Lee: I wouldn't do another Jerry Springer

'Whim of idiots' will hit art

Stewart Lee says he wouldn’t work on anything controversial on the scale of Jerry Springer: The Opera again – because ‘idiots’ could too easily close it down.

The musical, which Lee had spent years developing, suffered financially when fundamentalist Christians orchestrated a campaign against what they decided was an offensive show.

And even though three High Court judges last week threw out a bid by the ultra-conservative Christian Voice group to bring a private blasphemy prosecution, Lee said the furore would stop people investing time in controversial shows,

‘There would be no point writing anything with any religious content which would require big box office receipts or public funding to float it, as a fuss like this could wipe it out instantly,’ he told free-speech group Index On Censorship.

The comic first starting working on the show with composer Richard Thomas in 2001 at the Battersea Arts Centre. Versions were staged at the 2002 Edinburgh Fringe and at the National Theatre in 2003 before transferring to the West End.

But after the opera was screened on BBC Two, a Christian Voice campaign targeted regional theatres where the show was scheduled to tour.

Lee said: ‘At the time, the show the Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was hanging around in its unmodified form, and Christian Voice were able to exploit the woolly wording to give theatres the impression they could be prosecuted for staging JSTO, so we lost loads of venues and the tour went ahead but was not financially viable.

‘So yes. I'd never become involved to such a degree on something on such a big scale if there was the possibility of it being effectively closed down like this.

‘I can't afford not to be paid for years and years of work on the whim of idiots. That said, no one ever saw this coming. What people take offence at, or chose to be offended by, will always be unpredictable.’

Christian Voice’s Stephen Green, who describes Lee as a ‘militant atheist’ said he will be appealing against last week’s High Court decision.

He said: ‘The law as the court has interpreted it now gives carte blanche to broadcasters and theatre companies to blaspheme, while the press still may not. That cannot be logical, let alone right. In effect the guts of the law against blasphemy have been torn out, and not even by Parliament, but by judicial decree.’

Green is not so cautious about avoiding causing offence himself. He calls Islam ‘dangerous and implacable’, describes the Koran as ‘hate speech’, and has circulated anti-gay material making claims such as: ‘Many homosexual men will have been interfered with at a young age, and be sexually attracted to boys of around that age as a result.’

Published: 10 Dec 2007

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