Robbie Low on Jerry Springer and all that
(Editorial warning: This article contains reports of strong language, degrading behaviour and blasphemy. If you are easily offended by graphic accounts of how your television licence fee is spent you may prefer to skip the following and turn to the next article.)
It was thirty five years ago. I had just gone up to Cambridge. In the wake of the massive Marxist inspired student disorders in Europe and the ‘Greek Week’ riots in town, revolution was in the air. The President of the Cambridge Student Union, a public school boy, son of high ranking civil servants, was agitating to get a leading German Trotskyite agitator into Britain to aid the cause. Liberal democratic capitalist, and still Christian, Western Europe trembled on the brink before the inevitable tide of history swept it away.
Word went round town that there was to be an occupation (‘sit-in’) of a major university administrative building the following morning in order to paralyse the oppressive machine which offered us free further education to the highest standard in the world. Not being an early riser in those days and, conservative by nature, I arrived about lunchtime driven by curiosity rather than conviction. It transpired that the only other bona fide member of the working class there, the porter, had been beaten up on the way in by the exuberant thugs of the new classless order. You know what they say, ‘if you can’t raise the consciousness of a proletarian then remove it.’
The hall was filled with the gilded children of the middle and upper classes, shabbily dressed and many of them with consciousnesses lowered by breathtaking inhalations of narcotics. A young man in a boiler suit and neanderthal hair cut staggered onto the stage and took the microphone. We awaited his orders. He surveyed us with a lascivious smile and then he spoke. ‘F…’. A long pause of puzzlement ensued. Was it an expletive or a command to the faithful? Had he forgotten what he wanted to say or was he exercising glorious free speech in this bastion of respectability? ‘F…’. He said it again. A moment’s delay and people cheered. ‘F…’, he repeated. More cheering. He whispered it. He shouted it. He sang it. He danced it. He spun the word out. He tasted it. He spat it. He bathed himself in it for something like five minutes of orgiastic self indulgence. He uttered no other word, just ‘F’, and each ejaculation brought new ecstasies of cheering. We’re talking the cream of the country’s intelligentsia here, I should remind you.
This scene came back to my mind last month for two reasons. The first is that the President of the Students’ Union who was so keen on bringing violent agitators in has just been given the job of keeping them out. He is the new Home Secretary. No doubt, like his colleagues, the Foreign Secretary and several others, he was then, ironically, on MI5’s list of undesirables. But, like the rest of us, he has moved on. Revolution is, after all, much less attractive when you are the one in power.
The second is that I now wonder, more poignantly, what happened to the creative artist in the boiler suit. Did Comrade ‘Effer’ get a hair cut and become an accountant or were his undoubted comedic and theatrical gifts snapped up by the BBC? If they weren’t then I hope he will sue the Corporation for plagiarism. If our boiler-suited comrade watched, ‘Jerry Springer-the Opera’-the show that made the BBC complaint lines go into meltdown- he will have recognised that 95% of the script was stolen from his inspired monologue all those years ago. Even in Comrade ‘Effers’ wildest revolutionary dreams he could not have imagined being paid by the BBC for repeatedly befouling the air, nor would he, to his credit, have pretended that it was high art. He was clearly born out of his time.
There is probably only one thing that proponents and opponents of the broadcasting of ‘Jerry Springer-the Opera’ would agree on and that is that it is a cultural milestone. For the former it is a new apogee of free speech and dramatic social commentary, for the latter it is a sharp downward turn into the abyss. From conversations over the last few days, I am aware that some readers will be fully conversant with the facts, others will still not have heard of ‘Jerry Springer’ and the majority will have picked up on a few outrageous headlines. So if the cognoscenti will bear with me I will give a little background.
The actual Jerry Springer Show is misleadingly called ‘Reality T.V.’. People, usually poor whites or ‘trailer trash’ as the Americans charmlessly call them, come on to Springer for, what Andy Warhol prophetically dubbed, their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’. They confess to infidelities, depravities, addictions and derelictions. This is all spiced up by the audience, who cheer and boo their virtues and vices, and the presence of their partners, lovers, children and various other betrayed parties. The language is ripe though it is always beeped out and, as often as not, violence is only prevented by the security team. An average Springer show would rejoice in a title like, ‘My transvestite mum had an affair with my gay boyfriend’. Over this circus of voyeurism, violence, public depravity and endless obscenity Springer, whose own enthusiasm for debauchery is a matter of public record, presides as a schmaltzing ‘counsellor’ and provocateur. Springer himself is a charming and warm cult figure and adored by his fans. He is, in many ways, the leading spokesperson on amoral America. If you wish to watch you can subscribe to satellite TV and tune in.
