Arts Council pulls plug on 'Jerry Springer the Opera'

The show's future now looks bleak, however, after the Arts Council refused to provide funding for the tour.

The controversial show, which was inspired by the US talk show hosted by Springer, depicts Jesus as a homosexual in a nappy. It drew vociferous protests from some Christian groups after it was televised by the BBC2 this year, attracting a record 2.4m viewers.

John Thoday, the producer of the show, said the Arts Council was giving in to the protests. The decision came as a blow for freedom of speech in the creative arts, he said. The council denied that was the reason behind the decision.

The show's writer, Stewart Lee, who is now performing at Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms inHow to Write an Opera about Jerry Springer, said there would be no more performances of the show in the foreseeable future.

Mr Thoday said he was told by the Arts Council that the application had been refused because the show was "too commercial", but that he was not satisfied with that reason. "I feel like we are the only people standing up for freedom of speech in the arts community. I feel incredibly disappointed that while they see freedom of speech as a good thing, they are not prepared to support it," he said.

Mr Thoday added that he had been led to believe that they would be successful in their application. "We were given a fairly strong indication that the application would be successful and that the Arts Council wanted to support it," he said.

He added that next year's tour would have to be cancelled unless the Arts Council reconsidered its decision or a private funder could be secured.

In spite of the show's immense success in London, where it began at the Battersea Arts Centre and went on to be a sell-out at the National Theatre, where it generated £1.8m in an eight-month run, many of the venues that originally agreed to put on the musical as part of the tour pulled out earlier this year after a campaign by Christian Voice, an evangelical group that condemned it as "blasphemous". After it was broadcast, BBC executives were threatened by some campaigners and some received death threats.

The Arts Council denied the decision had anything to do with the fears of a religious backlash. A spokesman said the judgement had nothing to do with the Christian campaigners but that the Council's £20m touring budget was limited.

"The suggestion that this decision has to do with pressure from the religious right is absolute nonsense. There is so much we do on a weekly basis that puts us in the firing line.

"There's barely a week that goes by that we do not receive a letter from one religious group or other. Our budget for touring funds is limited so we have to be very careful with how we spend it."

He added that the Arts Council had had a history of supporting the production - both the Battersea Arts Centre and National Theatre are funded by the organisation - and that the primary reason for refusing the application was its commercial success. "There is no questions about its quality. This is simply just an issue about whether a production of this nature, given its success so far, needs our subsidy," he said.

The show started life in 2001 as Jerry Springer Night, an embryonic and incomplete performance at the Battersea Arts Centre with Richard Thomas sitting alone at a piano. The audience were offered a "beer for an idea" at a workshop, which marked the beginning of a unique development process in which the audience was asked to give its feedback after every performance. It went on to attract huge audience numbers and is credited by some as luring viewers who would never normally have gone to the theatre.