Shadow culture secretary John Whittingdale has criticised the decision by the BBC to air an uncut version of Jerry Springer – The Opera, saying the show’s artistic merits do not outweigh the level of offence it caused.
Whittingdale added that he did not believe the show – which contains a considerable number of expletives and which satirises Christianity – was suitable for broadcast by a publicly funded organisation and felt it would have been more acceptable on Channel 4. However, he conceded he could appreciate both sides of the issue.
He said: “I did watch some of the show and I don’t think the work was of such originality and brilliance that it offset the offence people have felt by the BBC’s action. However, I do acknowledge it is a work that has received some critical acclaim and some number of awards. The matter is in Ofcom’s hands and it would be wrong to pre-empt their decision.”
The Corporation received close to 50,000 complaints prior to the screening and protests were held outside Television Centre. It was also forced to place security guards at the homes of BBC2 controller Roly Keating and director of television Jana Bennett after the pair received abusive and threatening phonecalls.
The calls occurred after their home telephone numbers and those of several BBC governors were printed on the website of religious group, Christian Voice. The group has now said it will now bring a private blasphemy prosecution against the Corporation.
A further 1,400 calls were made after transmission but almost a third of these were in support of the show and the show’s ratings reached 1.8 million – above the average of 1 million for opera broadcasts. A spokesperson for the BBC said: “We stand by our decision to broadcast the production.”
The producers of the stage show have also put on extra security at the Cambridge Theatre in Covent Garden after protests were held there and have introduced a new scheme that allows anyone bringing a Bible to the box office to buy a ticket for £10. A spokesperson for Avalon Productions said: “We don’t want the show to be seen as anti-Christian. This offer aims to encourage people to come and see the show for themselves and make up their own minds.”
The show’s co-creator Stewart Lee recently hit back at the criticisms of bad language, blasphemy and indecency, arguing that many of the stories circulated by television clean-up groups such as Mediawatch-uk – the organisation founded by Mary Whitehouse – and religious organisations bore no relation to the actual content of the show.
The comedian, who is currently in Germany working on a new show, said: “I am pleased I won’t be around to have to talk about it to people who haven’t seen it but are nonetheless furious about it.”
John Beyer of Mediawatch-uk said the show was not what licence fee payers expected of the BBC and that he did not understand why the Corporation had chosen this particular production if it wished to enhance coverage of the arts.