Before I saw Monty Python’s Life of Brian, I only knew that religious people didn’t like it, which intrigued me. Then I found out that some religious people like it very much indeed, which really intrigued me. Building its story on a satirical parallel of the life of Jesus Christ, Life of Brian could never have helped drawing fire. But the Pythons knew how to use it: “So funny it was banned in Norway!” read one of the film’s posters, and indeed, the Norwegian government put the kibosh on its screenings, as did Ireland’s, as did a number of town councils in England. “As a satire on religion, this film might well be considered a rather slight production,” writes Richard Webster in A Brief History of Blasphemy. “As blasphemy it was, even in its original version, extremely mild. Yet the film was surrounded from its inception by intense anxiety, in some quarters of the Establishment, about the offence it might cause. As a result it gained a certificate for general release only after some cuts had been made. Perhaps more importantly still, the film was shunned by the BBC and ITV, who declined to show it for fear of offending Christians in this country.”
All this controversy came to a now-infamous 1979 television debate: In one corner, we have Python’s John Cleese and Michael Palin. In the other, we have contrarian satirist Malcolm Muggeridge and Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood. You can watch the whole broadcast on Youtube (part one, part two, part three, part four). In the extract above, you can hear Cleese argue that the film does not, in fact, ridicule Jesus Christ, but instead indicts “closed systems of thought” of the type drilled into his consciousness during his boarding school years. Palin takes pains to underscore its nature as not wholly a religious satire, but more of a jab at modern English society and politics transposed into the Biblical past. Muggeridge and Stockwood, while denigrating Life of Brian‘s cinematic merit all the while, nonetheless see in it a dangerous potential to corrupt the youth. But it turns out that they’d shown up at their screening fifteen minutes late, missing the scenes which would have told them that Jesus Christ and the hapless Brian of the title are two different people. Indeed, Brian is not the messiah. The lesson here: watch Life of Brian in full, as many times as it takes to get you drawing your own non-received conclusions about religion, society, and comedy.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.