Gosforth sports club pulled out of hosting 'not appropriate' Elephant Man dissection shows

By Daniel Holland

A sports club in Newcastle pulled out of hosting a controversial show in which a model of the ‘Elephant Man’ Joseph Merrick will be dissected, after deeming it “not appropriate”.

Four ‘Dinner and Dissection’ nights were due to be held at Gosforth Rugby Club at the end of October and have drawn heavy criticism from disability campaigners and Newcastle City Council, amid claims it is “trivialising” disability.

But it has been confirmed that the Gosforth Sports Association, which comprises the rugby club and other sports teams based at the Broadway West site, recently informed organisers ITAE Productions that they would no longer stage the shows.

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ITAE CEO Samuel Piri told ChronicleLive that an alternative venue in Newcastle had now been found but declined to name it, with the event’s website listing it only as a ‘secret location’ that will later be revealed to ticket holders.

Attendees have been promised an “incredible educational experience” alongside dinner and drinks, as a replica of Mr Merrick’s body is dissected in a big top tent.

But opponents have spoken out against the use of circus imagery and words like “roll up, roll up” used on its promotional website, accusing organisers of exploiting a man’s disability for profit and creating a “modern day freak show”.

It is thought that Mr Merrick, who was exhibited at freak shows in the 1800s, suffered from a rare condition called Proteus syndrome which causes disproportionate tissue growth.

Neil Jamieson, Gosforth Rugby Club chairman, said: “We had worked with Samuel Piri before when they ran an event called Murder Trial Live and they used the rugby club land for that.

'Elephant Man' Joseph Merrick (BBC)

“He came back to us to say they were doing another event and I said we would be happy to host it as the previous one had been successful.

“But when we found out what the content of it was we decided that, as a sports club that promotes diversity and sport for all, the content of this show was not something we wanted to be associated with.”

He added: “Not just as a rugby club, but all the sports at Broadway East that are working with and open to people with disabilities, it is not appropriate for us. Our mantra is ‘sport for all’, so this just didn’t fit with us.”

Newcastle City Council has confirmed that it has written to ITAE Productions “raising concerns over the nature of the event, the language used in its promotion and manner in which it appears to sensationalise disability and a serious life-threatening condition”, as well as reporting it to the Advertising Standards Authority.

The local authority added that it is yet to receive an application for a Temporary Event Notice (TEN) that would be required for the shows to go ahead.

Coun John-Paul Stephenson, the council’s cabinet member for public health and culture, said: “Whilst similar events have sought to educate residents and help reduce stigma around illnesses and disabilities the defamatory language and apparent circus atmosphere, with people drinking and dining, shows a clear contempt and lack of understanding for people with life changing conditions.”

Mr Piri said that ITAE had “found an alternative venue that are happy to work with us in Newcastle”.

He added: “In terms of the TEN, we are very experienced at operating under TENs, the TEN will be served once the show format is finalised to ensure it is granted swiftly without the need for further documents.

“The council cannot refuse a TEN based on the fact they merely do not like the event content. Any objection would have to raised by the police or environmental health and on the grounds of public safety. ITAE has robust Safety Management Plans in place to ensure public safety is complied with.”

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