In an interview to promote an upcoming BBC docu-drama based on the making of the Monty Python film “The Life of Brian,” its Director Terry Jones has questioned whether a film like it could be made today.
Speaking to the Radio Times, Jones said:
“We’d think twice about making it now.”
If you’ve never heard of it, “The Life of Brian” tells the story of Brian Cohen (played by Graham Chapman), a young Jewish man who is born on the same day as, and next door to, Jesus Christ, and is subsequently mistaken for the Messiah. Its legacy has led to it being called the “greatest comedy film of all time.”
At the time the film was controversial — funding was hard to get and eventually came from Beatle George Harrison’s Handmade Films. But the ‘blasphemy‘ is described by Richard Webster in A Brief History of Blasphemy as “extremely mild.”
“Yet the film,” Webster writes, “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 [British TV channels] BBC and ITV, who declined to show it for fear of offending Christians in this country.”
The most controversial scene is Brian’s crucifixion, where ‘Always look on the bright side of life‘ (now one of the most popular songs played at British funerals) is sung. The mockery is reinforced before the scene, when Brian asks his cellmate in prison what will happen to him, he replies; “Oh, you’ll probably get away with crucifixion.” And another character dismisses crucifixion as “a doddle” and says being stabbed would be worse. In the scene, Mr Cheeky turns to Brian and says: “See, not so bad once you’re up!”
In a 2007 documentary, Jones replied to the criticism of the crucifixion scene saying:
“Any religion that makes a form of torture into an icon that they worship seems to me a pretty sick sort of religion quite honestly.”
A famous confrontation about the film at the time took place in a televised debate between Python’s John Cleese and Michael Palin and the Catholic-Anglican writer Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark.
Muggeridge and the Bishop had arrived 15 minutes late to see a screening of the picture prior to the debate, missing the establishing scenes demonstrating that Brian and Jesus were two different characters, and hence on TV kept contending that it was a send-up of Christ himself.
Several minor British cities banned the film. It was picketed by one ‘morals’ group, but most of the opposition simply boosted its publicity.
In New York, screenings were picketed by both rabbis and nuns. It was also banned for eight years in Ireland and for a year in Norway (it was marketed in Sweden as “The film so funny that it was banned in Norway”).
Jones told the Radio Times:
“I never thought it would be as controversial as it turned out, although I remember saying when we were writing it that some religious nut case may take pot shots at us, and everyone replied: ‘No’.”
“I took the view it wasn’t blasphemous. It was heretical because it criticised the structure of the church and the way it interpreted the Gospels. At the time religion seemed to be on the back burner and it felt like kicking a dead donkey. It has come back with a vengeance and we’d think twice about making it now.”
Jones was also asked about whether it would be possible to make a similarly satirical film about Muslims:
“Probably not … look at Salman Rushdie [whose controversial book The Satanic Verses forced him into hiding for 10 years].”
“I suppose people would be frightened. I think it’s whipped up by the arms industry.”
Perhaps ironically, these lines from the interview have been picked up by some websites, with headlines like Monty Python Comedian Admits: We’re Too ‘Frightened’ To Poke Fun At Muslims. The possible problems with Christian opposition today, which Jones refers to, has had less play.
The BBC docu-dram ‘Holy Flying Circus‘ will be shown in UK later this month.
Jones said of the show:
“The programme is very funny, but it’s a mix of fantasy and reality. The portrayal of BBC executives (as over-the-top and dim-witted) is probably the only realistic part.”