About three years ago some bright spark thought it would be fun to write a musical based on the show. Obviously the obscenities couldn’t be beeped out in a theatre and there was a further twist. Springer would visit Hell and try to reconcile the ultimate dysfunctional family – God, Jesus, Mary and Satan. Oblivious to the content most Christians and Muslims were unlikely attendees of the show. In the autumn however, the BBC announced it was going to broadcast the whole thing- exciting, daring, groundbreaking stuff. Christian groups started to investigate and the protests began. A record 50,000+ protests were lodged. The BBC broadcast the show anyway.
Does it matter? Well, yes it does and for a wide range of reasons encompassing public broadcasting, the Church, free speech and the dangers of civil disorder.
I have reluctantly concluded that there is no way to get across the seriousness of this case without direct allusions to the show. It is in the light of these examples that you may make a judgement on the comments that follow.
The show opens to a standard Springer theme – a man, his wife, his mistress, his prostitute and finally his transvestite partner. The language (3,000 plus uses of the ‘F word’, 300 uses of the ‘C’ word) is mere statistics. Each profanity is uttered with venom and hysterical viciousness. The first scene’s dreary perversity ends with a rallying cry to sodomitical necrophilia.
Next up is a large, camp, wobbly fat black man who rips his clothes off in front of his fiancée to reveal that he is wearing a nappy. Cue the delights of soiling himself and an operatic discourse on human filth. (More of him later).
A hideous wife-beating creature warns his errant woman to ‘give in to Jesus or alternatively die a horrible death’ amid expletives and accusations of obscene acts. The woman’s mother, wearing a big cross and clearly as bonkers as all Christians surely are, tells her daughter, ‘everything you touch turns to cancer…I hope you die’. And so it carries on, a monotony of foul language, filthy acts and humourless depravity. If you like relentless obscenity set to a pastiche of operatic styles then this is the show for you. But surely even those who might be entertained by this for five minutes cannot sustain their enthusiasm for this solitary ‘joke’ for two hours.
The second half is, of course, what it is all about. Springer, for reasons too tedious to explain, enters Hell to sort out the mess. As a concession to the Churches Media Council, the BBC prefaced this by a notice informing us, ‘Viewers need a strong grasp of Judeo-Christian mythology’. It is practically the only real joke in the show.
And Hell it was. Satan (and Adam and Eve for that matter) want an apology from God and from the ‘hypocrite son of the fascist tyrant on high’ i.e. Jesus. An extended duet between Satan and ‘Jesus’, who is the same self-soiling pervert in a nappy from the first half, consists almost entirely of the ‘F’ word. Satan offers ‘Jesus’ a ‘little biscuit from me’ (the Host) and the Saviour responds with obscenity. ‘Jesus’ then admits to being gay (it is part of the liberal canon that all famous dead people were gay) and is obsessed with the crucifixion to the obvious exclusion of others’ suffering. He is a whining self- regarding wimp. Matter deteriorate further when Eve puts her hands in ‘Jesus’ nappy and starts to masturbate him. Cue entrance of the Blessed Virgin Mary who turns out to be the mad vindictive Christian mother whom we last saw in the first half howling at the moon. Mary enters to a chorus of, ‘Raped by an angel, raped by God’ and wants to know where was God ‘when the condom split?’ God the Father descends on a swing, admits his inadequacy and invites Jerry to sit on his right hand and be his guide. ‘Jesus’ is told to ‘grow up and put some f…ing clothes on’. The chorus then parodies the Mass by singing ‘Jerry Eleison’ and we are informed that ‘nothing is wrong, nothing is right….and in conclusion, F… you, F… you all’. Amorality rules OK.
There is much much more but we have all suffered enough. What matters is the issues raised by this extraordinary attack on the faith. Is it an accident that out of all the fantastic shows in the West End, the BBC chose this one? That the BBC saw this as a test case against the faith was demonstrated by its refusal to budge in the face of record complaints. The Corporation defended its production as ‘a serious work that explores difficult ideas with a strong underlying moral purpose’. The Director General, Mark Thompson, defended it and said that, as a practising Catholic, he could find nothing blasphemous in it. (Memo to Director General – Buy a dictionary). It’s not that one minds disagreeing with the self appointing cultural elite but one does expect a better class of lie. Blasphemy is, by definition, ‘to speak impiously or contemptuously of God or sacred things’. Thompson is not alone in his intellectual conceit. The Church Times letters column was full of liberated clergy who ‘saw the joke’ and were depressed by ghastly small-minded evangelicals trying to defend Jesus. One columnist described them as heretics. Of course the politics in the BBC were crucial. Thompson had just managed to abort ‘Popetown’, a vicious cartoon series attacking the present Pope. The professional atheists at the Beeb were not about to lose another pet anti-Christian project. (Over the last fifteen years orthodox spokesmen for Christianity have been all but eliminated from the airways except as heavily edited interview fodder and Aunt Sallys). But this is not just a Christian problem the broadcast of ‘Springer’ goes against the BBC’s founding principles and its Charter. It also calls into further question the role of the licence fee. Why should people fund a cultural parasite that is so abusive to its customers? The protestors burning their licences outside ‘Broadcasting House’ may prove to be just the tip of the iceberg.
