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Jerry Springer: the opera

Broadcast 8th January 2005, BBC 2

Like lots of open-minded Christians, I watched this show with interest generated mostly by the heated arguments of brothers and sisters who seem to give appropriate high honour to Jesus, and yet sadly misrepresent him to the world he died to save.

Yes, the stage show is foul-mouthed, with repeated uses of the f-word and shocking sexual behaviour. No, that’s not entertainment. The Jerry Springer TV show features real people (probably) who use such language without realising it, and whose lifestyles and sexual antics have resulted in disaster.

The first Act was a savage and hilarious lampoon of the show, with deviants and misfits whingeing about being misunderstood. It takes the reality and magnifies the weaknesses, like all good satire. Jerry does nothing to help his guests; indeed, he makes his livelihood from their pain and eagerness to broadcast their complaints.

‘I don’t solve problems, I televise them,’ he cries.

Pain

Obviously, the main issue was with the content of the second act in which a mortally wounded Jerry has a bizarre fantasy about hell and the punishment awaiting him. I hadn’t expected the scriptwriters to refer to what might seem to be an obscure passage in Ezekiel where Lucifer is cast out of heaven.

Anyway, Jerry is required on pain of – well, let’s just say pain involving barbed wire – to host a show in which the Devil demands an apology for being thrown out of heaven. Jesus appears and makes a few theological statements.

Here the programme flirted with a BBC rule about combining sacred figures and the foulest of swear words. It was a shock, but then it was meant to be. No-one was suggesting it was a demonstration of how Jesus really speaks, were they?

Evangelism

It may not be the language we’d use in a preaching context when the Jesus character says ‘You couldn’t give a toss/That I died on a cross,’ but I think I agree with the truth contain therein. Of course Jesus isn’t angry about rejection, as portrayed here, but I am unconvinced that people will look at these characterisations and imagine them to be accurate… In the same way, the references to Jesus being gay are surely not intended to be a cogent argument, just a modern use of the term to mean ‘nice to people’.

While he has every right to do so, God doesn’t moan about all the voices with conflicting requests expecting him to solve their problems and them blaming him when it doesn’t work out just as they would have liked it.

The conclusion (and it’s wimpishly weak, in my view, following from the strong material) is that we just have to live with conflict and unresolved doubts, preferences, difficult choices, etc (which is probably true), but that there is no right or wrong either way, so get a life.

The show concludes with a purified Jerry presiding over a world populated by Jerries; show hosts who encourage people to be kind to each other. It was at this point that I realised that the audience hadn’t been laughing at all through the Second Act, when they had been loud and clear throughout the much funnier and accessible First.

Honesty

Why, I ask myself, was I surprised to hear two well-known Christian preachers commenting on national radio that the broadcasting of Jerry Springer The Opera should be banned on grounds of taste, decency and blasphemy, while both admitting they had not seen the show. They claimed to be able to judge it from the reviews and other information gleaned from undisclosed sources.

Personally, I think this is flawed punditry. Botham won’t go on telly to talk about the England squad’s latest performance without watching it!

There is an argument to suggest that the BBC may have thought twice about showing a stage play which derided and mocked Buddha or Mohammed or Sikhism; having a pop at Jesus is very easy since Christians and Jews tend not to smash theatre windows and demonstrate until the play is removed from the stage.

It’s an odd system which requires me by law to own a licence if I want to watch any telly, and I can write to Points of View if I disapprove of any particular show on which my money has been spent by the BBC. Yet I can hurt every other broadcaster by not tuning into their channel, which affects them in the advertising revenue. The Beeb isn’t hurt in the same way by my non-viewing…

The programme was on BBC2; I noticed, because I made a point of switching over in time. It is, of course, only the programme-makers and broadcasting gurus who have any clear distinction in their minds between the channels; I just press the button on the remote, without considering ‘now, this should be improving’ or ‘this will be noticeably populist slop.’

But in the end, I felt this show made me think, which is, after all, one of the spin-offs of art, isn’t it? I thought about the quality of the music, the dancing, the range of the voices, the brilliant staging and the hugeness of the operatic spectacle. It made me consider opera, where I had not done so before. And it made me think about God, Jesus and Satan – are they really like this? And if not, what are they like?

Shock antipenultimate para:

I wonder if there is more damage done to the reputation of Christianity and to the name of Jesus by programmes which are flagged as truly representative of our faith, such as Songs of Praise. Last week they were playing the ‘favourite hymns’ game, which means they just re-run old footage with a few famous talking heads making requests. In this programme, great songs directed to Almighty God were sung not so that he might be exalted, glorified and worshipped, but ‘because it leaves me with a warm glow’ or ‘I feel a great uplift.’ If that’s what it’s all about – my goosebumps or euphoric sensations – then our religion is a bit on the selfish side. This is the weekly output of the only worship programme in the schedule. And one of the celebs invited to make a request: David Blunkett. Yes! in the same week as the revelations about his disgraceful adulterous immorality were made public.

Do you suppose there will ever be programmes such as Glory to Mohammed or Blessing Buddha where weak, liberal or just plain unbelieving non-practicing friends of the faith ask for their favourite Mosque tunes or mantras, just because they have a catchy melody, or because of the fuzzy warmth they engender? Do I hear the distant tinkling of BBC glass?

You never know, but this Jerry Springer The Opera programme could end up provoking people with open and enquiring minds more readily to consider the one who thankfully never says ‘Talk to the stigmata.’