests, but you have to admire their willingness to stand up for their religion. Is Almighty God sending Christians a challenge?” ‘

Another article in Christian Today revealed that –

‘The Bishop of Manchester, Rev [sic] Nigel McCoulloch [sic], the Church of England’s leading spokesman on broadcasting said, "Freedom of expression is not the issue here, since the show already runs on the stage. On a publicly-funded service channel, my worry is that this outrageous opera is a major departure from viewers’ current expectations, as it is evidently highly offensive material. In addition, I believe the timing of the Broadcast at 10pm, with a trailer Programme at 9pm on a Saturday evening, is professionally irresponsible. At these late times, many older children may be drawn into watching it."

‘The Rt Reverend emphasised, "I have made my views clear to the BBC and, in the interests of informed discussion, have asked if they might be prepared to let me see a tape prior to broadcast. Sadly, they have refused that request."

‘The Reverend joins a growing mass of 15,000 other complainants, bombarding the Corporation with further Protests.’

(The bishop was reported a few weeks earlier as having “spoken out against shops opening on Sundays after his [Manchester] diocese was named the most Godless in the country.” ‘"The temple-like structures of some supermarkets and shopping malls suggest shopping is a new religion," he wrote.’)

After the television broadcast, the BBC reported that “Hundreds of Christian protesters rallied outside BBC buildings before and during the broadcast on BBC Two. At least 45,000 people contacted the BBC about the show, mainly to complain about swearing and religious themes.

Jerry Springer — The Opera Posted by Hello

The BBC denied reports that any bosses were in hiding after abusive phone calls, but said unpleasant calls had been received and reported to police.” Around a third of the comments received by the BBC after the broadcast expressed approval of the BBC’s decision to go ahead, and appreciation of the show, the rest voicing varying degrees of outrage and offence. The fact that a high proportion of the protests had clearly been orchestrated through e-mail bombardment and website publicity doesn’t of course invalidate them, although it might suggest some slightly artificial swelling of the numbers.

I thought it was an outstanding production: funny, beautifully acted, danced and sung, with some delicious pastiches in the music ranging from Brecht to Bach, and numerous memorable highlights (who will quickly forget the Ku Klux Klan chorus nimbly tap-dancing in their swirling white robes and pillow-case mask-hats?). There was an underlying moral seriousness, too, which lifted it from the level of the purely provocative: an examination of the moral ambiguities involved in the use of personal relationships and private torments for profitable entertainment while still somehow respecting, not judging, the individuals involved and perhaps even contributing to a resolution of their conflicts. The parody in the first half of the show of the original television programme presided over by the real (British-born) Jerry Springer was splendidly realised, no easy feat when the subject of the parody is itself so often close to self-parody. The portrayal of Adam and Eve, Jesus, Mary, and God, was made acceptable by the fact that all of them were plainly roles played by characters from the TV show in Act I and imagined in a dream. To take offence at these grotesques viewed at so many removes reveals a wholly unreasonable sensitivity (but of course the vast majority of the protesters had not seen the show either in the theatre or on television, and so had no first-hand knowledge of what they were protesting about).

In any case, giving offence can’t justify censorship or suppression of valid material, especially when it is of the quality of this production. Home truths and the provoking of thought will always offend someone. I take deep offence myself at the attempt by the forces of unreason to prevent me from enjoying, and being sharply stimulated by, the best couple of hours of television that I can remember for years.


6 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your analysis. For interests
    sake Steven Green’s web site is
    and while better argued than some of its US equivalents
    one can get a clear indication of the kind of legislative program that we could be in for **if** the
    Christian right becomes a successful pressure group.
    Just look at the “Hearth and Home” Republicans for an
    indication of how a party can be changed by a relativly small group of scriptural absolutists.
    You may also enjoy the show website – in particular it has some choice songs to listen to….

  2. Anonymous says:

    Of course Jerry Springer the Opera should have been shown. I disagree with you about its value; I found it trivial, pandering and over long but no matter we are all entitled to be wrong

    What I found difficult to understand, having checked your comments was that you were simply not so exercised about the threats made by the Sikhs in Birmingham as to rush to print. Maybe you were on Holiday?

    We both agree that the behaviour of the Sikhs was just as reprehensible as that of the threats made Christians. Both may have been acting illegally

    My point is that it was only the Christians that provoked you to print

    Fair and balanced?

  3. Brian says:

    Anon: thanks for the provocative and interesting comment.

    I entirely agree about the unacceptable character of the Sikh protests over the play Behzti (Dishonour): in some ways worse than the Christian fundamentalists’ attempts to prevent the broadcast of ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’ (because the Sikh protests involved violence and because they succeeded in getting the play taken off): in some ways less offensive (far fewer people involved, the episode less likely to have nation-wide ramifications because the Sikhs are a small minority and the incident affected only part of one city). Because Christianity is the established state religion, and the religion at least nominally espoused by a majority of the UK population, and because the controversy over JS-TO involved the national broadcasting institution (the BBC) and a broadcast scheduled to reach the whole population of the country, it was much the more menacing of the two events. Moreover I had watched the broadcast of JS-TO and felt able to make a judgment of its merit (even though you and many others disagree on that), whereas I have not of course seen Behzti and so can’t judge its artistic value, although admittedly censorship should be condemned whether or not the work sought to be suppressed has merit, or if so how much.

    But the main point in answer to your charge of discrimination is that I don’t, and can’t, comment on everything that I see as important or that moves me to anger or indignation (or, come to that, admiration). Much that I do write about is self-evidently trivial; much on which I remain silent is momentous. It depends on how much time I have available to write something, especially if it entails research: and on whether I feel I have something useful, ideally even novel, to say about a particular issue. Also whether what I want to say can comfortably be contained in a blog-entry-length piece. Against that background I hope you’ll agree that no culpable discrimination on my part can be inferred from my writing about the affair of the Christians and Jerry Springer T.O. but not, anyway initially, about the Sikhs.

    It’s an interesting issue, though, and I’m glad you raised it, even though anonymously! (There’s nothing to stop you logging on as Anonymous to write a Comment but then including your name, if you want to, in the body of the comment.)


  4. Brian says:

    PS: On the question whether Jerry Springer – The Opera is exploitative trash or an outstanding musical satire with an underlying moral seriousness (as you’ll know from my original post, I think it’s the latter), it’s worth reading a selection of reviews by well established theatre and music critics to be found at


  5. Anonymous says:

    You might be interested to see the top result when you type the wors “ignorant bigots” into google 🙂

  6. Joginder says:

    SOCIAL AFFAIRS UNIT WEB REVIEW L’affaire Behzti: Christie Davies revisits the riot that ended the production of Behzti at the Birmingham Rep at the end of 2004 and the text of the play – and finds a very poor play and a public relations disaster for British Sikhs