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Wednesday, February 10, 2021
Jerry Springer — The Opera Live at Cambridge Theatre Jan 8, 10.00pm, BBC2
Nothing is more likely to revive a flagging and esoteric artform than notoriety, and with a record 47,000 complaints to the BBC before it was even screened, Jerry Springer — the Opera has probably done more for opera in modern times than any number of Magic Flutes and Traviatas, even if the music wasn't quite that good. From the moment the curtain went up and the choir opened with 'She gave good head, slurp slurp, that chick with a dick' you just knew this wasn't art wearing a black tie, more a leather gimp outfit.
Who would have thought of doing a musical send-up of confessional TV? In retrospect, it was begging to be done, for this was a sassy, strutting, lewd and outrageous work of genius. Amidst the riotous satire of Act 1 was a man wearing a nappy proclaiming to his wife 'I want to be your ba-by!', a song and dance act from the Ku Klux Klan that was a nod to 'Springtime for Hitler' in Mel Brooks' The Producers, and a serial polygamist wife-beating trailer-trash whom the singing 'audience' lovingly taunt as an 'inbred three-nippled cousin-fucker'. Even commercial breaks are included on high floating screens, with the choir snapping off superb one-liners for liposuction, fast food and Prozac. Buried in the farce there are poignant hints of the real tragedy behind the lives of people who go on these shows, as a woman snarls to her psychotically religious mother 'You are just a sack of misery / Everything you touch turns to cancer', and vicious, stabbing sarcasm against the couch potato culture that has supplanted vitality with vicariousness: 'We eat, excrete and watch TV / And you are there for us, Jerry'. At times the show achieves genuine, almost Ole Man River pathos, as for instance when overweight trailer-trash wife who wants to be a pole-dancer sings a beautiful aria in these words:
‘I don't give a fuck no more / if people think I'm just a whore. / I wanna do some living / Cos I'm so tired of dying / I just wanna dance.’
Most of the complaints, by people who hadn't seen the show (of course), were about swear words (naturally), amplified by the Daily Mail (who else?) using the ingenious device of multiplying each word by every member of the 27 strong choir who sing it, thus achieving a total of 8,000. The rest of the fuss was over Act 2, a somewhat superfluous attempt to string out an already worked idea, which featured a dying Jerry Springer being forced by the Devil to conduct a show in Hell in an attempt to reconcile Satan with Jesus. Jerry, alarmed, turns briefly into WC Fields: 'I don't want to serve in Hell. At this stage in my career that would be a sideways move.' The reconciliation doesn't work, of course, as Springer had warned: 'I don't solve problems, I just televise them' and in classic confessional tradition degenerates into a multiway row between Jesus, Satan, God, the Virgin Mary and the audience. All very amusing, but the Christian objectors were too egocentric to see that this wasn't really the point of the opera at all, even if the religious hysteria that resulted certainly did wonders for publicity. The point was to confront Springer, Scrooge-like, with the consequences of his show, the real broken lives out of which he profits. How does he sleep at night, we are invited to ask? Only mildly chastened by an harangue from a dead woman with a monkey-wrench in her skull, he muses: 'A person with less broadcasting experience might feel responsible', but his real philosophy is summed up by his warm-up man (aka the Devil): 'You and I both know they're scum' and in the event he is exonerated even by the scum themselves: 'Jerry is not to blame / With or without Jerry's show / We'd all end up the same'.
The BBC deserves particular credit for not quailing under the religious onslaught, including direct action threats and a private prosecution for blasphemy, especially given the recent decision to pull another play about an abusive Imam after complaints from Moslems. London readers can see this sell-out show live, if they can get a ticket, while the rest of us have to hope the BBC has got the cojones to screen it again. It may not analyse class, it may not offer hope for the future, it may be just a tad elitist in its targets, but this is blistering stuff all the same, and satire doesn't get better. It's also the best performance David Soul's ever given.