Life of Brian: The most blasphemous film ever?

Forty years after Life of Brian was first released, Nicholas Barber looks at why the Monty Python film was banned – and went on to become a box office hit.

It may not be true that all publicity is good publicity, but in the case of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which was released 40 years ago, some of the bad publicity was heaven-sent. The comedy team’s irreverent Biblical romp had been due to open on 200 screens across the US, but after various religious groups protested against it, the number of screens was tripled. “They actually made me rich,” said John Cleese of the protesters on one American talk show. “I feel we should send them a crate of champagne or something.”

The idea for Life of Brian came about when the team was promoting its previous film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Eric Idle joked that their next project would be called “Jesus Christ: Lust For Glory”, and his team-mates realised that no one had ever made a comedy about the Messiah. Initially, they planned to lampoon Jesus himself, but the more they read up on him, the less keen they were. “It was quite obvious that there was very little to ridicule in Jesus’s life, and therefore we were onto a loser,” said Michael Palin in 1979. “Jesus was a very straight, direct man making good sense, so we decided it would be a very shallow film if it was just about [him].”

They moved onto the character of Brian, a 13th disciple who never made it into the Bible because he always arrived five minutes late and missed the miracles. But they eventually settled on the premise that the hapless Brian (Graham Chapman) wouldn’t have any connection with Jesus at all; he would be someone who happened to live in Roman-occupied Judea at the same time, and who was mistaken for a Messiah by the fanatical masses.

The Pythons’ satire wouldn’t target Jesus or his teachings, instead caricaturing political militants, credulous crowds, the appeal of throwing stones at people, the complexities of Latin grammar, and the difficulties of being a tyrant when you’ve got a speech impediment. “I thought we’d been quite good,” said Idle in Robert Sellers’ behind-the-scenes book, Very Naughty Boys. “We’d avoided being specifically rude to specific groups.”

Taking offence

It seemed, though, that they hadn’t been quite good enough. Terry Jones was about to start directing the film in Tunisia when the Chief Executive of EMI, Bernard Delfont, finally got around to reading the script, and declared that there was no way his company could fund such an atrocity. The project’s unlikely saviour was George Harrison, the ex-Beatle. A friend of Idle’s and a fan of the Pythons, he volunteered to remortgage his house and chip in the £2million ($4.1million) the team needed – a bail-out which has become known as ‘the most expensive cinema ticket’ ever issued.

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In a discussion years after Life of Brian’s release, Terry Jones said: “I think the film is heretical, but it’s not blasphemous” (Credit: Alamy)

What is even more striking about Harrison’s investment is that he knew how dangerous it could be to offend Christian sensibilities. In 1966, as Beatlemania raged, John Lennon was interviewed by Maureen Cleave in London’s Evening Standard newspaper, and made the remark that would haunt him ever afterwards: “We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.” The blowback included threats, the picketing of concerts, and the burning of Beatles records on bonfires. Lennon’s killer even cited the comment as one excuse for the murder. But back in 1966, Harrison was unruffled. “Why is there all this stuff about blasphemy?” he asked in the Evening Standard. “If Christianity’s as good as they say it is, it should stand up to a bit of discussion.” Evidently, he still held that opinion when Idle asked for a little help from his friend.

I thought at least getting the Catholics, Protestants and Jews all protesting against our movie was fairly ecumenical on our part – Terry Gilliam

Once Life of Brian was completed, not everyone was so calm. Some countries, such as Ireland and Norway, banned it outright. (In Sweden it was advertised as being ‘so funny it was banned in Norway’.)  In the US, Rabbi Abraham Hecht, President of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, told Variety magazine: “Never have we come across such a foul, disgusting, blasphemous film before.”

