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Radio review: The Reunion and Great Lives

18 August 2023


The writers and cast of Jerry Springer: The opera were brought back together in The Reunion (Radio 4, Sunday)

The writers and cast of Jerry Springer: The opera were brought back together in The Reunion (Radio 4, Sunday)

AMONG the customary luvvie banter, there came in The Reunion (Radio 4, Sunday) a significant revelation. Kirsty Wark was hosting the writers and cast of Jerry Springer: The opera, the show which, in the early 2000s, progressed rapidly from Battersea to Edinburgh to the National Theatre, found more than a million viewers on BBC2, and from there went on tour, pursued by crowds of protesters. The revelation was not that the participants were surprised by the fury of their opponents — though they might have anticipated some push-back when a show notorious for its depiction of Christian figures was rewarded with licence-payer funds; rather, it was that Jerry Springer himself — who had always publicly praised the show — was secretly incensed.

One of the co-writers, Stewart Lee, told the story. Springer visited the show in Edinburgh and was delighted by the first half. But, with Act Two, when the action moves to a cartoonish Hell, a message emerges which Springer found deeply insulting. As one lyric has it, “Nothing is wrong, nothing is right.” The moral relativism, Springer declared, was tantamount to Holocaust denial.

The anecdote passed without further reference by Ms Wark’s guests; nor did Mr Lee, in the course of a lengthy vilification of his Christian critics (which included a riff on the involvement of Tufton Street lobbyists), find the opportunity to address this most damning of accusations. It is one thing to bat away those faith-affiliated protesters: “nice people” who had all apparently been manipulated by Stephen Green and Christian Voice. In an ironic twist, the threat to freedom of speech posed by Mr Green and others backfired, and led to the abolition of the Blasphemy Act. But the objection raised by the show’s real-life hero deserves more respect.

In a world in which institutions are furiously decolonising, it’s a brave man who makes as his pick for Great Lives (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) Sir Stamford Raffles. The name alone is redolent of imperialist swagger, though to expunge it from contemporary culture would require interventions into worlds as various as hospitality, entomology, and horse racing. Matthew Gould was that man; and, as the chief executive of the Zoological Society of London, he has cause to celebrate the man who, back in 1826, founded his organisation. Mr Gould tried his best to make the case for greatness, while acknowledging the “problematic” aspects of Sir Stamford’s career. He was, we heard, a man simultaneously behind and ahead of his time, a pioneer driven by “a genuine desire to understand the world . . . but also to make sure there is a British stamp on it”. Has ever a conjunction had to do such ideological heavy-lifting?

One cannot blame Mr Gould his circumspection. The expert historian invited to join him on the show was a professor of SOAS, University of London, who had no such desire to take the good with the bad. We were left with a confusing picture of a man supposedly in cahoots with slave-owners who nevertheless was refused burial in his preferred parish graveyard because of his vigorous campaigning against slavery.

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