The Blasphemers’ Banquet is a film-poem created in 1989 by English poet and playwright Tony Harrison which examines censorship arising from religious issues. It was created in part as a response to the Salman Rushdiecontroversy surrounding his publication of The Satanic Verses. It was aired by the BBC 1‘s programme Byline on 31 July 1989.
The verse-film is set at the Omar Khayyám restaurant in Bradford where Harrison is holding a banquet with invited guests such as Omar Khayyám, Salman Rushdie, Voltaire, Molière and Byron.
The film at the time of its airing created a controversy in Britain when then Archbishop of CanterburyRobert Runcie advised the BBC to postpone the showing of the film and the BBC writing a reply to him defending the airing of the broadcast.
The opening scene of the play shows a table inside the Omar Khayyámtandoori restaurant in Bradford, a converted Presbyterian church, where Harrison is holding a banquet with invited guests such as Omar Khayyám, Salman Rushdie, Voltaire, Molière and Lord Byron. Harrison appears sitting at the table drinking wine, expecting his guests and making a toast, in the name of Omar Khayyám, to Rushdie and all those who had experienced persecution on religious grounds. From the initial scene the audience is led to anticipate a feast.
Harrison introduces the places where his guests are expected to sit on “mirrored cushions” and also narrates the historical events surrounding each of the “blasphemers” using background imagery of political and religious events and demonstrations. Harrison also comments that blasphemy has historically been a function of time, mentioning that, in the past, Voltaire had been condemned by the French government but his works are now considered classics.
In the film, the historical figures are represented by actors or busts while Rushdie’s chair is kept empty and he is the only guest who is expected to either arrive at the banquet in person or appear through a filmed interview from an undisclosed safe house location. In the end, Rushdie never appears, the expected feast never happens and the film ends with a silent blank screen. The music of the film was composed by Dominic Muldowney and the songs were performed by Teresa Stratas.