The Monty Python team were facing something of a crossroads in 1977. No longer a television outfit, they had to decide whether to work exclusively as a stage act or build on the unexpected success of their second feature film, Monty Python and The Holy Grail.
They agreed their immediate future lay in film on a weekend jaunt to Paris. Having taken the rise out of Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur, they turned their attention to the most famous written work in history: the Bible.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian began with a throwaway suggestion by Eric Idle that they should make a biopic of Jesus Christ. The subsequent arguments about the script and the subject matter were just a prelude to the significant financial, bureaucratic and theocratic problems that dogged the film’s production and release.
The film almost stalled at the pre-production stage when executive producer Bernard Delfont withdrew his support. A last-minute rescue by Geroge Harrison’s HandMade company freed the Pythons to prepare for the rigours of a lengthy shoot in Tunisia, A Muslim nation not noted for its sense of humour or high-calibre hotels.
But it was when Life of Brian reached the cinemas in 1979 that the real problems began. During its opening week in America, the film was savaged by Jewish organisations, Muslims and every Christian group conceivable – from the Lutheran council to the catholic conference.
It was denounced by clergymen and self-appointed moral crusaders such as Mary Whitehouse and Malcolm Muggeridge in Britain. Local authorities followed Swansea Council’s example and promptly banned screening. Worldwide, Life of Brian faced a level of hostility that wouldn’t be seen again until the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ eight years later.
Amid the furore, few people acknowledged that Life of Brian was not a blasphemous monstrosity. It tells the story not of Christ but of Brian Cohen, a coliseum usher whose attempts to free Judea from Roman rule led to him being mistaken for the Son of God.
While Christ does appear at the start of the film, delivering the sermon on the Mount, his presence is tangential – the absurdities of organised religion are the film’s real target. As Terry Jones said, “We have no quarrel with Mr Christ.”
Although it is perhaps better seen as a series of sketches than a coherent narrative, Life of Brian provides more brilliant moments and more laughs per minute than any film this side of This is Spinal Tap.
But more pertinently, the movie is funniest when at its most biting. The sequence in which Brian’s newfound followers debate the significance of his lost sandal and the discarded gourd is brilliantly written and, as John Cleese remarked, allows you to witness “the entire history of religion in two and a half minutes”.
With its inspired mixture of sophisticated comedy and low humour, Life of Brian regularly appears alongside Annie Hall and Duck Soup on critics’ lists of classic comedies. Over four decades after its original release, the religious fervour that greeted the film’s opening has waned. Even the ordinarily straitlaced Swansea Council eventually saw the funny side….
“After the success of Monty Python and The Holy Grail, we all went to Paris for a day and chatted about what the next movie would be. We thought perhaps the knights could find the grail, and we could come to take it from there.
But Eric Idle came up with a monstrous suggestion, a title of the next movie – Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory. Of course, we couldn’t possibly do that, but it did give us a thought that something set in that period would be a good area for us in the time of Christ.”
“I said, “Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory.” When we came to consider doing it, it changed completely. We all reread the Gospel and realised we didn’t have any quarrel with Jesus Christ.”
“My feelings towards Christ are that he was a bloody good bloke, even though he wasn’t as funny as Margaret Thatcher.”
“We wanted to write the movie because we felt that churches had somewhat missed the central point of Christ’s arguments, which were that people should love one another.
Instead, they got slightly diverted into joining little clubs, wearing different clothes and thinking of themselves as ‘rather special. We felt that this wasn’t very Christian at all.”
“The first concerted writing session was in December 1976, and by the late summer of 1977, the first draft of immense and complex proportions had been assembled. Much of this material had to be dropped, or the movie would have lasted three and a half days!”
“A slimmed-down two and a-half-hour version was put together in a concentrated two-week writing and water-skiing session in Barbados in January 1978”
“The group decided to go off together on a working holiday in the Caribbean for two weeks in January to finalise the script and the concepts.”
“I unpacked and turned my transistor on for my first glimpse of Bajan culture to catch Vera Lynn powerfully outlining the details of a rather personal emotional crisis.”
“Eric [Idle] always wanted to be a pop star. His friendship with Mick Jagger led to Mick appearing in the Caribbean while we were writing Life of Brian.”
“Keith Moon arrived and played scrabble with Mike, John and Graham. Graham invited Des O’Connor and his family for dinner. It was really like an elderly gentlemen’s club.”
“It was an extraordinary evening in that we were in this isolated house, and we finished up with nothing better to do than play charades. It was particularly memorable because Mick was given the movie Shaft in Africa as his subject. His portrayal of that movie was quite graphic.”
“Jerry Hall told John [Cleese] that his new house (that she used to live in previously with Bryan Ferry) was haunted. And I bored Mick with some detailed information about the 14th century.”
“Ideas got thrashed out and worked through very thoroughly, and the script was much tighter.”
“It’s incredible how sun, sea and luxury lubricate the script-writing process.”