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John Cleese disagreed with Jones’s take, arguing: “I don’t think it’s a heresy. It’s making fun of the way that people misunderstand the teaching” (Credit: Alamy)

In New York, there were picketers outside cinemas, with placards proclaiming that the troupe’s name gave away its diabolical nature: ‘Python = Serpent = Satan’. But in Very Naughty Boys, Terry Gilliam noted one positive aspect of these protests: “I thought at least getting the Catholics, Protestants and Jews all protesting against our movie was fairly ecumenical on our part… We had achieved something useful.”

Rules of debate

In Britain, opposition wasn’t as fierce, but there was plenty of it. Some local councils banned the film, a measure which did it no harm at all: people would simply flock to the nearest city where it was showing. In November 1979, Cleese and Palin appeared on Friday Night, Saturday Morning, a talk show hosted by Tim Rice, where they debated their work with Malcolm Muggeridge, an evangelical journalist and satirist, and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark. Or rather, Cleese and Palin did the debating, while Muggeridge and Stockwood sneered at them and their “10th-rate film”. Again, the long-winded condescension of a pair of ageing grandees didn’t deter audiences. Life of Brian was the UK’s fourth highest grossing film in 1979.

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Showing the demonic possession of a young girl, The Exorcist became the first horror film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar (Credit: Alamy)

The lesson, it seems, is that however vehement and sincere they may be, protests against religious-themed films rarely have the effect that the protesters are praying for. When The Exorcist was released, churchgoers handed out leaflets urging cinema-goers to stay away – despite the insistence by its screenwriter and producer, William Peter Blatty, that it was a pro-church film – but it raked in $110 million (£45million) during its initial run, making it the US’s second highest grossing film of 1974. In 2006, Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code, adapted from Dan Brown’s bestseller, was denounced as anti-Catholic. That, too, ranked as the US’s second most lucrative film of the year.

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The Meaning of Life won the Grand Prix at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival (Credit: Alamy)

The protests didn’t faze Monty Python, either. The team followed Life of Brian with a comedy that was far more heretical, 1983’s The Meaning of Life. Again directed by Jones, it features a glitzy song-and-dance number parodying Catholic attitudes towards contraception, Every Sperm is Sacred, and a service in a school chapel, where Cleese’s schoolmaster sends up the obscurity and dullness of certain Old Testament passages: “And so the Midianites went forth to Ram Gilead in Kadesh Bilgemath by Shor Ethra Regalion, to the house of Gash-Bil-Betheul-Bazda, he who brought the butter dish to Balshazar and the tent peg to the house of Rashomon…” Palin’s chaplain then leads the congregation in a grovelling psalm: “Oh Lord, ooh, you are so big. So absolutely huge. Gosh, we’re really impressed down here, I can tell you.” And then comes a fearful hymn: “O Lord, please don’t burn us. / Don’t grill or toast your flock. / Don’t put us on the barbecue / Or simmer us in stock.”

Nothing in Life of Brian was as audacious as that, and yet The Meaning of Life didn’t result in bans or boycotts – and it didn’t do anywhere near as well at the box office. Maybe Cleese should have sent some crates of champagne to religious groups and asked them to protest.

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Steve Coogan is driving on thin ice

This Time with Alan PartridgeI’ve always wondered just how much of Alan Partridge’s pompous behaviour is a reflection of his creator, Steve Coogan. Sometimes the comedian seems to encourage it. 

Coogan has persuaded a magistrate not to hand out an automatic six-month driving ban (despite already notching up nine points on his licence) after being found guilty of speeding in Sussex.

Coogan claimed that filming for his forthcoming BBC series involved driving around Britain and that “it’s an artistic thing that he [Partridge] drives and that defines his character”.

He also argued that 15 or 20 professionals had been lined up to work, presumably suggesting an inability to drive would leave them jobless, if only for a while.

But what really startled me was that the judge appeared to agree and reduced the ban to just two months.

I think it’s worth recalling Coogan’s driving record. In 2012 he was found not guilty of speeding after it had initially “slipped his mind” that a friend had been driving; in 2016 he was fined and banned for 28 days for speeding in Brighton.

