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Jerry Springer opera writers battle censorship

Jerry Springer opera writers battle censorship

The writers of profanity-laden Jerry Springer--The Opera are angry. The creators of the show that caused a record number of complaints when aired on British television say religious censorship is in danger of strangling the arts. "I am angry that 60,000 people made a judgment without even bothering to see it," said composer Richard Thomas. Comedian Stewart Lee, who wrote the script, is also fuming because a British provincial stage tour was postponed after a third of the venues pulled out due to fears about protests.

The musical is based on Jerry Springer's brash talk show whose lurid topics include "Honey, I'm a Call Girl" and "Bring on the Bisexuals." In the show that was garlanded with theater awards, viewers could watch a diaper fetishist confess all to his true love, catch a tap dance routine by the Ku Klux Klan, and see Jesus and the Devil launch into a swearing tirade against each other.

As Christian protesters set fire to their television licenses outside the BBC, the publicly funded broadcaster defended its right to air the show on television earlier this year despite being inundated with complaints. Lee, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to do a show with Thomas about the trials and tribulations of staging the opera, said: "At the time the Christian right were feeling a bit left out as the Sikhs had managed to get a play banned. They wanted a political football to kick around." The censorship row came less than a month after hundreds of angry Sikhs stormed a theater in the central English city of Birmingham and forced it to scrap a play depicting sexual abuse in a Sikh temple.

U.K. Christian pressure groups have less political clout than their counterparts in the U.S. Christian right, but Lee and Thomas think the chances of the opera now making it to Broadway are slim. "The Americans are more nervous than before," Thomas said, adding: "When the Right in America protest, it ends in a global conflict with thousands of civilian deaths. I am going to write a show about the Taliban called The Taliban Can Can."

But their bitterness is not confined to the religious right. The U.K. government is trying to pass through Parliament legislation to stamp out religious hatred with a bill that gives all faiths equal protection. Muslims welcome it as long overdue, but critics see it as a threat to civil liberties. Comedians say it smacks of political correctness and will stop them from making religious jokes. "I think it is unenforceable," Lee said. "And if you say to comedians you can't do something, they go ahead and do it." British Indian comedian Paul Chowdhry, also performing in Edinburgh, complained: "That means I would get locked up with hardened criminals just for making a joke."

Lee argued that such legislation could even end up discouraging funding for stage or film projects with religious themes. At the Fringe, the world's largest arts festival, comedians have not shied away from talking about last month's London bomb attacks by four U.K. Muslim suicide bombers that killed 52 people. "A lot of the young Muslim comedians are discussing it," Lee said. "That is really great because they have an interesting perspective as a result of the fact that anywhere they go in London, people are now frightened of them." (Paul Majendie, via Reuters)

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