Last week, Stephen Green of conservative religious group Christian Voice failed in his attempt to have the BBC charged with blasphemy for its broadcast of Jerry Springer The Opera. Stewart Lee, who devised the musical with composer Richard Thomas, spoke to Index on Censorship about religion, free speech and self censorship
Index on Censorship: Were you surprised by Christian Voice’s campaign?
Stewart Lee: I was initially surprised, when all this started, to find that we had a Christian right in the UK at all. Having found out who they were and what they were like by looking on their site – something no journalists appeared to have done – I wasn’t surprised they went this far. It’s all about publicity. I don’t know if they really believe that Jesus was in a nappy in the show, but even if they know that isn’t the case it’s a good story to stir people up. Stephen Green of Christian Voice was explicit about the fact that he thought the Bezhti protests in Birmingham in 2004 meant that the Sikhs had stolen a march on him. Just as the exact content of the Danish Mohammed cartoons was lied about by extremists Muslims to whip up a frenzy, I suspect Green deliberately misrepresented JSTO to do the same.
IoC: Do writers (and perhaps specifically comedy writers) set out with an intention to offend?
SL: Some do. And to be honest, I think that can be a valid way of working. But with us the offence caused to supposed Christians was largely incidental to the main thrust of the piece. If Richard Thomas and I had set out to offend Christians, obviously the end result would have been far more graphic and considered. I used to find it quite insulting that people thought we’d set out to offend Christians and that this charming and thoughtful piece of musical comedy was the best we could come up with. As an exercise, in my stand-up show the following year, 90s Comedian, I did set out to conceive of the most religiously offensive image I could, but was still unable to write anything that didn’t at least have some redeeming features, some meaning, some point.
IoC:Conversely, is there a certain type of person who sets out with an intention to be offended?
SL:Yes. And with the likes of Stephen Green it’s all tied up with this idea that minorities get a better deal.
IoC: Did the fuss over JSTO cause you to think twice when you sat down to write again? In the current climate of religious sensitivity, people self censor to the detriment of their work?
SL:Well, 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. 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.
IoC:The judgement this week related only to the television broadcast of JSTO. Do you think greater protection should’ve been offered to the stage production?
SL:The problem was that at the time we were planning to tour 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. I think the judge here saw through the fact that Christian Voice is a far-right agitator group first and foremost and didn’t want to see them exploit our work for political ends.
Stewart Lee’s current show ‘41st Best Stand Up Ever’ is at the Soho Theatre until Dec 22.