Jerry has a cross to bear

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GENTLE reader, sorry to intrude on your Sunday breakfast, but it is our duty to deliver some distasteful news. Jerry Springer the Opera is returning to these parts and the very fabric of our society is once more under threat. You will understand, of course, that this wasn't always the case. When the self-styled "operical" played to sell-out audiences of 800 a day at the Assembly Rooms during the Edinburgh Fringe of 2002, we were not to know the mortal danger we were in.

Neither were we to realise our peril when it transferred to the National Theatre in London, attracting 425,000 people of whom 50% were visiting the building for the first time and a similar number were opera novices - poor deluded fools all.

We will not be swayed by these so-called facts. It is not for us to concern ourselves with the four Olivier Awards, the favourable reviews in the Catholic Herald and the Church Times or the TV audience of 1.7 million that tuned into the BBC2 broadcast in 2005, almost twice the usual numbers for opera, every last one clearly deranged.

It is far better we brush that under the carpet because we now understand Jerry Springer the Opera to be bad. Fundamentally evil. Wicked. The first step on the road to Sodom and Gomorrah. We know this because an organisation called Christian Voice has told us so, even though few of its members have actually seen it.

For this reason, we should rubbish everything singer Valda Aviks, who has been with the show since its Battersea Arts Centre days, tells us when she defends the show. And her a Christian who sits on her church council!

"I find the show deeply moral and humanistic," says the singer who plays Zandra and Mary. "The protestors are yelling at the show's denigration of their beliefs and, frankly, it's not. What we're poking fun at is the kind of people who take a symbol and worship that, which is what happens when people worship celebrity. The protestors have totally hypocritical attitudes. How Christian is it for people to send death threats?"

How plausible she sounds. Perhaps she is in league with Richard Holloway, a man who obviously never learnt a thing about religion when he was Bishop of Edinburgh because he's now defending the right of theatres to put on the show. As chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, he seems to think his job is to encourage free expression instead of stifling it in the cradle. What's the world coming to?

"Artists have always tackled difficult and controversial subjects, and sometimes they do this in ways that offend certain sections of society," he says. "Steering a course between Britain's cherished right of free speech and the civilised desire not to offend people unnecessarily is not an easy or exact thing to do. However, our society has decided that suppressing artistic freedom is a greater danger to democracy than running the risk of offending particular sections of the community. That is why the Scottish Arts Council never attempts to censor the work it funds, and would not do so in this case were it in a position to do so."

Typical, isn't it? Next they'll be telling us Christian Voice hijacked a popular show to get its fundamentalist message across by proxy.

"The protests have absolutely nothing to do with the show," says Tom Morris, artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre when Jerry Springer the Opera was born and therefore a biased and unreliable witness. "There's no question that the people who are trying to promote extreme religious agendas scan the media for opportunities to make a fuss. No one who saw the show objected to it on Christian grounds - when we were developing it there was no controversy at all. What happened is that when it was going to go on telly they thought, 'If we make a fuss by demonstrating outside the BBC then we can get lots of media coverage.' It's very confusing because it means people go to see it with the wrong expectations."

Oh, come on. It's not even as if the work is artistically credible. Everyone knows it's just a load of rude words strung together and a few trash-culture references flung in. When singer Benjamin Lake tells us that Richard Thomas's score reminds him of Puccini, it's clear he's been brainwashed.

"When I first saw the script and there were quite a few choice words, I thought it was really not me," says Lake, who must have been coerced to play Dwight and God and to stick with the show ever since its Edinburgh run. "But then I heard the music and I thought, 'Wow! This is something quite wonderful.' It totally changed the way I perceived it."

SO ARE WE TO believe Richard Thomas is a serious artist? Come off it. "If I'd have wanted to write something blasphemous, believe me, I would have written something really blasphemous," says the composer, pathetically resorting to common sense to win his argument. "But I don't see the point. I don't think there's an audience for gratuitous blasphemy or for gratuitous swearing - because it's boring. What's hard is to write a two-hour piece of music-drama-opera and to sustain interest, surprise, enjoyment and passion."

Oh, so all of a sudden he's Mr Squeaky Clean, is he? "We use plenty of vernacular," he confesses. "But in a funny way. There's a line where one of the guests on the Jerry Springer Show sings, 'What the f***' over a descending diminished scale. At that point, you get a huge laugh of release, because people realise it's not gratuitous, it's a ridiculous and funny repetition in a way that's a parody of repetition in opera. Also, there's something very funny about incandescent anger."

And what about co-writer and director Stewart Lee? You can tell he's up to something wicked by the way he's waived his fee to allow this tour to go ahead. Surely he's not going to make out that this show is anything less than a crime against humanity?

"The title sums it up really well: it's a stupid thing given the dignity of being treated like a piece of serious art," he says in that cunningly reasonable way of his. "There is something quite operatic about American talk shows. They're big people with big emotions just like you get in an opera. I don't think of our show in terms of music theatre, because it's original, fairly serious and it isn't kitsch and camp. When it's funny it's because it's really funny about ideas and not just somebody having a funny voice or falling over."

Huh! Next he'll be kidding on that he's the victim instead of the poor Christians. "The protest did a huge amount of damage," he says. "It stopped it being performed for a year and put a lot of people out of work. Getting it back on the road, none of the creative team is being paid. And in every town we go to we fight this pointless cycle of two months of letters into local papers with people complaining about it, then it gets reviewed on a Monday night and everyone says it's marvellous and what's all the fuss about? By that time it's too late to beat the advance word.

"It has made me paranoid about what freedom of speech means if a far right pressure group can get so much media coverage without anyone checking their credentials. The only people who find it offensive are sociopaths. I don't even know any religious people who find it offensive apart from Christian Voice and they think Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment on New Orleans for having a gay parade. If they're offended, the show's probably doing something right."

• Jerry Springer the Opera, King's Theatre, Glasgow, tomorrow until Saturday; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, Mar 14 until 18; Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Apr 24-29

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