“The only snag with this delightful way of writing films is that unless you write down everything as it happens, it all merges into one continuum of swimming, work and eating.”
“Our initial thought was something along the lines of The Gospel According To Saint Brian, and Brian would be the 13th apostle who was always late turning up for miracles.”
“We found that it didn’t work. Because the moment you got really near the figure of Christ, it just really wasn’t funny because Christ was wise and flexible and intelligent, and he didn’t have any of the things that comedy is about – envy, greed, malice, avarice, lust, stupidity.”
“Before HandMade got involved, Life of Brian was being financed by EMI.”
“Lord Bernard Delfont (The Head of EMI) and EMI got cold feet – partly money, party taste. I think mostly taste. He was worried about getting involved in a film that had imaginative content and that he might possibly be called upon to justify his support for it in the next life.
He was unwilling to take the risk with his soul in immortality. The money offer was so firm that we had already started on the film.”
“In the spring of 1978, the backing for Brian, which was meant to have come from EMI, was withdrawn.”
“George Harrison said, “If you want the money, I’ll get it for you.” He wanted to see the movie, that was all.”
“George Harrison is a wonderful patron. He will give you money because he likes what you do.”
“I didn’t believe you could pick up a film for £4 million. I didn’t know how loaded George was.”
“I had to pawn my house and the office in London to get a bank loan. That was quite frightening!”
“Pop people are great to get involved with because they grant you the freedom they’d want. We couldn’t have made the film anywhere with as much creative control as we had with George Harrison and Denis O’Brien.”
“We shot the film almost entirely in Tunisia, on the sets where Zeffirelli had shot Jesus of Nazareth.”
“The Oasis, Tunis, was the worst hotel in the world. I went to the front desk just after I got there, and I told the man in my appalling French, “Excuse me, there is no glass in my room.” And he said proudly, “There are no glasses in any of the rooms.”
So I said, “Well, I have a sore throat and want to take a pill.” And he said, “Get one from the bar.” That was the first two minutes there, and it went on like that with the two most malevolent breakfast waiters I’ve ever come across.”
“I enjoyed performing and appearing in things like Life of Brian much more than in the TV series.”
“I know how, as an actor, I need two things from a director. Helpful suggestions and criticisms are firm, but what I need is faster, slower or bigger, or smaller. If I get that, I basically get it right.
There was an odd atmosphere on the first day, and I couldn’t work out what it was. Then I suddenly realised that there was absolutely no sense of occasion. If anybody had walked onto the set, they would have thought it was the fifth week.
It was a lovely feeling, though – everybody just knew what they were doing and went about their tasks in a very efficient, unhurried way.”
“I remember one moment of incredible embarrassment. The matter of genital exposure poses no particular problem to me, but there was a problem in that we had this crowd of Tunisian extra, half of whom were women.
And Muslim women are forbidden by the Koran to see such things. So when I flung open the shutters, half the crowd ran away screaming. That had a profound effect on my psyche.”
“The 450 Tunisian extras were sensational. When they fell to the ground laughing, it was one of the funniest sights I had ever seen.
They fell in waves, like something out of a Land-based Esther Williams movie (40’s actress known for synchronised-swimming routines). These two big crowd scenes have been real buggers, but we got them under our belt, and they all worked.
When I saw the rushes, I was very struck that there we were, shooting the Latin scene in the Roman Forum at midnight, in authentic colours, just as though it were a proper adventure story, and the audience would be on the edge of their seats. I’d never seen a comedy scene played in this slightly forbidding, cool blue light. It’s much more like something out of a drama film. It’s rather interesting.”
“The closer we came to doing actual stories with Python, the less room there was for animation.”
“We were all saying, “We need some animation,” and Graham said, “Why isn’t Brian rescued from the tower by a flying saucer?” We all thought it was a great idea.”
“The flying saucer sequence was the last to be shot and had to be done in London. At the time, Graham was living in America, and for tax purposes, he was only allowed 24 hours in England.”
“I arrived in the morning from Los Angeles and was driven straight to the studio. I was put into the box, made up to resemble a spaceship, with lights and wires.
I was dressed as Brian, shaken around a lot, and then taxied back home for a few hours’ sleep before being put on another plane to LA. I wasn’t in England for more than 24 hours – and eight of those hours were spent in a box. For a week after that, I didn’t know where I was in the world, the time, space, or anything.”
“It’s challenging for anyone to explain away the film’s final image – in which a string of crucified victims sing a nihilistic ditty suggesting that life is ultimately worthless. Having a song explicitly contrary to the Judaeo-Christian concept of man’s value juxtaposed against the very image of redemption – the cross – becomes something intolerable.”
“Four hundred years ago, we’d have been burnt for this.”
“Crude and rude mockery, colossal bad taste, profane parody – Life of Brian is all of these. It is grossly offensive to those who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and call themselves Christian. And it should be equally offensive to any others who believe that religious faith should not be ridiculed, scoffed at or demeaned by overt and perverse sacrilege.”
