After BBC TV brought together a pair of aggressive Christians and two members of the Monty Python team in 1979 to discuss their newly-released movie Life of Brian, various media gleefully reported the encounter as a “slanging match” of epic proportions.
This was only half-true. All of the “slanging” on Friday Night, Saturday Morning, came from the Christian side in the form of a pompous, camp-as-Christmas prelate called Mervyn Stockwood – all in purple and fondling a bloody big silver crucifix as if it were a dildo—and a “compulsive” groper of women, Malcolm Muggeridge, who embraced Jesus in the 1960s. They were chosen to represent an enormous clot of humorphobic zealots who claimed the film was “blasphemous.”
Arguing in a calm and dignified manner that Life of Brian was most certainly not blasphemous, and was indeed reverential towards Jesus, were John Cleese and Michael Palin.
The reverential content of the movie was touched upon by Leah Schnelbach, writing for Tor.com. She pointed out that Life of Brian is really explicitly not about Jesus.
That gentleman does have two cameos, and the film is completely, almost weirdly reverent during each of them. I say weirdly because ‘reverence’ isn’t a word that comes up much when discussing the Pythons.
First, it’s made quite clear that the stable down the street from Brian’s – you know, the one with Jesus in it – is bathed in holy light, surrounded by angels and adoring shepherds, the whole shmear.
The second cameo comes when Brian attends The Sermon on the Mount. Not only is the Sermon well-attended, but everyone approves of the few snatches of the speech they’re able to hear. He’s also referred to as a ‘bloody do-gooder’ by a former leper who lost his revenue stream when Jesus healed him.
If you somehow only learned about Jesus from Brian, you’d have an image of an objectively divine person who was a hugely popular public speaker, and who could actually heal people. This is a more orthodox version of Jesus than the one presented in Last Temptation.
I clearly remember watching that BBC discussion and letting out a whoop of delight when Cleese declared: “Four hundred years ago, we would have been burnt for this film. Now, I’m suggesting that we’ve made an advance.”
He also absolutely denied there was any attempt in Life of Brian to tell people not to believe in Christ. The movie’s intention was to encourage people to take a critical view of the events portrayed. “Don’t just believe because someone told you to,” he said.
I watched the full BBC broadcast again, as well as various follow-ups, after learning that Cleese confirmed last summer that he’d completed the first draft of the script for the stage version of Life Of Brian, and that, “depending on COVID, we might be able to do it in the second half of next year.”
In one of the follow-up videos, posted by “Stranger in Australia” in 2015, commentator Robert Hewison pointed out that the tirade against the Monty Python duo had been carried out, on the one hand, by “a man who was a well-known womanizer and drinker” who “found religion after he couldn’t find anything else to do.”
Hewison, author of Monty Python – The Case Against – was referring to Muggeridge, described in the Irish Times as “the all-purpose blowhard.” Of Stockwood, he said, “he was a homosexual, as everyone knew, and also a heavy drinker.”
Beneath that video, viewed more than 52,000 times, were a great many comments. This was one of my favorites:
Reactions to that film by a hodgepodge of morality crusaders led by the ghastly Mary Whitehouse, reads like a Monty Python script, and several times I found myself laughing out loud reading of the antics of those who tried to prevent its screening in the UK and abroad—successfully, in some cases. A number of British councils actually banned it from being shown on their turfs without even seeing it!
Writing for The New Statesman in 2011, Nelson Jones pointed out the film “was banned in several US states and a number of countries (including Ireland, in those days still virtually a theocracy — and we all know how well that turned out).”
There were protests, too, in Britain, coordinated by the Festival of Light, an evangelical group associated with Mary Whitehouse. After an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to ban the film, the group masterminded a letter-writing campaign to local authorities. Thirty-nine responded by banning or reclassifying it.
My, how things changed! In February 2007, the Church of St Thomas the Martyr in Newcastle upon Tyne held a public screening in the church itself, with song-sheets, organ accompaniment, stewards in costume and false beards for female members of the audience (alluding to an early scene where a group of women disguise themselves as men so that they are able to take part in a stoning).
Although the screening was a sell-out, some Christian groups, notably Christian Voice UK, headed by the deranged evangelist Stephen Green, above, were highly critical of the decision to allow the screening to go ahead. Green, reportedly a brutal wife-beater who promotes “Christianity with testosterone,” insisted that “You don’t promote Christ to the community by taking the mick out of him.”
The Reverend Jonathan Adams, one of the church’s clergy, defended his taste in comedy, saying that it did not mock Jesus, and that it raised important issues about the hypocrisy and stupidity that can afflict religion.
This was backed up by another Stephen Green. Writing last December for the right-wing PJ Media, this Green said:
Life of Brian was vigorously protested during its U.S. release by various groups who believed — apparently without having seen the movie — that it was anti-Christian.
Nothing could be further from the truth. There are only two appearances by Jesus in the movie, one of which is off-screen. The first is the night of Jesus’ birth (Brian’s, too) and what little we see is true to the Bible.
Well, except for the part where the Three Wise Men first tried to deliver their gifts to baby Brian in the manger next door.
In the other scene, years later, we briefly see Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount. No mockery is made of Jesus or His message.
