The BBC insisted yesterday that it would press ahead with televising an expletive-laden musical about the US chat-show host Jerry Springer despite receiving a record number of complaints.
Ofcom, the media regulator, has received 7,000 complaints about the planned screening of Jerry Springer - The Opera on BBC2 tonight - more than four times the previous record, for Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, in 1995.
About50 demonstrators gathered outside the Television Centre in Shepherd's Bush, west London, yesterday to protest against the programme, which contains hundreds of swear words and includes a scene in which a nappy-wearing Jesus admits he is "a bit gay".
More than 30,000 people have also written to or e-mailed the BBC about the musical, the majority in protest, while the viewers' group Mediawatch has written to the BBC chairman, Michael Grade, asking him to pull the programme.
Representatives of the cross-denominational Churches Media Council, who met the BBC's director of television, Jana Bennett; the BBC2 controller, Roly Keating, and Peter Maniura, head of television classical music, on Thursday, did not support calls to scrap the show. But they said the promotion of it had been mishandled and its proximity to Christmas was "bad timing".
The council revealed that the BBC had agreed to reconsider the labelling of the programme to make it clear that it contained portrayals of religious figures that some might find offensive, as well as bad language.
The BBC said the number of swear words had been exaggerated; some reports claimed that there were thousands, when the number was closer to 400. Peter Blackman, director of the Churches Media Council, who watched the musical this week, said: "Let's discuss it after seeing it ... My personal view is that it is an excellent modern morality opera."
The Labour MP Chris Bryant, a member of the Commons Media Select Committee, defended the BBC's right to televise the show, so long as there were adequate warnings. "Jerry Springer - The Opera is a critically acclaimed theatre production in London which many people might want to go and see, but either can't afford it or can't get to London. It's perfectly legitimate for the BBC to show it as long as they make it very clear what the nature of the programme is," Mr Bryant said."It's easy to make a complaint. It's less easy to make an interesting piece of theatre."
David Soul, who plays Jerry Springer, said: "This show would never have got where it is today if it was simply about blasphemy and bad language. I'm a Christian and I don't see it as blasphemy at all."
The BBC said it was a "serious and ground-breaking" work that "explores difficult ideas with a strong underlying moral purpose ... it will transmit well after the watershed with due warnings and will be preceded by a short documentary which seeks to give background and context to the piece."
The National Secular Society has urged Mr Keating to stand firm against "religious bullies" who want the show banned. "This organised attack is the latest attempt by religious interests to control what we can see or say in this country," said Terry Sanderson, the society's vice-president.
John Beyer, director of Mediawatch, said: "People feel instinctively that they have had enough of obscene language and violence and other offensive material on television."
'There are countless viewers who want to be treated as adults'
Roly Keating, Controller of BBC2
When Nicholas Hytner snapped up Jerry Springer - The Opera for his opening season at the National Theatre he described it as "exactly the kind of work the National should be doing: bold, scabrous, funny and beautiful".
Eyebrows were raised, but the professionalism and resources of the NT helped to transform Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee's opera about the celebrated American talk-show host from a brilliant piece of fringe experimentation into the fully achieved work of musical theatre it is today.
The decision to bring Springer to television was not taken lightly. There is strong language throughout (although no more than in feature films that have enjoyed many TV broadcasts, despite the wild exaggerations published in some papers). And some of its themes and imagery are provocative.
But from its inception in the 1960s as the UK's first alternative channel, BBC2 at its best has played a special role in documenting British culture, promoting groundbreaking work of creative excellence, and bringing it to a wider audience.
Jerry Springer - The Opera made West End history when it won four Best Musical awards in a single year. It united critics in praise across the spectrum of the press. And it has arguably done more to redraw the boundaries of musical theatre than any other piece in the past decade. Aficionados of music theatre love its inventiveness, lyricism and range of reference from Monteverdi to Miles Davis. Others revel in its pop-culture savvy and bold blending of high art and low behaviour.
Jerry Springer - The Opera is also deeply and fiercely satirical, and like much true satire it hides its own stern morality behind a façade of fierce wit, vivid images and outrageous comedy. That kind of façade can provoke strong reactions, particularly if taken out of context.
These are sensitive times in the debate about how our society should balance freedom of expression with respect for religion, so it's perhaps not surprising that Thomas and Lee's opera has been drawn into the fray. But Lee himself has stressed that he has no intent to either offend or blaspheme, and it is striking that Jerry Springer - The Opera has enjoyed some 550 performances to date, many on publicly-funded stages, without encountering recorded protest from any interest group, religious or otherwise.
This may be because audiences who have seen the show in its entirety understand that the true target of Thomas and Lee's satire is not Christianity or religious belief at all but, appropriately enough in the circumstances, television itself. Their condemnation is reserved for the values of a society that acquiesces in reducing serious family conflicts to an amoral talk-show bear-pit.
Jerry Springer - The Opera will transmit with strong warnings at 10pm, well beyond the watershed, and the programmes that precede it will explain the context of the piece.
Many of the people who have contacted the BBC in the past few days have called on us to cancel the transmission, and we understand their strength of feeling and sincerity of view. But there are countless others in the audience we have to consider too, who expect the BBC to treat them as adults and take creative risks on their behalf, and are looking forward to gaining access to a remarkable experience hitherto confined to the London stage. The debate is real, and not, I fear, the kind that will be resolved by a pat, end-of-show Jerry Springer homily.
Controversy At The Corporation
Brimstone and Treacle
In 1976, Alasdair Milne, then the BBC director of programmes, pulled Brimstone and Treacle, Dennis Potter's play about an amoral young man who cares for a seriously disabled young girl. Milne told Potter he found the play "brilliantly written and made, but nauseating". It has since been on the BBC.
The Last Temptation of Christ
In 1991, the BBC considered showing Martin Scorsese's film starring Willem Dafoe, which depicted Christ having sexual fantasies about Mary Magdalene, but pulled it after 1,525 complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Commission. When Channel 4 broadcast the film in 1995, 1,600 complained.
BBC chiefs reprimanded ex-Radio 1 Breakfast Show host Sara Cox in 2000 after she claimed on air that the Queen Mother "smells of wee". The controller, Andy Parfitt, had to publicly apologise. When the Queen Mother died in 2002, BBC newsreader Peter Sissons was criticised for not having a black tie.
The BBC took Robert Kilroy-Silk's chat show off a year ago after he branded Arabs "suicide bombers, limb amputators and women repressors" in the Sunday Express. The Muslim Council reported Silk to police, but no charges were made.
Last year, Stuart Murphy, controller of the digital BBC3, pulled Popetown, a cartoon with a pogo-ing pope, after complaints that it could cause offence to Catholics.
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