“Nothing so divides man as belief in the same God.”
“The British Film Censor’s office was inundated with complaints.”
“The letters were hysterical. Someone called Allatt wrote to The Times to say he hadn’t seen the film, but he was against everything it stood for. We should have written back and said, ” We’ve never met Mr Allett, but we don’t like him.””
“A lot of people approach religion as a source of security. They parrot off a few phrases and then hang onto them for dear life. They need these phrases. If anyone tries to take them away, they suffer.”
“We were attacked by everyone – Lutherans, Catholics, and even a Rabbinical group.”
“The film makes fun of the messianic concept, which is essential to the Judaeo-Christian ethic. Incredibly offensive to religious Jews is the stoning scene in which our traditional reverence for the holy name of God is ridiculed, and a bearded rabbi wearing a prayer shawl is insultingly satirised.”
“We’re not anti-Semitic or racist. We’re against all racists. Life of Brian is about people; it just happens to be set in Judea. We’re laughing at man, not God.”
“They all thought the film was a vicious and blasphemous attack on Jesus Christ. But Life of Brian is set in AD33. Christ is treated very respectfully.”
“The Sermon on the Mount is really nice, and the film doesn’t joke about it. It makes a joke about the people. When it happened, people didn’t go, “Shhhh, this is the Sermon on the mount.””
“It is pretty interesting that these various church organisations all felt comfortable complaining about the movie without seeing it. But then that’s the prerogative of a bigot.”
“Brian has a great deal of religious satire, although there is some comment on organised religion. The religious critics in America told people not to see it, which was terrific for the box office.”
“We had never come across such a foul, disgusting, blasphemous film before.”
“I think the movie might have gone into 200 movie theatres. Once the protests started, it went into 600. It is wonderful when people embark on a course of action; they can achieve something so totally counter-productive.
One can only think that they’re profoundly stupid – and these people are obviously not – or that they’re so enraged they’re incapable of thinking.”
“The day after the film premiered in Britain, Michael and John appeared on Saturday Night, Sunday Morning with Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark. They hated Life of Brian, calling it “blasphemous”, “tenth-rate”, and “a miserable little film”.”
“The Bishop spent the entire time castigating us as if we were the most loath-some dogs in London. He practically demanded that we be deported. After the show, he came over to us, gave us a broad smile, and said, “Jolly good.”
That’s what we were getting at in that movie – the hypocrisy of some people. I don’t object to people believing in religion, but I do have trouble with the clergy and people believing in organised religion. I’m wary of anyone imposing their morals on me and have very little time for the hypocrisy of many churchmen.”
“If you sweep away your scruples, you could conclude that life of Brian is brilliant, highly comic and entertaining. It is. It does satirise piety, and amid the laughs that are evoked – despite the offensive material – some truths are revealed.”
“It may sound surprising, but I think Brian is a religious film. I think all the messages in it, in fact, are profoundly religious. It simply depends on what you mean by religious.”
“Only ignorant people – who didn’t check it out – thought that it was knocking Christ. It was upholding him and knocking all the idiotic stuff around religion.”
“George told me that he bumped into Bernard Delfont after Life of Brian opened. He was reading a copy of Variety that contained the film’s box office figures. George waved the paper at Bernard (EMI) and said, “Thanks for backing out.” It was all very good-natured.”
“While we were filming, a critic named Ian Johnson was making a ‘making of” documentary. While we did have a kind of control over the documentary, we wanted to give Ian his artistic head.
When the time came for us to all view it, I think we went along with some trepidation. We were all very conscious that each of us had been asked how we felt about the other members of the group.
In the end, we all looked at each other and understood the same truth at the same time: ” yes, I know you. I know your good points, your bad points, but the hell with all that because I like you.” That was a lovely moment.”
“I was always interested in the progression from Holy Grail to Life of Brian, the fact that with Brian, we were able to make a story. In retrospect, the failure of that film (Brian) is that we didn’t have enough confidence in the concept of the story.
We sped it up so much – in that way we’ve always done for sketches – that it is too fast. I’d love to recut Brian to make it slower. I think it would work better.”
“When Graham died in 1989, there was talk about issuing an uncut print of Life of Brian. But John said he couldn’t be bothered, which he always says to mean no. then he went into it and said he didn’t want the whole issue opened up all over again.”
“I remember Life of Brian as being an enormously happy experience because, by coincidence, we all had the same kind of views and feelings about the subject. And I think that’s our masterpiece. That’s what I’d like to be judged by in the future.”
Cleese Encounters by Jonathan Margolis (Orion); Graham Crackers by Graham Chapman and Jim Yoakum (Career Press); The First 20 Years of Monty Python by Kim ‘Howard’ Johnson (Plexus); The Quiet One by Alan Clayson (Sidgwick & Jackson).