My mum never understood Monty Python’s Flying Circus when it was on television. She would let me stay up to watch it when my stepfather was on nights and would observe me with puzzlement as I laughed uncontrollably while she watched, stony-faced, unable to grasp what the hell I was laughing at. She didn’t find it funny at all and she was one of many parents throughout the country who didn’t get it. I found this odd because she was of the generation who listened to Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and the great Spike Milligan in The Goon Show. But then again, she didn’t find that funny either. My mum’s idea of a good comedy was the banal Terry and June Show and which, along with her preference for Cliff Richard over Elvis Presley, only served to reinforce my view that my mother had absolutely no taste whatsoever.
In 1975 I was in the Royal Air Force stationed at RAF Brüggen in West Germany and the week she came out to stay with me just happened to coincide with the week that Monty Python and the Holy Grail was showing at the station cinema. The films that were shown there were only on for a week and then they disappeared and so it was with reluctance that I informed her that she would be accompanying me to the cinema to see it. The Astra cinema was packed full of Monty Python fans who could quote entire sketches from the TV programme. My mum, unsurprisingly, thought it was rubbish and while everyone around her were falling off their seats in laughter she sat blank-faced at what must have been the longest 85 minutes of her life.
In 1979 I was living in the fairly cosmopolitan town of Stafford – it had every type of restaurant you could think of; pubs within easy walking distance of other pubs; all the shops you could possibly wish for; a nightclub and a cinema that showed all the up-to-date films. There was one film, however, that it wouldn’t show. The cinema in Stafford was, like many of the cinemas around the country, banned from showing it by the County Council because it was considered to be the most blasphemous film ever made. They didn’t want to run the risk of upsetting the church and having hordes of rabid, lunatic protesters lining the streets. So, instead of watching the film in Stafford I travelled with a group of friends to Wolverhampton, where they didn’t bow to the ridiculous pressure inflicted by the church and its misguided, empty-headed followers.
The film I’m referring to is, of course, Monty Python’s Life of Brian. As we were queuing to buy our tickets we were assailed by groups of brain-washed idiots handing out leaflets explaining why we shouldn’t see the film. These morons had spent all their days consumed with so much hatred for this film that they hadn’t left themselves enough time to actually see it and to make up their own minds whether or not it was blasphemous. Free will – the ability to decide for ourselves whether we like something or not – is an amazing thing that we humans are possessed with, but it’s also something that the church at the time considered to be extremely dangerous and was only too keen to take away from us.
|The original film poster for Life of Brian|
The problem was – the more they carped on about it the more people went to see it and instead of its audience being comprised of die-hard Monty Python fans it became a worldwide smash hit and one of the highest grossing films of that year.
The final nail in the coffin came on 9 November 1979 when the professional Christian and hypocrite, Malcom Muggeridge, and Mervyn Stockwood, the then Bishop of Southwark, appeared on the BBC chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning with Michael Palin and John Cleese. The show was hosted by Tim Rice who had himself been accused of blasphemy for writing the lyrics to Jesus Christ Superstar ten years earlier. The aim of the show was to have a serious discussion about the film but Muggeridge and the Bishop had other ideas. Their plan was to ambush the two members of Monty Python but (unlike the A-Team) their plan didn’t come together and their raving and ignorant attack made them look like idiotic out-of-touch nutcases next to the calm, considered and intelligent approach taken by Palin and Cleese and almost overnight public opinion and sympathy swung over to the Pythons.
If Muggeridge and his purple-cassocked crony had actually bothered to see the entire film instead of missing the first fifteen minutes (because they were too busy finishing off their lunch together) they might have had a different opinion of it – but I doubt it. Like all religious nutters their eyes were blinkered to the fact that Life of Brian was not blasphemous at all. It’s abundantly clear right from the start that the film is not poking fun at Jesus but at the easily manipulated simpletons who will blindly follow any religion no matter how nonsensical it may be – and I think it was that, more than anything, which made Muggeridge and the Bishop and their crazed supporters so angry.
But is Life of Brian any good?
Well, yes it is. In fact it’s a work of comic genius and far and away the funniest British film ever made.
There’s a scene early on in the film that perfectly illustrates the madness of organised religion and the illogical and ridiculous thought processes behind it. It’s a scene involving a group of women pretending to be men by wearing false beards so they join in with the stoning of a man accused of blasphemy because he uttered the name of Jehovah. It’s an incredibly funny scene that carries a serious message about how religion controls people’s lives and it’s as relevant today as it was when the film was made thirty-five years ago. Religion has always been the province of men, where women are side-lined into becoming less important or even second-class citizens. This is the case in one of today’s major religions, although I won’t say which one in case I find myself on the wrong end of a fatwa.
But it’s not just religion that Life of Brian pokes fun at – imperialism is another of its satirical targets – and you can substitute Imperial Roman for British or American imperialism throughout the film. The pointlessness of terrorism is also included, especially when different factions all believing in the same aims achieve nothing because they’re all fighting amongst each other.
“Are you the Judean People’s Front?”
“We’re the People’s Front of Judea. Judean People’s Front!”
Life of Brian is so funny all the way through that it’s hard to single out it’s anarchic set-pieces – but there’s the stoning (“She did it! She di – he did it! He did it!”); Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where the spectators at the back are mishearing what he’s saying (“Blessed are the cheese-makers”); the mob proclaiming that Brian is the Messiah (“I’m not the Messiah!” “Yes you are and I should know – I’ve followed a few!”); Brian’s Mum (“He’s not the Messiah – he’s a very naughty boy!”); Pontious Pilate’s speech defect and his lisping friend Biggus Dickus and “What have the Romans ever done for us?” I could go on, but I won’t.
The film also deals with the nature of miracles. After Brian has stood on the foot of someone who has been in enforced silence for thirty years causing him to cry out in pain, the mob that has been following him pronounce it a miracle and when they complain of being hungry Brian points them to a juniper bush and they proclaim that as a miracle too.
In his 2008 documentary film Religulous Bill Maher visited a man who ran a shop selling religious relics. He was told by the shop-owner that he had witnessed several miracles, but when he was asked to describe one he said that he couldn’t think of one off-hand. “Well, they couldn’t have been that miraculous if you can’t remember any of them,” replied Maher. Eventually the shop-owner described a time when he was at a party and wanted a drink of water. He held an empty glass out of the window and prayed to God for rain and it did indeed rain.
“That’s wasn’t a miracle,” said Maher, “that was the weather.”
And when Maher asked the shop-owner if he believed in Santa Claus he was given a cursory, “Of course not,” as an answer. “Yeah, I know,” Maher said, “big fat guy in a red suit delivering presents to all the children in the world in one night – it’s ridiculous. But an invisible guy in the sky listening to everyone’s thoughts at the same time – you buy that, don’t you.”
Is that blasphemy? Of course it isn’t. In our 21st century world where we’re allowed to criticise everything why is religion and faith the one area where people get nervous? Why can’t we say what we want without fear of retribution?
Monty Python touched a nerve back in 1979, criticising the very people behind religious intolerance – the lunatics, the nutters and the maniacs. Would other film-makers be able to get away with it today with fundamentalism rising throughout the Christian and Muslim world? I’m hopeful but I doubt it and therefore Monty Python’s Life of Brian should be cherished because it gave organised religion a massive kick up the arse.
And really, if God, as Christians are always saying, made us in his image then surely he must have a sense of humour and the ability to laugh at himself.
Life of Brian made me laugh out loud when it was released– and it still does.