UK High Court Rules Jerry Springer: The Opera Is Not Blasphemous

Classic Arts News   UK High Court Rules Jerry Springer: The Opera Is Not Blasphemous
A Christian evangelical group in Great Britain has failed in an attempt to brand the controversial musical Jerry Springer: The Opera as legally blasphemous.

In a Hugh Court ruling issued on Dec. 5, two judges refused the group Christian Voice permission to have theater producer Jonathan Thoday and Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC (which telecast the work in 2005), criminally prosecuted for blasphemy.

That 2005 broadcast was plagued by controversy when conservative Christians mounted a protest campaign. Christian Voice, one of the organizations leading the protests, had described the musical as "offensive, spiteful, systematic mockery and willful denigration of Christian belief," and demonstrators picketed the BBC's London offices. (In the second act of Jerry Springer: The Opera, the eponymous talk show host descends to hell for a special version of his program, in which Jesus Christ — depicted in an unorthodox guise somewhat at odds with his traditional image — is one of the show's warring guests, along with Satan, the Virgin Mary and Adam and Eve.)

In their ruling, Lord Justice Hughes and Mr. Justice Collins said, "As a whole [Jerry Springer; The Opera] was not and could not reasonably be regarded as aimed at, or an attack on, Christianity or what Christians held sacred."

Christian Voice had asked the High Court in London to overturn a decision by a lower court, which refused to issue a criminal summons against Mr. Thompson. The judges in the High Court said that the earlier decision was correct to conclude that no jury could convict Mr. Thompson on the evidence provided. The High Court judges have refused Christian Voice permission to appeal and have left it to the law lords in the House of Lords, the highest court in the land, to decide if they will hear the case.

The BBC said in a statement that it was "pleased" with the ruling.

Previously, Christian Voice had made a formal complaint to the British oversight body OFCOM over the Springer telecast; in May of 2005 OFCOM found that the BBC had not violated any regulations. The uproar did, however, cause a 2005 U.K. tour of the show to be postponed for nine months, not beginning until January 2006.

Featuring music by Richard Thomas with book and lyrics by Stewart Lee and Thomas, Jerry Springer: The Opera began as a "scratch night" event in 2001, then underwent a number of workshops before making a splash — also in a concert version — at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2002. Famed stage director Nicholas Hytner picked up the work for his first production as artistic director of London's National Theatre.

The opera extended twice at the National's Lyttleton Theatre, where it was recorded live for a Sony Music UK double CD release. The work then transferred to the West End's Cambridge Theatre — where it won the 2004 Olivier Award for Best Musical.

A semi-staged version of the piece, Jerry Springer: The Opera in Concert , will play Jan. 29 and 30 at Carnegie Hall. Jason Moore (who staged the popular Broadway puppet musical Avenue Q) will direct, with musical direction by Stephen Oremus (of the long-running Broadway hit Wicked). Starring as Jerry Springer will be Harvey Keitel.

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