When the BBC screened Jerry Springer The Opera earlier this year it was deluged with complaints. Now the original stage show is taking to the road - defying the threat of legal action. Steve Pratt reports.

'When I read about that show with 8,000 swear words, Jesus in a nappy and God as a demon, I thought 'I'd love to see that'," says Stewart Lee. He's being mischievous, one way of dealing with the controversy that has bedevilled Jerry Springer The Opera.

A stage show that began in a small arts centre with three singers and a pianist developed into an Edinburgh Festival and London West End hit. And no-one made much of a fuss until BBC2 announced plans to screen the production.

The furore that followed included 60,000 complaints to the BBC, fear of prosecution and even death threats against BBC executives. Creators Lee and Richard Thomas were taken by surprise. "As it had been running three or four years unmolested, we didn't anticipate the amount of public annoyance it would cause," says Lee.

The show won four best musical awards, including an Olivier, and was seen by 425,000 people in the theatre with hardly a bad word said about it. Then matters got out of hand as an organisation called Christian Voice orchestrated a campaign against the BBC screening a show they claimed was blasphemous. Arguments raged over a threat to freedom of speech and the right of artists to perform without fear of legal action or physical harm.

It was all right on the night. Some 2.4 million watched the programme and the complaints - mostly, it must be said, from people who hadn't seen the show - were rejected by the TV watchdog.

That might have been the end of it, if the prospect of touring the show hadn't arisen. Christian Voice threatened to sue any theatre that welcomed the opera, causing a third of the venues to cancel their bookings. In addition, the Arts Council refused to help fund the tour.

But the show will go on, thanks to 21 theatres around the UK - including York Grand Opera House and Newcastle Theatre Royal - who've joined with producers Avalon to save the tour, which begins in the New Year.

That means Lee and Thomas must go through it all again, justifying the show against charges of bad taste and blasphemy. No doubt there'll be fresh comments too as Jerry Springer The Opera is released on DVD this week.

"There's no good side to the controversy," says Lee, launching the show in York after performing at a comedy club in the city. "It causes a huge amount of stress for people here who are trying to put on this multi award-winning piece of theatre. It proves there is such a thing as bad publicity."

Thomas, who's travelled up from London to join his co-writer, remembers "with incredulity" the outrage that greeted the announcement of the BBC screening.

Perhaps he shouldn't have been shocked as he himself feels that opera is no stranger to extremes. "It's a medium that takes extremes very well. There's a Verdi opera where she throws a baby into the fire," he says.

They're confident that audiences in the provinces will react well, possibly even welcoming Jerry Springer The Opera to their towns. To be honest, they thought they'd heard the last of the complaints after they were cleared of being naughty boys by the TV regulator. For it to start again with the theatre tour was a blow.

"We thought we were through all that," says Thomas. "We have to say it's not a filthy thing and have had stories in the religious press saying it's OK. They managed to drag it back down into the dirt, people who hadn't even watched it.

"People are free to not like it but a band of border barking fools are allowed to slag it off without seeing it. That's their right - and my right is to say, 'you should shut up'."

What was intended as a thought-provoking entertainment became a political hot potato. There's a reason for every line and image, says Lee, who directs the show and points out the complainers got their facts wrong, including the number of swear words used.

Go back to the show's origins and you'll find a very different show. Thomas first experimented with using opera as a weapon against hecklers in comedy performances. He'd get singers to answer them back in an operatic way. A longer stage piece, Tourette's Diva, developed the idea of combining "horribly aggressive lyrics sung to conventionally beautiful sounds", as Lee puts it.

"The violence of the language was diminished by the sound of the voices," adds Thomas. "The singer is saying, 'I hate you, I hate you', but the music is saying, 'I love you, I love you'. That's why I like opera and musical theatre, they make for a lot of tension and passion."

When Battersea Arts Centre bosses asked what he'd like to do next, he half-jokingly replied, "An opera about Jerry Springer".

The US talk show and opera have similarities according to Lee: "It's a load of fat people shouting at each other and you can't understand what they're saying."

Jerry Springer The Opera debuted in a 40-seat room with a small cast and Thomas at the piano. That sold out, so writer and comedy performer Lee was recruited to add a story to expand the show.

In the summer of 2001, a bigger 40-minute production based around four sets of squabbling Springer show guests debuted at BAC. "When people were shouting abuse at each other the music changed the meaning. What you see in American talk shows, or any reality TV, is people trying to communicate but lacking the vocabulary and ending up using the limited words they have," says Lee.

By now, the show was getting noticed. People wrote about it in the broadsheets, partly because it was finding an audience that opera didn't usually reach. Some viewed it as the answer to a crisis in musical theatre.

Lee and Thomas decided to expand the show yet again, adding a second act. They wanted Springer and his guests to be in limbo, with the audience finding out what happened to them after the TV show. Thomas's idea of having them hanging upside down in straitjackets was rejected as impractical. Instead, they came up with the idea of sending them to hell to relive the TV controntations.

This version was staged in a concert performance at the Edinburgh Festival, where National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner saw it and invited them to stage it in London.

Lee was determined the show wouldn't fall into the trap of becoming another piece of musical theatre. His ideas didn't meet favour with everyone. He recalls overhearing a man in a lift telling a companion that "this Jerry Springer thing is a disgrace".

Despite that, the production earned him a best director nomination at the Olivier Awards. "I'd only directed one thing before. I was terrified I might win," says Lee. He needn't have worried, he didn't although the show itself did.

He's now preparing to direct the tour, with both him and Thomas waiving their royalties to ease the financial burden of taking an opera outside London.

"You have to tour or people will be afraid to develop a certain kind of work for fear of being prosecuted. A lot of people who would like it have been put off by the controversy. But it is reaching a new kind of audience - 70 per cent of the TV audience were aged 16 to 34," says Lee.

Even his mother approved. "She's a Daily Mail reader and came out wearing a badge saying 'crack whore baby'," he reports.

* Jerry Springer The Opera is at York Grand Opera House from February 20-25 (tickets 0807 606 3595) and at Newcastle Theatre Royal from May 1-6 (tickets 0807 905 5060).

* The show is also released to buy on DVD today.