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Blasphemy in the UK: A mini history

Steve Tomkins

Rib Ticklers (1921)
John William Gott was a trouser salesman from Bradford, leader of the Freethought Socialist League, and the last person to be imprisoned for blasphemy in the UK. He was tried in 1921 for writing two pamphlets, God and Gott and Rib Ticklers, or Questions for Parsons. Most famously, one referred to Jesus riding into Jerusalem on both 'an ass and a colt the foal of an ass' (Matthew 21:5), pointing out that this made him sound 'like a circus clown'. This was his fifth conviction for blasphemy in a decade. In poor health, he was sentenced to nine months' hard labour, and died shortly after his release. After the ensuing controversy, the law fell into disuse. Lord Denning called it 'a dead letter' in 1949.

The Love that Dares to Speak Its Name (1977)
The poem that revived the law, written by Prof. James Kirkup and published in Gay Times, is about a centurion making love to Christ, before during and after his crucifixion, as an image of 'the passionate and blissful crucifixion same-sex lovers suffer'. The publishers were convicted of blasphemy in a private prosecution by Mary Whitehouse. They were fined £1500 plus costs and the editor given a 9-month suspended sentence, the judge saying it had been 'touch and go' whether he would send him to prison. Appeals failed. In 2002, Peter Tatchell read the poem from the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, and was filmed by police but not arrested.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
Originally intending to make a satire on Jesus, the Pythons read the gospels, only to discover, in Terry Gilliam's words, 'He was genuinely OK'. So instead the film laughed at the followers who deify a non-entity called Brian and do ridiculous things in his name. After Whitehouse failed to get the film banned nationwide, Christians picketed cinemas. It was banned by several councils, a Cornish councillor calling for the Pythons' imprisonment.

A Conjuring Trick with Bones (1984)
When David Jenkins became Bishop of Durham in July 1984 he was already controversial for denying the virgin birth. So when York Minster was burned by lightning days later, it was obviously divine vengeance. Of course York wasn't his cathedral, but apparently they all look the same from that height. That October on Radio 4 he said either that the resurrection was or was not 'a conjuring trick with bones', according to whose report you listen to. MPs condemned him for blasphemy, and Whitehouse led calls for his dismissal, to no avail.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, Martin Scorsese's film tells the story of Jesus wrestling with the temptation to abandon his mission and live an ordinary life with Mary Magdalene. He is persuaded it's the right thing to do by an angel, but finally realizes his mistake and persuades God to let him go back to the cross. Add to that slightly challenging theme naked fantasies about Mary and protest flared up. The UK TV premiere of the film, on Channel 4, held the record for the greatest number of complaints (1,554) till Jerry Springer: The opera.

The Satanic Verses (1988)
Salman Rushdie's novel offended Muslims in numerous ways, from its title to its prostitutes named after Muhammad's wives. Amid international violence, which included the bombing of bookshops in Britain, the British Muslim Action Front tried to have Rushdie and his publishers prosecuted. They failed, the court ruling that the blasphemy law was 'clearly restricted to a scurrilous vilification of the Christian religion'.

Visions of Desire (1989)
This 19-minute film by Nigel Wingrove features St Teresa of Avila sexually caressing the body of Christ on the cross. The BBFC prohibited its release fearing it might be successfully prosecuted for blasphemy. It did not offer the chance to cut offending the scenes as they constituted half the film. The distributor appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, who upheld Britain's right to prohibit blasphemy. It is the only film banned in the UK for blasphemy.

Madame Tussauds (2004)
While John Cleese says the publicity that Christians gave The Life of Brian made him a rich man, it doesn't always work. Madame Tussaud's perhaps hoped a little controversy would boost sales when they dressed their waxworks of David, Victoria and baby Beckham as the holy family for Christmas 2004. But the complaints culminated in a lecturer from Northampton coming to town specially to flatten St David and pull the head off the Blessed Posh. The exhibit was closed.

Popetown (2004)
BBC3 commissioned this star-studded cartoon series for over £2million. It featured the Pope as a spoilt child, with a stupid nun and corrupt cardinals. It sounded like controversial hit, and when 6,000 protests poured in before anyone had seen it success seemed assured. Unfortunately, there was one obstacle they could not overcome: it was unremittingly rubbish. The BBC decided it wasn't worth the hassle and pulled the show. At least when it came out on DVD it could boast, 'Banned from TV, damned by the church', which must have shifted a few copies.

Behzti (2004)
Violent demonstrations from Sikhs against the play, which depicted rape and murder in a Gurdwara, persuaded the Birmingham Rep to cancel it.

Jerry Springer: The opera (2005)
Based on a chat show of a similar name, the opera involves its protagonist doing a show in hell, in which Jesus - looking very like a nappy fetishist from a previous scene - admits to being 'a little bit gay', and (in the BBC recording at least) is felt up by Eve. When the BBC broadcast it in 2005, they received 55,000 complaints, orchestrated by Stephen Green aka Christian Voice. Green's website published the home numbers of BBC bosses, who received death threats. When the makers donated £10,000 to the cancer charity Maggie's Centres, warnings from Green led Maggie's to turn down the money. The arc of the story seems to be that as the state has become more liberal, and other religions more active, Christians have taken censorship into their own hands.