by Pat Ashworth
A satirical play about the religious faith of Blair and Bush has
polarised public opinion. Pat Ashworth asks its author about his own beliefs
ALISTAIR BEATON had expected a strong reaction from Christians to his latest
stage play. The play, Follow My Leader, is a satirical musical that
focuses on the religious beliefs of George Bush and Tony Blair, self-appointed
champions of Christianity in the Iraq war.
In fact, he received no angry responses from that quarter. Christians, he
says, recognised the play for what it was: an attack on the abuse of
Christianity rather than on the religion itself.
But the play, Beaton says, polarised and politicised the reviewers in a way
he had never encountered before. "It was written in anger, and it has, in some
incredible way, pushed outside the normal bounds of theatre. People were either
violently for or violently against it. The reviews ranged from unbelievable
raves to personal assaults on the author."
"I think you have to offend with care": Alistair Beaton feels free
to criticise Christianity because, he says, it’s "part of me, part of my life
Follow My Leader, which had its première at the Birmingham Rep in
March before going on to Hampstead in London, starts with Genesis and ends with
Revelation as it charts the development of the "war on terror". A bullish God
commissions Mr Blair to be a restraining influence on a swaggering Mr Bush,
whose speeches on peace and freedom are set against a video backdrop of war and
protest footage. Provocative song-and-dance routines such as "We’re sending you
a cluster bomb from Jesus", and, "Vote for Tony, vote for Jesus — Jesus votes
for Tony Blair" are the production’s cutting edge.
Beaton — writer of hit television shows such as
Not The Nine O’Clock News and Spitting Image, co-writer of
Drop The Dead Donkey 2002 and The Thatcher Papers, playwright of the
award-winning political satire Feelgood, and author of best-selling books such
as The Little Book of Complete Bollocks — acknowledges that there were
dual strategic aims in the invasion of Iraq. But what interested him most was
Mr Bush’s and Mr Blair’s belief that the world could be divided into black and
white, good and evil. This appeared to him to come from a very simplistic
version of Christianity.
"In a way, I find it as dangerous a version of Christianity as the version
of Islam that attacks the Twin Towers. That’s an extreme kind of statement: I
don’t think Blair or Bush would directly, in the name of their religion or
their God, order the destruction of 3000 men and women as bin Laden did," he
says. "I don’t see them as evil. I’m fascinated by how people who are probably
rather decent family men and care about their kids can take decisions that lead
to the deaths of thousands of people; and I’m interested in how religion plays
a part in that."
We are at the Nottingham Play-house, where Feelgood, Beaton’s
earlier satire on political spin, is enjoying a revival. He has come to believe
that cynicism and manipulation are less dangerous in politics than messianic
certainty is; and, watching the audience arriving, he observes: "I can see
Feelgood and enjoy myself; but the issues that My Leader
deals with are so big and terrible that it can never be just fun."
It is good politics to talk about God in America, where Mr Bush is
said to confer two great honours on those close to him: to work out with him in
the White House gym, and to pray with him. Mr Blair’s advisers will not allow
him to go public on his private religion, says Beaton. He recalls the famous
Alistair Campbell quote, "We don’t do God"; and Mr Blair’s offended anger at
the question Jeremy Paxman put to him on Newsnight: "Did you [and
Bush] pray together?"
Beaton, who used to report from the Labour Party conferences for BBC Radio
4, believes the clue to his faith has always been in Mr Blair’s language.
"Blair wraps it up, but it’s there in the moral certainty. There’s a striking
of a pose, a moral purpose that echoes the language of the Bible," he says.
"Even in his early speeches, he used expressions like ‘beacon of the world’
that had a shining city-on-the-hill feel about it, which echoed the language
and rhythms of the Bible."
Such coded use of language gives Mr Blair a moral certainty that Beaton
finds worrying. He sees a marked contrast with Margaret Thatcher, whose use of
the Bible was "so patently phoney that you didn’t care. It was clear that it
meant nothing to her," he says. He recalls that when she quoted the prayer of
St Francis of Assisi, she had had to glance down at a crib; and describes as
ludicrous her interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan as: "The best
way to help somebody lying on the other side of the road in deep distress is to
get on with making a lot of money."
Beaton comes from a Scottish Presbyterian background, and had a
Protestant education that, he says, taught pupils to hate Jews, homosexuals and
Roman Catholics, "in no particular order".
His parents were non-churchgoing, but believed it was essential that their
children go to Sunday school and to church — an experience that Beaton
remembers as "a mixture of intensity and complete lack of interest". At 15 he
was allowed to leave. He considers, though, that as a satirist he has the right
and duty to engage with Christianity in a way that he is not entitled to do
with other religions.
"I can attack the political manifestations of the Jewish state, but I don’t
think it’s for me to attack the hypocrisies of Judaism because it’s not my
culture. It’s the job of Muslims to attack the part of Islam that is
unacceptable, and of Jews to attack the parts of Judaism that are unacceptable.
I think it’s okay for me to have a go at Christianity, because even though I’m
not a Christian who goes to church, it’s part of me, part of my life and
How far can you go with use and abuse of the Bible, I ask him,
remembering how, in Follow My Leader, genuine Genesis leads gloriously
into the beasts of the fields generating T-bone steaks. Are there limits, and
would he treat the Qur’an differently? He acknowledges: "There are limits, but
they’re very difficult to define. I never want to offend religious people for
no purpose; and the way in which religion has become a vital international
issue again means that you have to choose your words carefully as a writer.
"I think you have to offend with care. I understand Islam very little; so
I’m more cautious about what I say about Islam. I’ve been criticised for this,
and it’s something I do think about: is it that one is afraid because the
reaction could be very strong? It’s unlikely that Christians would want to come
and kill somebody, but there’s a part of Islam that would consider acting
violently against someone who says the wrong thing."
Religion, he concludes, soaks into you in more ways than just whether or not
you go to church; and he expresses a degree of respect for the Reformed Church
as it manifested itself in Switzerland and Germany. "The Reformation there was
a very fierce and important undertaking, done with passion and rage and deep
levels of belief. I always feel the Church of England is the sort of black
version of the Reformed Church, and was very much to do with what Henry VIII
needed to sort out in terms of his divorce," he says. "I still find it a rather
thin gruel that’s served up in the way of faith."
He is always asked as an author whether satire changes anything. "The answer
is, you don’t know. You have to be very modest about it. But if Bush and Blair
are re-elected, then I think the world will be a very dangerous place. If I’ve
changed one person’s mind with this play, it would be enough."