Shoppers repent!

He's on a mission to save the world from the evils of consumerism. And when the Reverend Billy hits town, chaos is never far behind. Julia Stuart joins his subversive throng on the streets of Newcastle
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The Independent Online

Standing in a square in Newcastle city centre is a young man wearing a green fleece and jeans, muttering into a microphone about the virtues of Jesus Christ to a small group of onlookers largely made up of winos and pigeons. Suddenly, even the flying vermin do a double take. A middle-aged man with a bleached-blond unruly quiff, and teeth that also appear to have had an encounter with peroxide, stops next to him. Wearing a cream suit and a clerical dog-collar, he starts preaching in a strong American accent through a loud-hailer.

What seems, initially, to be a clash of evangelists soon takes a curious turn. "I am the Reverend Billy from the Church of Stop Shopping," booms the stranger. He launches into a tirade against companies "that support our violent foreign polices in Iraq and around the world". "Hallelujah! Somebody give me an amen here! Do I have a witness?" He certainly does. "Amen!" pipe up a number of the rapidly swelling crowd, many of whose jaws are now around the knees of their tracksuit bottoms. The original preacher meekly gives up trying to be heard, and consoles himself with a group hug from his chums.

Rev Billy's eyes flash, his nostrils flare. "This is where the Devil lives, right over here," he says, heading menacingly towards a group of people sitting at tables sipping coffee in the spring sunshine. The crowd beetles after him like the faithful in Life of Brian. "Can you see us coming, children of Starbucks?" he asks the bemused drinkers.

"This is the Church of Stop Shopping, and we are part of an anti-consumerist movement that will sweep aside these transnational chain stores. Children, we've got to stop being so stoopid, giving our money to a company like Starbucks."

But it is not only the Geordies at the coffee chain who are risking the hellfires of consumption, according to Rev Billy, a New York performance artist whose real name is Bill Talen. Other Antichrists are at work within Britain's high streets. Several days ago, while giving an impromptu sermon in the Disney store in Derby, during which he screamed the word "sweatshop" once too often, the Rev Billy was promptly arrested "by a plain-clothed cop whom I didn't understand because of his accent", and driven off in a police car as the crowd screamed: "Free Billy!" After two hours in a police cell, he was released without charge. It took his total arrests, all previously in the States, to around 20.

Rev Billy was "born" in New York in 1997, when Talen, then a theatre-house manager, became increasingly despairing over what he saw as the "Disneyfication" of Times Square. He developed the character with the help of a real minister, a cousin of Tennessee Williams, and took his act on to the streets and then into the stores. His protests have included hauling around a Mickey Mouse pinned to a crucifix. Starbucks came into his sight when it started buying up the coffee shops and diners in his neighbourhood, some of which had been there for 30 years. The chain is now so resigned to his appearances, it issued a memo to its New York staff advising them what to do if he came in (treat him like another customer, don't respond to his devotees' antics, ask him politely to leave the store, call the police if he doesn't budge, and page the district manager).

Talen, 47, is currently on a 10-day tour of Britain with other artists who have been taking part in a year-long programme of performances, talks and exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic called the Stop Shopping Roadshow, including a "sermon" last night at the ICA in London.

Many of the artists are here in Newcastle, providing Rev Billy with his much called-for amens. In February, one of them, James Leadbitter, 22, from London, bought 20 purple jumpers from Gap in Oxford Street, walked down the road, and returned them all at another branch. He spent the whole day repeating the exercise. "The first shop said, 'Oh, you're back again', and I just said, 'I love the jumpers and I want as many as I can'. The funny thing is that in Gap, when you return something, you have to give them your details, so I signed my name as Mr Sweatshop from 32 Unethical Lane, but they never picked up on that."

The Stop Shopping Roadshow has been organised by Ange Taggart, 43, a performance artist from Nottingham, who has just been awarded a grant of £2,800 from the Arts Council of England towards the project. Earlier this year, Leadbitter collaborated with her in a performance called Virgin on the Ridiculous, during which the duo went into the Virgin Megastore in Nottingham wearing fluorescent waistcoats bearing the words, "Cleaning Up After Capitalism". "We plugged our vacuum-cleaners in and did the carpets until we were thrown out after about 10 minutes. The reason they gave was health and safety." Leadbitter has also been "praying to products" in House of Fraser, Glasgow. "I thanked them for the opportunity to buy their lifestyle, and for offering us these products that can make us beautiful and popular. The security guard said, 'It's time to leave now, Sunny Jim', but as I left, all the girls on the make-up counter gave me a round of applause, which was nice."

