Taste, decency and Jerry Springer

A personal view

Jerry Springer – the Opera, as even its critics admit, is a superb piece of music theatre (not really an opera); with outstanding performances combining excellent singing, with sympathetic and sensitive characterisation. It is also an astringent and witty attack, not only on the confessional talk show, of which the Jerry Spring Show is the extreme example, but also on “reality TV” in general; not celebrating the “ordinary people” involved but exploiting them and their peccadilloes. Though it seems that most choosing to bare all on the Springer Show are extraordinary to the point of being bizarre.

“Jerry Springer – the Opera” has progressed from experimental work to the Edinburgh Festival and the National Theatre, and currently continues in the West End: so far, so uncontroversial. The storm broke when the BBC decided to broadcast an uncut, unbleeped version on the 8th January, late at night on BBC2. A somewhat orchestrated outburst of protest led by the group "Christian Voice" began before the programme had been broadcast and continued afterwards, with rumours – only rumours – of threats to the families of BBC personnel.

The controversy centres around two issues. Firstly, the prevalence of obscenity throughout the piece, and secondly, allegations of blasphemy in the portrayal of God, Jesus and the Virgin Mary in the second act. There is an awful amount of obscene language – 3,168 cases of one word and 297 uses of another (I did not do the counting!) – but is it offensive? Most of these are sung by the chorus (who represent the audience at the Springer Show) and are lost as words anyway, the constant repetition only shows that the promiscuous use of such words robs them of any kind of meaning except as an indication of inarticulacy on the part of the user. I am more deeply offended by the casual use of such words in the streets around my home or in “popular dramas” on television; but this is my view.

Again, the blasphemy issue is a matter of individual perception. In a bout of mayhem at the end of act one Jerry Springer is shot. Act two consists of his delirious, possibly dying vision or dream. To save himself from Hell Springer is commissioned by the Devil to persuade God to readmit him (Satan) to heaven. As this is a dream the heavenly and diabolical figures are played by actors who appeared in act one. Satan is Springer’s sacked warm-up man and the others guests on the Springer Show. God is cleverly played as a the overweight white suited Elvis Presley (the King), though blond haired; “Mary” appeared in act one as the religious zealot mother of a rather sad young woman with dreams of being an “exotic” dancer”. Jesus appears in crucifixion garb of loincloth having appeared in act one as a man obsessed with being a baby – wearing nappies under his suit. A connection is being made here (though the nappy and the loincloth are clearly different garments) but it is in the delirious mind of the shot Springer. These representations are not blasphemous because they are not depicting “sacred persons” at all – there is no suggestion that the historical Jesus was nappy obsessed. This, again, can only be my view.

The broadcast of “Jerry Springer – the Opera”, though in itself a nine days wonder , raises broader issues. Should broadcasting be fettered by popular taste and never deal with material that might offend? The broadcast came in the same week that, following protests (including some violence) by Sikhs, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre was forced to abandon the play, “Bezhti”. At this time the Government is seeking to pass an Act against incitement to religious hared which may inhibit free speech and which some lawyers say will be difficult to enforce.

My own view is that speech, including broadcasting, should be as free as possible. No religion or religious views in general should be especially protected; the existing blasphemy laws should be repealed. I should be warned if it seems likely that I may be offended and vulnerable groups, such as children, protected: they cannot be from what they hear in the home! But the law should only interfere in matters of dangerous speech – shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre, or incitement to violence or other law breaking activity; matters of public order, not taste or decency.

The most sensible comments I have heard on this whole area have come from Philip Dodd, the director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. He suggests that in arts and culture, as in much else in society, the post war liberal consensus has broken down and we are in for a lengthy period when all kinds of groups from all sorts of religions, political and cultural viewpoints feel free to protest against anything that offends them – the Countryside Alliance is a good example. Somehow, thinks Dodd, we have to accept and absorb this without giving way to such protests. It will be a bumpy trip.

Clarence Rickards

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 12th March 2005