The chairwoman of the magistrates this time around said she had taken into account the “exceptional hardship” a lengthy ban would cause. What kind of “hardship”?

How wonderful for celebrities who can put forward defences of this type. Would the same argument work for ordinary drivers who don’t appear on television? Like delivery people, ambulance drivers, care workers and busy mums trying to combine a zero hours job with dropping their kids off at school.

I think we know the answer.

Source: Janet Street-Porter: Steve Coogan is driving on thin ice

Shakespeare gets a sitcom in ‘Upstart Crow’

Upstart Crow

The popular film “Shakespeare in Love” seemed to unleash a wave of fictional imaginings of the English writer: the plays “Equivocation” and “The Beard of Avon,” the films “Anonymous” and “All Is True,” the short-lived TV series “Will.” But 1999’s frothy Best Picture winner was hardly the first rendering of Shakespeare as a fictional character.

The Bard of Avon made periodic appearances in novels throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, from a trilogy by Robert Folkestone Williams in the 1840s to Anthony Burgess’s 1964 book Nothing Like the Sun. And his first recorded stage appearance as a character is from 1679, some 60 years after the playwright’s death, when “the Ghost of Shakespeare” emerged to give a prologue to Thomas Dryden’s version of “Troilus and Cressida.”

There is nothing ghostly about the Shakespeare we meet in “Upstart Crow,” a delightfully cheeky BBC sitcom comprising three short seasons, available in the United States through the on-demand service Britbox as well as via Amazon. As played by the acerbic David Mitchell, one half of the comedy duo Mitchell and Webb, this Will Shakespeare is a mildly schlubby and insecure if well-intentioned striver, dividing his time between a bustling family hearth in Stratford and a rooming house in London from which he is building his playwriting career. The show’s title comes from an epithet hurled at Shakespeare in 1592 by a jealous poet, Robert Greene, in a pamphlet.

A fictional Greene is on hand as the show’s mustache-twirling villain to pound home the familiar theme of Shakespeare’s low birth and insufficiently fancy education. In a typical pithy putdown, he dismisses Shakespeare as “a country bum-snot, an oik of Avon, a town-school spotty-grotty.” The show’s Greene also functions as a literal nemesis, positioned (ahistorically) as the Master of the Revels, the impresario and censor through whom all staged entertainment must pass muster [ . . . ]

Continue at AMERICA: Shakespeare gets a sitcom in ‘Upstart Crow’ | America Magazine

Sir Michael Palin ‘will probably be only knighted Python’ 

Michael Palin has predicted he will be the only Monty Python member to become a sir after being dubbed a knight by Prince William at Buckingham Palace.

“I’ll probably be the only one,” he said, adding that fellow Python John Cleese had turned down the chance.It is not known if Cleese rejected a knighthood, but he did refuse a CBE in 1996 and a peerage in 1999.Sir Michael also said he had managed to suppress a joke while speaking to the Duke of Cambridge on Wednesday.

“He talked about where I was going next, any parts of the world I really wanted to go that I hadn’t already,” revealed the broadcaster.

The 76-year-old said he normally answered “Middlesbrough” when asked the question but on this occasion opted for Kazakhstan.

Sir Michael did in fact visit Middlesbrough, for the first time, in 2015.Speaking after the investiture ceremony, the Pole to Pole presenter also spoke about the BBC’s decision to scrap free TV licences for all over-75s.

He said the BBC had done “a pretty bad deal” in agreeing to take on the cost of free licences in 2015.”I hoped somehow that would somehow go away and it hasn’t gone away,” he continued.”I just wish it wasn’t at the expense of the people who now have to fork out for their licence.

“Sir Michael was knighted in the New Year Honours for services to travel, culture and geography.Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones are the other surviving members of the Monty Python comedy troupe. Graham Chapman, the sixth member, died in 1989.

Source: Sir Michael Palin ‘will probably be only knighted Python’ – BBC News