Friday, March 24, 2006

A Night at the Opera

(Note - after this piece was published, I received an e-mail purporting to be from David Soul. In subsequent debate, my e-mailer proved to be the most tenacious opponent I have ever had. If it did come from Mr. Soul, then he's a man worthy of respect, because he never gave up on what he believed in; and showbusiness's gain was politics' loss.)

Commentary by Martin Kelly
January 13, 2005

The flawed hero is a staple of high, and sometimes low, drama. There are few sites more tragic than seeing a very capable, talented and intelligent man, a man with much to offer, make choices so bad that he becomes a caricature of what he could have become, thus diminishing all that he has previously achieved.

Sounds like the stuff of opera.

On January 8, BBC Television broadcast ‘Jerry Springer the Opera’, a decision that has generated a controversy worthy of an opera itself.

The piece started life as a 2001 workshop on opera writing at London’s Battersea Arts Centre. It was performed to great acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival, where it received the imprimatur of its subject, before transferring to the National Theatre and thence to the Cambridge Theatre in London’s West End, where it has been a smash.

It is very rare for a work still being performed in London to be broadcast during its run. The BBC’s motives for doing so are opaque, to say the least.

Springer’s TV show is so bad that it’s easy to forget his other real achievements, becoming Mayor of Cincinnati in his early ‘30’s and winning seven Emmy Awards for his serious journalism. There is no doubt that he is a man of great ability, which, like the Emperor Tiberius, has relatively late in life been directed towards the exultation of the base. It is sad that Springer will some day only be remembered for that garbage talk show when it is by far the least of his achievements.

The same can be said of the man portraying him on stage, David Soul. It’s easy to forget that Soul was once not only one of the world’s biggest TV stars, but at the same time he was also one of its most successful recording artistes. The man whose talent burst on to the screen as a chillingly vicious vigilante in ‘Magnum Force’ has made his home in the UK for the last several years, after overcoming well-documented personal problems, but he’d better be careful because if this is the best gig he can get he’ll end his career opening supermarkets in Clacton-on-Sea.

The language used in this piece is foul. This is perhaps not surprising – after all, it’s based on the Jerry Springer show- but it was too much even for my hardened Glaswegian ears. It would be too much even for HBO or Fox. The first act is a straight pastiche of an episode of the show, and ends with, I kid you not, a troupe of tap dancers dressed up as the KKK. ‘Springtime for Hitler’ has nothing on this.

However, it is the second act that has been the focus of controversy. The character of Springer descends into Hell and is called upon by Satan to hold a show for him. I didn’t hang around for that, but it is reported to contain imagery of God the Father, Our Lord and Our Lady that, in the language of the BBC, ‘some viewers may find offensive’.

Why would the BBC be broadcasting a show that’s in the middle of its run? In my recollection there has never been another instance of a West End show being broadcast while theatre staff are still taking bookings for it at the box-office. There must be something about this show setting it apart from all others currently running that has made the BBC feel it is worthy of broadcast. The only things that make it different from other West End shows are, firstly, it’s a pastiche on the career of a major TV celebrity of minor cultural worth, and secondly, it contains offensive anti- Christian religious imagery.

You decide.

For several days beforehand, the UK’s evangelicals were picketing the BBC and burning their TV licenses. It was not reported whether any of them had ever picketed the Cambridge Theatre. However, the newspapers the following day reported that some BBC executives had received threats which had resulted in them calling in security guards or leaving their homes altogether. There is no reason to believe that these claims are false.

In December, a play written by a Sikh, which portrayed a rape in a Sikh temple, was closed when a Sikh mob stormed the theatre in Birmingham where it was being performed. There has been much wringing of hands over this incident, but if one criticises those whose religious beliefs lead them to close down a theatre as part of a mob, then one must also criticise those who call themselves ‘Christian’ who threaten TV executives because they plan a broadcast that might be offensive. The fact that the executives are in the wrong in no way justifies thuggery.

There wasn’t much else better on the other channels. BBC Scotland was showing one of the occasional travelogues that Billy Connolly films when he’s on tour, this time from New Zealand. They all follow the same pattern – Billy goes whale watching (‘This is magic! This is brilliant! I love this!’); Billy goes to a Maori gathering (‘This is magic! This is brilliant! I love this!’), et cetera, all interspersed with footage of his stage show.

Billy Connolly can be a very funny man. However, he is foul-mouthed, his humour is largely scatological, the format of his shows lets him hold forth on his own anti-religious beliefs and all these qualities they have all been on display for the benefit of viewers of BBC Scotland, at their own expense.
Not much difference from one side to the other, none of it funny and all of it farce.