‘Liberals’ at their most cowardly

Seldom has a general opinion been more instantly and depressingly confirmed by specific news. Last week, in a Radio 4 documentary, I suggested that censorship, particularly in music, is alive and well. It takes the form of extreme sensitivity to other people’s feelings, and causes more suppression than a platoon of Mary Whitehouses could achieve.

During the same week, Opera North announced that a high-profile £100,000 community project had been cancelled a fortnight before it was due to be performed. The problem, boiled down to its essentials, was that the libretto of Beached, written by Lee Hall, whose credits include Billy Elliot, contained a character who is openly gay. There were other scenes in the opera which involved 300 schoolchildren. Their school decided that this was inappropriate. Spinelessly, Opera North agreed.

There is a real scandal here, and it says more about today’s censoriousness and moral humbug than the picketing of Jerry Springer – The Opera by fundamentalist Christians or the Sikh demonstrations against Behzti. Those involved in the suppression of Beached have been horrified by the suggestion that they are homophobic or enemies or free speech. They are good liberal folk, merely concerned to avoid offending anyone’s sensitivities.

As Hall has pointed out, the effect is the same. For all their hand-wringing, the school, the local council and the government-funded arts body have together achieved a level of pre-emptive censorship which is beyond the reach of the primmest moral guardian.

Here, for what it is worth, is what worried some small minds at the school and, as a result, everyone else. The opera, written by Hall with the composer Harvey Brough, is the story of a single father who is trying to have a quiet holiday in Bridlington with his son, but who has his peace shattered first by local schoolchildren on a biology field trip, then by a group of yobs, and then by the Bridlington Amateur Dramatic Society.

One of the main characters is gay. At one point, when confronted by bullies, he sings, “Of course I’m queer/That’s why I left here/So if you infer/That I prefer/A lad to a lass/And I’m working class/I’d have to concur.”

Not just gay, but unashamed about it. That worried the school. It had already requested changes to the libretto. In a scene where a father called his son stupid, it was requested that the word “stupid” be removed. Hall agreed, but drew the line at putting his gay character in the closet.

A line of cowardice runs through this sorry tale. Censorship in 2011 involves shifting the blame on to others. The school, without consulting the parents, was worried about gayness. The council decided that the school knew best. Opera North said “we aren’t on anybody’s side”, and cancelled the project, all the while welcoming “a hugely valid debate”.

It is not a question of homophobia, the censors argued; merely a respect for the sensitivities of others – above all, presumably, homophobes. It is here that traditional moralists on the right and anguished liberals on the left find common cause. They agree that, when in doubt, suppression is best.

It is worth remembering that Opera North and the local school were not dealing with wild renegades of the music scene. From Spoonface Steinberg to Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters, Lee Hall’s work has combined conscience and moral seriousness with a populist touch. Harvey Brough’s music transcends divisions between classical and mainstream.

Their collaboration deserves better than this kind of betrayal and loss of nerve. To ban a community project, involving all ages, encouraging the love of music, and celebrating social inclusiveness, represents a victory for fear and ignorance.

Here is one story from which the word “stupid” is not going to be excised.

Independent, Tuesday, 5 July 2011