Film discussion

Python @ 50 – Monty Python’s Life Of Brian (1979) – Throwback 40

What started out as a throwaway joke made as an off-the-cuff comment at a press junket ended up becoming one of the most controversial comedy films of all time. As far as religious groups were concerned with Life Of Brian, the Monty Python team weren’t comedy Messiahs: they were very naughty boys.

Back in the Spring of 1975, the Pythons were in New York as part of their publicity tour for Monty Python And The Holy Grail. When asked about their next project, Eric Idle quipped it would be ‘Jesus Christ: Lust For Glory’. It was meant to be just a gag response, but the idea took hold, and when the team were in a bar in Amsterdam the following February, it started to be discussed as a serious proposal.

Initially, they focused on things like the black humour in having a carpenter ending up nailed to a wooden cross, and also joked about the difficulties in trying to book a table for twelve people for the Last Supper. However, as the story began to take shape, the Pythons instead turned the focus away from Jesus himself, and instead looked at making the movie about blind religious faith, using the notion of a man born at the same time as Christ, who ends up being mistaken for the Messiah and attracting a group of doggedly relentless followers.

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The Pythons knew that their script – variously known as ‘Monty Python’s Life Of Christ’ and ‘The Gospel According To St. Brian’ – would likely be a source of controversy. Graham Chapman was one of the people who’d helped found Gay News by putting up money for its launch, and – along with the rest of the Pythons – had also contributed towards the legal fees involved when Gay News was prosecuted for blasphemy when it published a poem – ‘The Love That Dares Speak Its Name’ – about a Roman Centurion fantasising about Christ while he was on the cross.

As a result, the Pythons would have been all too aware of just how precarious things could potentially turn out to be, as well as the possibility of litigation against them on similar grounds of blasphemy. In fact, Michael Palin’s contemporaneous diaries record that the troupe took legal advice all the way through the production process. However, the whole thing nearly didn’t happen at all, when the Chief Executive of EMI Films – Bernard Delfont – pulled the funding two days before filming was due to begin. Delfont’s brother – Lew Grade – had produced Jesus Of Nazareth, so he was concerned about the bad publicity Life Of Brian might court.

All was not lost, however, as Eric Idle used his relationship with ex-Beatle George Harrison to salvage the project. Idle and Harrison had worked together previously, with the latter having made cameo appearances in Idle’s TV series Rutland Weekend Television, as well as his Beatles parody The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. Harrison not only raised the funding, but also set up HandMade Films in the process, which went on to produce such movies as Time Bandits, The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa. The Delfont situation was also directly referenced in the lyrics of ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’, where Idle says “I said to him, ‘Bernie’, I said, ‘they’ll never make their money back’”.

It’s also particularly ironic that the Pythons managed to make use of the sets left over in Tunisia from the Lew Grade-produced Jesus Of Nazareth. The Pythons worked hard to make it clear the film wasn’t about Jesus, by showing him as an infant with Mary and Joseph in an adjacent stable to Brian’s, and having the adult version played by Kenneth Colley (later known as Admiral Piett in The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi) delivering the Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of the film, demonstrating that Brian was an entirely separate character.

However, that wasn’t enough for religious bodies, who felt that the movie was a direct attack on Jesus and the tenets of Christian faith. It didn’t bode well when someone leaked 11 pages of the script to self-appointed moral arbiter Mary Whitehouse’s Nationwide Festival of Light, a grassroots Christian organisation committed to tackling what they believed were declining standards in the media, addressing issues such as depictions of sex, violence and profanity. The Pythons had already sent a shot across her bows back in the Flying Circus days, in an election night skit where they said “Mary Whitehouse has taken Umbrage – no surprise there”.

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A member of the Nationwide Festival of Light was journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge, who would later famously cross swords with Michael Palin and John Cleese on the TV show Friday Night, Saturday Morning, where Muggeridge – together with Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark – lambasted the Pythons in a heated debate over Life Of Brian. This in itself was lampooned by Not The Nine O’Clock News, in their ‘General Synod’s Life Of Python’ sketch, where Python worshippers savaged the Church of England for making a film mocking the Monty Python team.

Outrage in the religious community was such that the Pythons even had to take out wills before visiting America on the movie’s publicity tour, in case someone killed them in retaliation for the perceived slight against their faith. In the UK, due to a legal loophole, local councils could choose to ban films being shown, even though they’d been certified by the BBFC; this led to the movie not being shown in some places until into the 21st Century. Sue Jones-Davies – who played Judith Iscariot – became Mayor of Aberystwyth in 2008, and found out the film was still banned there, so she arranged a charity screening, with Michael Palin and Terry Jones in attendance.

So, when all’s said and done, is Monty Python’s Life Of Brian really so contentious a piece? It’s clear that it isn’t a knock against Jesus, but instead attacking slavish adherence to religious dogma, and the way religion can cause more problems than it solves. However, it’s also a political satire, as it has digs at both left and right wings, including gags at the expense of trade unions, which at the time the movie was being made had been in full swing bringing about the ‘Winter of Discontent’, near-crippling the UK in the process.

The movie certainly has a legacy, with ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’ having become something of a staple at football matches, as well as being performed at the London 2012 Olympics closing ceremony. Even the famous scene discussing the benefits of the Roman occupation was reused by John Cleese in a 1986 advert for the licence fee, asking what the BBC had ever given us.

Compared to the Pythons’ other work, Life Of Brian is the one that stands up the strongest in its own right – it feels like more of a cohesive story, and less a collection of set pieces and skits (although there’s still the odd moment in there, such as the scene with the alien spaceship). Graham Chapman – who’d taken steps to address his alcoholism prior to filming – carries the film beautifully, with Brian being the only vaguely sensible and rational character in a world rife with religious zeal and wildly conflicting ideological viewpoints.

Life Of Brian still holds up to viewings by modern audiences, and seems to grow evermore timely with each passing year, due to its subject matter. You can see why it regularly features highly in polls ranking the greatest comedy films of all time. If you ever want to know what the Pythons have ever done for us, this is as good a place as any to find out.

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