Popetowns associate producer, Stacy Herbert, on the farcical story of how the BBC bowed to religious pressure
In December 2003, a crowd of religious leaders gathered outside Saudi TV offices. They were demanding that Tash Ma Tash, a satirical comedy series shown nightly during Ramadan, be pulled off the air. As in 2000, however, when the Grand Ulema condemned the same series for its religious jibes, the Saudi government overrode the religious opposition in favour of one of the most popular shows in Saudi Arabia. Ratings, it seems, were more important than the potential to cause offence.
More recently, Marmulak, a comedy film mocking akhunds (a very impolite word for mullahs), survived the censors to be released in Iran. Despite outrage by religious authorities and conservative newspapers, the film enjoyed the most successful opening in Iranian history. In a country where the Church is the State, the Church, it would appear, is big enough to laugh at itself on the occasions it isn't beheading you for mocking them.
Three months later, the BBC pulled Popetown, an animated sitcom set in a fictional Vatican with, yes, it's true, a pogosticking Pope. Bowing to pressure from 8,000 petitioning Catholics, BBC3 controller Stuart Murphy announced, "the comic impact of the delivered series does not outweigh the potential offence it will cause."
As the associate producer of Popetown, I can promise the scripts were hilarious. The show's cast included two of the hottest properties in British comedy, Matt Lucas of Little Britain and Mackenzie Crook of The Office, as well as established stars such as Ruby Wax and Jerry Hall. Despite the presence of such talent, it is still, of course, possible that the show wasn't very good. But the BBC has defended its decision in terms of possible religious offence. And so let's go down that path.
Several spokespersons for the Church stated that in having made Popetown, the BBC was somehow taking advantage of the unfortunate situation of the Catholic Church. None of the statements clarified what exactly that 'situation' was. But there are a number of possible options: (1) the case of the four and a half thousand children abused by some rogue priests in America, (2) the renewed investigation into the suicide/murder of the Vatican's banker Roberto Calvi, (3) the case of the $200 million stolen by Martin Frankel and laundered in the Vatican Bank and for which a judge in Connecticut found the local Catholic priest guilty the very week the BBC cancelled Popetown, (4) the ongoing court proceedings in America to recover some of the art and money stolen from Jews by the Nazis and hidden in the Vatican Bank, (5) the allegations of complicity by members of the Catholic church in the Rwandan genocide, or (6) the ongoing battle with Third World archbishops who are against the Pope's endorsement of genetically modified foods.
It is difficult to see how any of these situations might have been exacerbated by Popetown. Admittedly the portrayal of a fictional Vatican inhabited by an infantile, spoilt Pope, various scheming, moustachetwirling cardinals and an überglamorous nun with her sights set on a media career is not exactly deferential, but it's a bit more comically resonant than matters such as paedophilia, money laundering and genocide. But if comedy is catharsis, then, based on the list of troubles above, the Catholic Church is in real need of some laughter. Wouldn't such sounds be more welcome than the gasps of horror usually accompanying any article or programme about the Catholic Church?
Alan Marke, Managing Director of Popetown production company Channel X, said in a statement issued by the BBC: "I am incredibly disappointed about this decision as I am very proud of this project and all the talent involved. But I understand the world has changed since the series was originally commissioned [three years ago] and sympathise with the difficult decision the BBC has had to make."
How very true. The war on terror pits Christianity against Islam; President George Bush leads the crusade proclaiming that God is on the side of America; Prime Minister Blair plays the fervent apostle spreading the teachings of the Second Bush; teaching the theory of evolution is banned in Georgia public school system; abortion rights are rolled back in America; Iraqi women are again wearing burqas.
A lot has, indeed, changed; and nobody is laughing about it.
Stacy Herbert is president of Karmabanque.