Back in Newcastle, Rev Billy is aiming his loud-hailer at the devil-worshippers in Starbucks (most of whom are laughing), asking them to pledge not to come back.

"Let's make the choice. Hallelujah!"

"He's on glue, he's got to be doing something," says Stuart Timlin, 18, part of the crowd that has gathered. "How is it Starbucks' fault that all the world is going down the toilet? He works for Costa Coffee and he's trying to put Starbucks out of business, that's what it is!"

However, Timlin and his mates, who are drinking vodka and a bottle of perry "that only cost a quid", soon change their tune and start up a chorus of, "You can stick your coffee latte up your arse!"

Rev Billy heads off down the street, a crowd of new devotees in tow. As he passes Ann Summers, Timlin shouts, "Ee, can you kick off about them, because their prices are too high?" Rev Billy turns to the shop and raises a hand. "Bless you, Ann Summers," he booms. "Let's have more sex and less shopping. Amen!"

Rev Billy suddenly comes to a horrified halt. "Oh my God! I can't believe what I've got right here in front of me. It's Ronald McDonald."

"Say nowt about Ronald McDonald, I love him," warns Timlin.

"It's the Devil himself," says the Rev, stopping outside the store as the assistants swiftly shut the doors. One watches through the glass, grinning. "Bless you children, we're from the Church of Stop Shopping. Hallelujah! Amen! Thank you for the wave, sister. We know that some of you in there are just at your minimum wage, non-union jobs. Quit! We'll find better jobs for you."

Rev Billy starts to shake. "I can feel the Holy Spirit coming in here, I'm doing the shimmy, I'm doing the swim. Whaa! Whaa! Whaa! It feels good. It feels so good. It feels good to stop buying crap from multinational devils. Hallelujah! Somebody give me an amen here. Ah! We're feeling the spirit here. This town, I cast you out!"

One man wants a word about the stand-off in the square earlier. "You're taking the mickey out of Christians. It's not fair to them," he says. "I like Jesus, but I don't like the Christian church," replies Talen, who was raised a Calvinist. "You need to dye your hair again, its getting grey on the sides," the man says.

Talen changes back into civvies and the posse, joined by three sympathisers picked up along the way, head off on the underground for a trolley go-slow at Asda, which is owned by Wal-Mart. Leadbitter has a history of staging such antics in Asda stores around the country. As the group approach the store, Leadbitter distributes white T-shirts bearing the words "Whirl-Mart Ritual Resistance" on the back. "If somebody asks what you're doing, avoid the words 'anti-capitalist protest', because it will get us thrown out," he warns. "We call it a consumption-awareness ritual."

Before they start, Richard Dedomenici, 25, an artist from Watford, stages what he calls "The Grape Escape" in the fruit and veg aisle. Hands firmly in his pockets, he drops grapes out of the bottom of his trousers, a work inspired by the film The Great Escape, in which prisoners employ a similar method to get rid of the earth after digging a tunnel. However, Dedomenici looks so falsely nonchalant, he would have been shot by the Nazis in the watchtower by now. "A woman sued Wal-Mart once for slipping on a grape, I hope to cause more legal claims," he explains. He leaves a trail of what soon become green splats. Their only victim is Rev Billy's wife, who skids on one. Initially, the artists wander around the store with their empty trolleys, alone. They then start to line up until there is a 13-strong conga of silent trolley-pushers, looping the pet-food aisle before heading off to the deli counter.

There's a flurry of staff announcements during which countless people are paged. Department managers soon huddle at the ends of the aisles talking into their phones. One stalks the trolley-pushers around the store, scowling ferociously. "It's some kind of protest," she hisses into her phone.

However, shopper Ian Sutcliffe, 25, thinks that Jeremy Beadle is about to pop out at any minute, and hangs around hoping to get on the telly. Alan Henderson, 87, thinks they're collecting food for an old people's home, or for refugees. "They look really stupid," says Jean Herron, 66. Two 16-year-olds join them, hoping they'll be able to keep the T-shirts. They won't. An Asda worker silently cheers them on. "It's well deserved, I don't like Wal-Mart," he whispers.

After an hour of slow pushing, the "artists" file out of the store. They are followed by a group of managers who are visibly relieved to see them go. "We didn't know what they were doing," admits the bakery manager Paul Dawson. "There's been no harm done, so we just let them get on with it. We're always happy to help."

For Stop Shopping Roadshow dates: