The Shofar is the ancient trumpet which called the people of God to prayer, repentance, sacrifice and war.


7th May 2008

God honoured Christian Voice campaign:
Author says he wouldn't do another Jerry Springer the Opera

Following a House of Commons vote last night, the blasphemy laws will be abolished as soon as the Government's Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill receives Royal Assent.  Paradoxically, with Christians determined to make even more dramatic witness now it has gone, writers and producers are highly unlikely to risk staging anything insulting Almighty God or Jesus Christ in future, at least if they have the sense to listen to Stewart Lee.

Lee has blamed Christian Voice for the death of his brainchild musical Jerry Springer the Opera and now says he wouldn't work on anything controversial on a similar scale again.

The comedians' website 'Chortle' said that the musical, which they say Lee spent years developing, 'suffered financially' when Christian Voice orchestrated a highly successful campaign against it during 2005 and 2006.

And even though the High Court and the House of Lords ruled against a bid by Christian Voice National Director Stephen Green to bring a private blasphemy prosecution Lee said the furore would stop people investing time in controversial shows.

'There would be no point writing anything with any religious content which would require big box office receipts or public funding to float it, as a fuss like this could wipe it out instantly,' he told the obsessive free-speech group 'Index On Censorship'.  'Idiots', said Lee, 'could too easily close it down'. (Chortle: 10/12/2007)

Even the partisan Polly Toynbee, an 'honorary associate' of the rabidly anti-Christian National Secular Society, agreed with Lee in an article in the Guardian on 27th June 2006:

'The tour was a financial disaster after fundamentalist Christians attacked the tour,' she wailed. 'Far from all publicity being good publicity, it put off the usual audience for musicals, who assumed this show must be all filth, shock and schlock. Fear of running the gauntlet of rabid zealots also kept many away. Many theatres pulled out and ticket sales were low. No wonder evangelicals gloat on their websites that they have won and that the production is "under a curse" financially. Censorship has many weapons.'

Lee, says Chortle, 'first starting working on the show with composer Richard Thomas in 2001 at the Battersea Arts Centre. Versions were staged at the 2002 Edinburgh Fringe and at the National Theatre in 2003 before transferring to the West End .'

The blasphemous second act, in which the Lord Jesus Christ is portrayed as a sexual deviant, or, to be specific, as an infantile coprophiliac who is 'a little bit gay', was added during the development process.

When the BBC drew the attention of Christians to the final version of the show by screening it on BBC2 in January 2005, Christian Voice wrote to hundreds of regional theatres just as Jerry Springer the Opera was being scheduled to tour.

Lee said: 'At the time, the Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was hanging around in its unmodified form, and Christian Voice were able to exploit the woolly wording to give theatres the impression they could be prosecuted for staging JSTO, so we lost loads of venues and the tour went ahead but was not financially viable.'

The letter from Christian Voice warned of prosecutions for blasphemy and protests and drew attention to the poor attendance for the show in its dying days at the Cambridge Theatre in London 's Covent Garden in February 2005. More than a dozen venues, including the Derby Playhouse and the Guildhall, Portsmouth , pulled out.

Toynbee complains: 'After more than a third of the theatres pulled out in panic, only 23 weeks of bookings remained - too few to have any chance of recouping costs. The authors waived their royalties and the producers decided to take the loss; the Arts Council tipped in a little so people in the regions could see something they regarded as excellent.'

In fact, the Arts Council pulled their main funding for the show after the initial furore, and rightly or wrongly, as the Arts Council will never admit to bowing to pressure, Christian Voice got the blame.

Their subsequent funding was on a much small scale, to only three theatres.

But the public simply didn't agree that Jerry Springer the Opera was 'excellent' or even worth seeing at all, after a Christian Voice campaign in which audiences at theatres staging the show were lobbied for weeks in advance of JSTO turning up and then on the night.  Tens of thousands of evangelistic leaflets informing theatre-goers of the content of the show were given out.  As a result, only Newcastle 's Theatre Royal managed to cover a third of its seats during the run.  Many struggled to get a quarter full.  Toynbee moans: 'Most local reviews were raves, but too late for ticket sales.'

In the end, the producers Avalon admitted they lost between £300,000 and £half-a-million, although Avalon's boss Jonathan Thoday, with a personal fortune given as £12m in the Indy's media richlist even in 2001, could easily afford that, Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas, the show's creators, waived their royalties, David Soul was replaced by Rolf Saxon in the title role, the cast-list was cut by a third and every single theatre made a thumping loss of tens of thousands of pounds of council-tax-payers' money.

Lee says, 'I'd never become involved to such a degree on something on such a big scale if there was the possibility of it being effectively closed down like this.

'I can't afford not to be paid for years and years of work on the whim of idiots. That said, no one ever saw this coming. What people take offence at, or choose to be offended by, will always be unpredictable.'

However, as Jerry Springer the Opera was stuffed to the gills with (as the late blasphemy law put it) contemptuous, scurrilous, reviling, abusive and ludicrous representations of God, Jesus Christ, the Bible and the sacraments of the Church, Lee has to have been myopic or ignorant not to have foreseen that there would be an outcry if his show ever poked its nose outside the normal haunts of the artistic elite.

As it was, the outcry was enormous, with 55,000 protests to the BBC and then protests at every single theatre on the doomed tour.  Even before the show opened, Christian Voice had been blamed for poor ticket sales in an article in the Guardian (27/01/2006).

At the same time, the news agency Reuters observed 'There is such a thing as bad publicity after all' and quoted Jonathan Thoday as saying: 'Christian Voice are winning the audience battle'.

The Royal Family even became involved in the controversy.  Prince Edward is patron of His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen , which was one of the theatres involved, so when he attended a public church service, all those attending were given a leaflet calling on him to resign.  The Prince was forced to claim he was only patron of the theatre's rebuilding fund.  As the tour limped around Britain , theatre managers struggled to put a brave face on a growing disaster.  The Fairfield Halls in Croydon cancelled three out of eight performances of Jerry Springer the Opera as its Chief Executive Derek Barr, after failing to get his theatre out of its contract with Avalon, admitted: "Maybe we should have avoided it.'

According to Polly Toynbee: 'Stewart Lee says a thousand Christian protesters turn up on the first night in big cities. In Leicester some of the cast were turned out of their B&Bs. The Archbishop of Wales tried to get the show stopped at the Wales Millennium Centre. The Scottish cancer charity Maggie's Centres dared not accept the money from a gala performance when Christian Voice told it doing so would "upset Christians all over the world".'

Toynbee urged theatre-goers to take the 'last chance' to 'beat the bigots' by going to see the show at its closing venue, the Brighton Dome, of which she is a patron. Not many took her up on it. She wrote in her June 2006 article: 'Jerry Springer the Opera reaches the end of its noisy tour next week with a grand finale at the Brighton Dome. It will have made a hefty loss for its producers, who toured it despite knowing that trouble would dog it and that it would lose money. But they were determined not to let the evangelicals win.'

Of course, as a comment on her article said: 'But since producers primarily put shows on to make money, and they lost money, the evangelicals DID win.'

Or, more properly, Almighty God won - and made fools of His enemies.

In an interview in November 2006, Stewart Lee said that the protests 'soured' his nomination for an Olivier Award. 'On a basic level, it meant we never really broke even, or saw much money for it, as it was effectively closed down. Secondly, it has made me think there's no point trying to do anything any good on a mass-level, as ****s will sabotage it. Also, though I am proud of my contribution, I am now sick to death of talking about the thing, which is ruined for ever for me.'

The quaintly-named magazine and website 'The Freethinker' (where you are free to think anything you like as long as it's atheist) agrees that projects insulting Jesus Christ are now not likely to see the light of day because of 'self-censorship'.  While it would be better if self-control and common courtesy were the reasons, it is good that the worlds of atheism and the arts are taking notice.

In Christian Voice, we take no credit for the Springer disaster. Our prayer led us to do a few basic things, and while doing them, we learnt how to combine witness with evangelism to great effect.  All those who said that by giving it publicity we would inadvertently make Jerry Springer the Opera an even bigger success were proved precisely wrong.  Almighty God honoured us for standing up for Him and He confounded His enemies. 

But Stewart Lee's message to his fellow atheists in the world of the arts is clear: Whatever happens in other countries is up to them; just don't even think about staging anything insulting Jesus Christ in the United Kingdom .