Little and Large
More puzzling than the predictable intransigence of the BBC has been the role of the Churches. Most of the work was left to a small evangelical group, ‘Christian Voice’ and its director, Stephen Green. Apart from Bishop Nigel McCulloch I have been unable to find a comment from any Archbishop, Bishop or leader of any denomination. They have carefully hidden behind the Churches Media Council. So I phoned the CMC Director Peter Blackman, for the Council’s view, which newspapers had led me to believe was in favour of the broadcast. Blackman, a former P.R man in the banking industry and former spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Brentwood, assured me there had been ‘robust discussions’ on ‘a few aspects’ and the BBC had agreed ‘unprecedented labelling’ (i.e. filthy language warnings and presumably the Judeo-Christian mythology bit.). The Council was divided. He, as Director, thought the show was ‘an excellent modern morality play’ and had ‘high artistic merit’. It was, apparently, a devastating critique of ghastly reality T.V. (Springer himself, a shrewd media cookie, thought the show was an enormous compliment. I know whose judgement I would back.) Blackman compared ‘Jerry Springer’ to William Blake and equated the row with the objections to ‘Godspell’. He did not consider it blasphemous. We agreed to differ.
Mr. Blackman seemed much more concerned by the behaviour of ‘Christian Voice’ who, getting nowhere with the BBC or, presumably, Mr. Blackman, had posted BBC executives’ phone numbers on their website. ‘Abusive phone calls’ and ‘death threats’ had, according to the following day’s papers, caused the BBC bigwigs to ‘flee their homes in terror’. The result was that most papers ignored the disgusting nature of ‘Springer’ and vented their ire on ‘Christian Voice’ instead. I think I offended Mr. Blackman by suggesting that this convenient alarm had all the hallmarks of black propaganda and news management. But, sure enough, forty eight hours later, Jana Bennett, Director of Television, came on air to set the record straight. As a BBC insider told me privately, ‘There were no security guards, no fleeing executives, no death threats – just a few unpleasant phone calls and there is no suggestion that they came from the Christian protestors’. All clergymen are familiar with ‘the green ink brigade’ but everyone knows that it’s only in bad novels that serious hitmen phone you up first. ‘Christian Voice’ had been naïve but the solidarity of the media in defending their own was an object lesson in what Chrisitans are up against in what was once a Christian country.
Strangely enough, though perhaps not, the most understanding commentator was the press man for the Muslim Council. He agreed the show was deeply offensive and deliberately designed to offend. He said Muslims supported the Christian community in defending against attacks on Christ. The BBC had no right to use taxpayers’ money in this way. It was, he said, ‘a very foolish organisation that set out to offend those who provide its funding’. He agreed that the Corporation seems to disparage Christians more easily than most other groups. His sole criticism was that he thought publishing the BBC telephone numbers was wrong. I asked his advice on how Christians could make their protest more effective. He was firm that, in the wake of the Rushdie affair, everyone should keep within the law. A Christian would not disagree with this but we both know that we have only needed one fatwah to ensure that the brave souls in the media are careful never to criticise Islam. What, I asked him, would have been the response of Muslims to a similar ‘Jerry Springer’ treatment of the Prophet? ‘Furious’, he replied and he offered me an old Persian couplet,
‘Say what you like about God but be very careful what you say about the Prophet’.
For Christians, with their Bishops almost entirely silent and their representative bodies cheery collaborators with the secular culture the outlook is not encouraging. So…..what now? Clearly, for Christians, pulling the BBC executives off their bicycles in Islington and ritually sacrificing them in the street is not an immediate option. Letters to MPs? Support the ‘Christian Voice’ and ‘Mediawatch’ protests? Withhold the licence fee? One thing we must do is to demand orthodox spokesmen on our representative bodies and an end to the marginalisation and exclusion of serious believers in the media. The BBC, like the C. of E., belongs to the nation not just to the morally handicapped who seem, all too often, to have slipped into the key jobs.
Robbie Low lives in Cornwall