Opera writer may take legal action over council’s ‘defamatory’ statements

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

The author of a community opera cancelled after a gay row says he may take legal action over “defamatory” comments made by the council.

Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot, told the Guardian that while he was happy that the project was now back on course, he wanted East Riding of Yorkshire council to completely retract a statement in which it claimed the script featured a paedophile.

An earlier statement by the council’s head of improvement and learning, Mike Furbank, said that “of particular concern and offence was a character who groomed and abused children in his early days in Ibiza”.

The council quietly retracted the comments but Mr Hall says it must go further. He said the work, which has a gay man as the protagonist, has never featured a paedophile character.

Mr Hall told the newspaper that the school and the council had started a “campaign of misinformation” to cover up their bad decisions and accused them of damaging his professional reputation.

In the row, Emma Hobbs, the head of Bay Primary School in Bridlington, which had 300 pupils involved in the work, complained about scenes involving the gay character, saying she needed to protect children.

Mr Hall responded by accusing the school of homophobia.

The year-long project, commissioned by Opera North on public money, looked set to be scrapped completely.

However, reports this morning said that the July 15th performance will go ahead after a compromise was reached.

The contentious scenes lines were originally: “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.”

Mr Hall has now changed the lines to: “Of course I’m gay/That’s why I went away./So if you infer/That I prefer/A lad to a lass/And him working class/I’d have to concur.”

A joint statement from Ms Hobbes and Mr Furbank said: “We are delighted to announce that the revisions which the school requested have now been made and the author has addressed the points raised by the school.

“This has enabled the community opera, Beached, to continue. The final libretto is now an age appropriate text which was all the school had requested.

“The play retained the inclusion of a gay character, Professor Sewerby, who remains central to the play’s dramatic message.

“Neither the council, school or Opera North have ever expressed any concern over the inclusion of a gay character, only some of the language and tone around the character’s identity. The writer has now addressed this.

“Homophobia does not exist in any of our organisations and we take great exception to how this has been played out over the last week and we refute all such claims.