Juliet Dunlop: Jade Goody’s life and death deserve opera

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THE name Jade Goody feels like it belongs to another age. In the dustier confines of the great celebrity vault of fame, on a shelf marked “Tragicomic: Early Twenty-first Century”, it sits alongside the flawed, the dysfunctional and the briefly famous.

Run a finger across the bulging files headed “Tabloid Fodder”, and Goody’s name jostles for space next to the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Kerry Katona: two fine examples of the slow motion celebrity car crash.

But while the once-great Gazza and the less great Katona live on to write another autobiography, Goody was elevated to the rank of tragic role model when she succumbed to cancer in 2009. The 27-year-old may have been a media creation, a Big Brother spin-off entirely of her time and completely without talent, but even her death was an event. It ensured Goody joined a select band of damaged female icons; one led by the ultimate queen of people’s hearts, Princess Diana. So perhaps it is fitting that the “Bermondsey princess” has inspired an opera. It’s not a bad way to tackle someone’s life and in the case of Goody, it seems strangely appropriate.

The work, entitled And The Crowd (wept), is a low-key, serious-sounding production. Playwright Afsaneh Gray said she was largely inspired by the endless press coverage of Goody’s battle with cervical cancer, but the opera also tackles the more unpleasant aspects of Goody’s character and the race row which threatened to end her lucrative career.

“I was a medical secretary just at the time when Jade Goody got ill with cancer, and the two women I was working with were coming in every day with the Sun and OK! magazine. And they took really opposing ideas of her. One said: ‘Poor Jade, she’s a mother-of-two and she’s dying of cancer.’ And the other said: ‘She’s a racist, she deserves everything she gets.’ Everyone has an opinion about her.”

Whether that’s still the case is debatable; Goody is slipping from the public imagination. But while this year’s eagerly-awaited film about Diana risks the path of impersonation, Goody’s short life seems suited to the sweeping highs and lows of the stage. Three actresses will portray the reality show contestant, alongside a pair of commentators who’ll praise and criticise her. A narrator will provide the all-important background – Goody’s path from notoriety to national tragedy.

It should work. Everything about Goody was exaggerated – from her accent to her surgically enhanced body. She was loud, common, complicated, misunderstood, hated, loved, then hated and loved all over again. And her death, just like her life, was entirely played out in public.

It’s easy to forget the impact Goody made when she first burst on to television screens. The producers picked her because she was “real”, uninhibited and working-class. And she was hated for all those reasons. Goody was bullied and picked on by the press. When she entered the Big Brother house she was a “pretty dental nurse, 20, from London.” But before long she was a “hippo”, then a “baboon”. The Sun launched a campaign to “vote out the pig”. Another tabloid said the comparison was “insulting – to pigs.” Inside the Big Brother house her main function as she put it, was to be an “escape goat”. She was so unpopular, Channel 4 was said to be considering smuggling her out of the country for her own safety.

Yet Goody, who came fourth and was met with chants of “burn the pig” when she emerged from the house, turned her experience into something positive. Viewers picked up on her vulnerability and the lousy childhood. Soon, her transformation from hate figure into plucky Everywoman was complete. It all fell apart of course, but then she was saved by the manner of her death.

That’s what makes Goody a braver, more interesting character than any of us gave her credit for. Her story already had all the hardship and drama it needed. Fame simply added to the cartoonish highs and lows. The sad end was already sad; it was just part of the show. And while Goody may not be the first celebrity to inspire an opera, she is possibly one of the most interesting. She was the poster girl for talentless celebrity. Her life was a soap opera. Why can’t her death be an opera?