Of all the jokes, gags, and barbs thrown in every direction, Jesus is the only figure shown respect. Monty Python trouper Eric Idle later said of Jesus, “What he’s saying isn’t mockable, it’s very decent stuff.”
For a non-believing, take-no-prisoners comedian like Idle, that’s practically a whole-hearted endorsement.
Instead, the film — Python’s only real film, the others were basically collections of sketches, even Holy Grail — is anti-authoritarian, anti-fanaticism, anti-nihilism, and anti-humorless prigs.
Life of Brian is, however, very pro-funny.
Then, in 2016, All Saints Church, in Leamington, screened the Monty Python classic as part of continuing efforts to raise an estimated £7-million needed for building repairs and ongoing maintenance. Beth Osborne, secretary of the Friends of All Saints Church, said:
It did cause quite a lot of controversy when it was released in the 70s, but I think everybody has grown up a bit since then. We’ve learnt to be able to smile at some things. Times have changed.
According to Hewison’s book the episode of Friday Night, Saturday Morning “began affably enough,” with Cleese and Palin talking on their own to their host, Tim Rice – himself the lyricist of Jesus Christ Superstar, which had also faced accusations of blasphemy a decade earlier.
Hewison pointed out that while a second clip from the film was being shown:
Stockwood and Muggeridge were brought on to the set. The full effect of the entry of the Bishop in his sweeping purple cassock and chunky cross was missed by the television audience, who found him already seated beside a bronzed and gleaming Malcolm Muggeridge when the film excerpt ended.
Rice explained that Stockwood and Muggeridge had seen the film earlier in the day and invited their comments. With that, the gloves were off.
The debate quickly became heated. According to Wiki’s account of the show:
The Pythons initially seemed shocked by the aggression of the attack, especially because all four had met before the show, when there had been no hint as to what was to come.
The Bishop made the point that without Jesus this film would not exist, and ignored the Pythons’ protestations that the film was about the abuse of faith, not faith itself.
In his diaries (The Python Years), Michael Palin wrote of the Bishop:
He began, with notes carefully hidden in his crotch, tucked down well out of camera range, to give a short sermon, addressed not to John or myself but to the audience. In the first three or four minutes he had brought in Nicolae Ceauşescu and Mao Tse-tung and not begun to make one point about the film.
Then he began to turn to the movie. He accused us of making a mockery of the work of Mother Teresa, of being undergraduate and mentally unstable. He made these remarks with all the smug and patronising paraphernalia of the gallery-player, who believes that the audience will see he is right, because he is a bishop and we’re not.
Muggeridge complained about the ease with which the Pythons “were able to extract humor from the most solemn of mysteries”. He said he was upset that this film was, to him, denigrating the one man who inspired every great artist, writer, composer, etc.
Cleese was keen to point out that there were other religions, and that civilization existed before Christ. Palin says of this incident in the book The Pythons Autobiography, edited by Bob McCabe, that when Muggeridge said “that Christianity had been responsible for more good in the world than any other force in history”, Cleese, to loud laughter, said, “what about the Spanish Inquisition?”
Wiki added that the studio audience appeared to be on the side of the Pythons throughout.
At some points, the Pythons tried to control the audience, who they felt were showing inappropriate partisanship in their favor.
As the debate went on, the Pythons found it harder to be polite. According to Palin, the Bishop “was outrageously dismissing any points we made as ‘rubbish’ or ‘unworthy of an educated man’.”
Stockwood was particularly upset at the use of the crucifixion, forgetting the distinction between it as Christian symbol and its use as a traditional Roman punishment. The debate ended with the Bishop pointing at the Pythons and saying “you’ll get your thirty pieces of silver”.
Looking back, Michael Palin recalled in The Guardian:
We had done our homework, thinking we were going to get into quite a tough theological argument, but it turned out to be virtually a slanging match. We were very surprised by that. I don’t get angry very often, but I got incandescent with rage at their attitude and the smugness of it.
Cleese preferred to sum it all up by saying, “I always felt we won that one by behaving better than the Christians.”
The program and the events surrounding it were told in a Pythonesque fashion in the 2011 television film Holy Flying Circus, broadcast on BBC Four in October 2011.
Reminiscing about the making of Life of Brian in The Irish Times in 2019, Palin revealed:
We were on a publicity tour in Amsterdam for Monty Python and the Holy Grail when Eric Idle came up with the title Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory. We all laughed: “We could never do that!” But we liked the challenge of doing a film about religion. Then someone suggested it be set around the time when Jesus was alive, but it’s a case of mistaken identity. Someone who’s thought to be the Messiah but spends the whole film protesting that he isn’t.
He revealed that EMI was going to finance the film but got cold feet. In 1978, just as the film was about to go into production, the chairman of EMI, Lord Delfont, got around to reading the screenplay his company had bought. He didn’t like it. He was so appalled, in fact, that he washed his hands of the whole outrageous venture, and the Pythons had to raise money elsewhere in a hurry. Palin told The Irish Times:
It was a mortal blow, because we were already in preproduction. So Eric went to Hollywood and pitched it to George Harrison, who had been a huge Python fan since the first TV programme. He pawned his house and arranged a loan of $5 million. When he was asked why, he just said: ‘Because I want to see it.’ Not many people pay $5 million for an admission ticket.