What did 'Life of Brian' ever do for us?
What did 'Life of Brian' ever do for us?
(By Sanjeev Bhaskar
Published: 7:00AM GMT 29 Nov 2009)
Monty Python's 1979 film, ‘Life of Brian’, is rightly considered a comedy classic. But, thirty years on, it wouldn’t be made today, argues Sanjeev Bhaskar.
It is 30 years since Monty Python gave us Life of Brian. For those few who are unaware of it (perhaps too young, or recently emerged from a coma), this is the story of an ordinary chap called Brian Cohen who is constantly mistaken for being the long-awaited Messiah. His misfortune is that he is born at the same time as – and in the next stable to – Jesus Christ.
Although the Pythons intended the film to be a satire on blind faith and organised religion, they could not have imagined the extent of the furore it would cause on its release. A campaign condemning the film on the grounds of blasphemy – led by Mary Whitehouse and the Christian values organisation, The Festival of Light – resulted in the film being banned in parts of Britain and the whole of Ireland and Norway. In the US, meanwhile, protesters gathered outside cinemas.
However, 30 years on, that same film is regularly touted as the funniest British comedy of all time, and is now quoted by everyone from politicians (Tony Blair in his 2004 Labour party conference speech referenced the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” scene) to the bishop who told me he is always reciting lines from the film to his friends.
I first tried to watch the film on a pirated VHS at a friend’s house in late 1979; it turned out to be quite a bizarre experience. The picture and sound quality were terrible, and the diabetic friend had a sudden drop in blood sugar and kicked us all out after about 20 minutes. But I’d seen enough to know that I wanted to see the rest. So I borrowed a copy from someone else, and became hooked. I remain utterly hooked to this day.
The origin of Life of Brian was typically Python. After the success of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the group were inundated by questions about their next project. On a promotional trip to Paris, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam got legless, and Idle said the title for their next film should be “Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory”. This tickled the collective Python funny bone and they started looking into a potential comedy about Christ.
“I was originally against doing a biblical film because I thought the costumes would be so boring,” says Terry Jones. But the group recognised the kernel of something interesting and started researching the subject. However, as Jones points out, they all realised that “Christ was a very good bloke, saying a lot of very good things that we all agreed with. Humour wasn’t in Christ at all.”
The team flew to Barbados for a working holiday. They kept office hours, enjoyed the sun and entertained guests including Keith Moon, Mick Jagger and, er, Des O’Connor, who popped round to play charades. After two weeks, they had a draft screenplay.
Mindful of the potentially incendiary content, they sent the script to a canon at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. He agreed that the script was not blasphemous and said that it was “extracting the maximum comedy out of false religion and religious illusions”. He even suggested adding the now-celebrated scene in which someone is stoned to death for being blasphemous.
EMI was to finance the film, but days before production was due to start, the CEO, Lord Delfont, finally read the script and got cold feet. The script was then rejected by every major movie studio before Idle and producer John Goldstone turned to former Beatle George Harrison, who quickly secured the required $4 million.
With a solid script and the parts cast (Graham Chapman took the title role, after the others talked Cleese out of playing it), production finally began in Tunisia, with Jones as director. It was, by all accounts, a happy shoot, although there were classic Pythonesque moments. Jones recalls directing a scene while dressed as a hermit when Michael Palin said: “Do you realise that you’re stark naked?” Indeed, all Jones had to cover his modesty was a long beard.
It was decided that the controversial final scene in which Brian is crucified should end with a song, for which Idle wrote the now classic Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.
But was the scene fun to shoot? Idle laughs: “Being Python, there were about 30 people being crucified but only three ladders. So, if anyone wanted to relieve himself between takes, you got, ‘Over here quickly, please – I’ve got to get down!’”
The film premiered in America in August 1979 and immediately caused a brouhaha. The Rabbinical Alliance declared the film “foul, disgusting and blasphemous”. The Lutheran Council described it as “profane parody”. Not to be outdone, the Catholic Film Monitoring Office made it a sin even to see the film. Audiences, however, loved it, making Brian the most successful British movie in North America that year.
To counter the mounting protests in Britain, an ingenious advertising campaign was launched featuring the mothers of John Cleese and Terry Gilliam. Muriel Cleese said that if the film didn’t do well, and as her son was on a percentage, she may very well be evicted from her nice retirement home – and that the move might kill her. She won an award for the ad.
Mary Whitehouse failed to prove that the film was blasphemous, particularly since Christ and Brian are distinctly shown as different people. Nevertheless, a number of local councils banned it – including some that didn’t even have a cinema. The result was coach parties being organised in places such as Cornwall (where it was banned) to cinemas in Exeter (where it wasn’t). The Swedish marketed the film as “so funny it was banned in Norway”.
Time can be rather harsh on comedies, but Life of Brian holds up very well after 30 years, and still has the power to shock. However, current tastes and sensitivities make it highly unlikely that a comedy group would even attempt making a film like Brian today.
That said, the film’s view of blind faith seems as apposite as ever, and the closing song has come to represent a sort of British resilience – laughing in the face of adversity. It has been appropriated by football fans, chosen as the final song at funerals, and, movingly, during the Falklands War, the sailors on the damaged HMS Sheffield sang it while awaiting rescue. Like many others, I chose it as one of my Desert Island Discs.
One of my favourite off-screen anecdotes is related by Eric Idle about the cameo appearance by Spike Milligan, who happened to be holidaying in the area where Brian was being shot. After improvising his lines, they realised that Spike had disappeared – still in costume. Much later, on the way back to the hotel, they spotted Spike, who had been pulled over by the police. One of the actors leapt from the bus to exclaim: “It’s all right – he’s with us.” The only problem was the actor was still dressed as a centurion.
* Sanjeev Bhaskar presents He’s Not the Messiah, He’s a Very Naughty Boy on Radio 2 at 10.30pm on Tuesday