Well-known TV shows are sent up as operas in a new series from the Jerry Springerteam.
Well-known TV shows are sent up as operas in a new series from the Jerry Springerteam.

Broadcaster: BBC2
Start:10pm, Sunday 25 February
Length:30 minutes
Commissioning editor:Franny Moyle, later Adam Kemp

With over 55,000 complaints before it was even screened in January 2005 and the burning of TV licences outside Television Centre, you might think the BBC would have been wary of following up on Jerry Springer: The Opera. Far from it.

'It was a question of what next,' says David Jackson, head of music at BBC Wales, the new project's executive producer. Two years later, the same creative team, led by Jon Thoday, founder of Avalon, and writer composer Richard Thomas, have produced their answer: five half-hour mini-operas, each poking fun at a much-loved television show under the umbrella title of Kombat Opera. Comedian Stewart Lee, who co-wrote Jerry Springer, also co-wrote two episodes but subsequently dropped out of the project.

The series opens on Sunday with The Applicants, a send-up of The Apprentice, starring a non-singing John Thomson as a thinly disguised Alan Sugar. Four subsequent spoofs include Spouse Change ( Wife Swap), a Manorama Special( Panorama) on binge-drinking, Question Time Outwith Jon Culshaw in the David Dimbleby role and The South Bragg Show, with Kevin Eldon as Melvyn Bragg investigating the origins of language.

'None of us expected what happened when Jerry Springer: The Operawas broadcast,' says Thoday. 'It had been live on stage for three years and hardly anyone -complained.' 'It was a real shock,' says Thomas. 'All the BBC staff were getting death-threats. I found the feeling that something I'd written might cause people to be hurt very scary.'

'Obviously that was on our minds,' says Jackson, 'but this was something less contentious, and it was important that we didn't constrict the creative process.'

So was the BBC prepared to leave the issue of offensiveness to the good sense of the Avalon team? 'No!' laughs Jackson. 'We've taken legal advice throughout because the operas depict real people.' (As a courtesy all victims of parody have been informed, though no one has objected).

'The BBC didn't interfere at all,' Thomas confirms. 'I think they're glad we didn't go for Mohammed: The Opera.' 'Most of the taboos on television have been broken by shows like Big Brother,' says Thoday. 'These [operas] fall well within boundaries already set by others.'

There is still lashings of operatic swearing, of course. The idea that this was funny originated in stage cabarets by Thomas, managed by Thoday, dating back to 1989. In one show a giant female opera singer appeared to trade abuse with hecklers if the audience got restless. This led to the Kombat Opera brandand Thomas honed the concept in a two-person act called Tourette's Diva. 'If the words and the music pull in opposite directions, that sets up an interesting tension,' he says.

What has really worried all involved in these shows has not been the potential to shock, but the scale and complexity of the undertaking. 'What were we thinking when we set out to do it!?' asks Thomas. 'Five different shows, five different sounds, five different looks, the lot!' 'Producing a musical for the stage is hugely challenging,' says Thoday. 'Producing one for the screen is even more so. No one had done it before. Everyone was finding their way. It's one of the most exciting projects I've been involved in and one of the most terrifying. Once you start it's like a giant ball rolling down a hill which you can't stop. Once you've written it, it's locked off. You can't make changes after you start shooting.'

For Thomas the shows meant developing a new kind of operatic writing, geared specifically to television. 'Richard seems to have an ability to write to picture,' says Thoday. 'He has a sense of how scenes might be edited in his head.'

'I thought to try and write opera specifically for TV was fascinating,' says Thomas. 'It's quite stodgy to rehearse, though. The Applicantshas 60 or 70 separate musical segments, most lasting 20 seconds. The longest is a minute and a half.'

Thomas wrote each opera on Sibelius composing software, editing and re-editing repeatedly before even attempting to rehearse. Click tracks, like electronic metronomes, were used to keep the split-second timing co-ordinated between the singers, the action and the score, played by the BBC Concert Orchestra. 'I use sudden abrupt tempi changes,' he says, 'because TV is about the hard, brutal cut. Audiences hear 20 or 30 different styles of music in one advert break. They are quite sophisticated enough to absorb that.'

Many of the cast, who included classically trained opera and stage musical singers, had already worked with the team, but casting also depended on their ability to get the comedy right. 'Some opera singers couldn't bring their performance level down,' says Thoday, 'so it looked ridiculous on screen.'

'The worst thing is if you get a singer who tries to be funny,' says Thomas. 'I tend to get singers who recognise the humour but then sing it really seriously.'

Thomas' favourite is Spouse Change, where a gay New Yorker turns southern rednecks into 'straight guys who might paint a still life with kumquats'. Jackson likes Question Time Out, with its desperate attempt to save the ailing show by performing it on ice. 'It's an ensemble piece, like a Mozart opera,' he says.

'The series combines artistic quality with entertainment in a highly original way, which is what the BBC should be doing,' says Thoday. 'We've never done anything quite like it,' says Jackson. 'It's been challenging at every level, but a great achievement.'

Production credits
Executive producer (BBC): David Jackson
Executive producer (Avalon):Jon Thoday
Writer composer:Richard Thomas
Series producer:Stephen Abrahams
Director:Dominic Brigstocke
DoP:Len Gowing
Editor:Marco van Welzen
Script editor:Dave Gorman