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Monty Python's Life of Brian
How the Pythons saved Britain from Christian culture wars
Boomers: the generation that did it all. From Joy Division to Def Jam, from Spike Lee to The Young Ones, from Prince to Hilary Mantel, they blew it up and smashed the pieces back into different places. They also compiled the reigning cultural canon - some of it their own, much of it older - in which Generation X has been marinating for decades. It’s time to find out which bits were bullshit all along. (WARNING: spoilers are integral.)
Boomer Bullshit: Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
Everyone knows the Life of Brian bit of the title, but there’s also the Monty Python bit that comes before it: ten years before it, in fact. ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ was first broadcast on the BBC in 1969 and was an integral yet mysterious part of Gen X’s childhood, omnipresent but out of reach. It was constantly implied that their comedy blew your mind and changed your world - that the title of their ‘Funniest joke in the world’ sketch was a literal description - but we were too young to watch any of it even if the BBC deigned to repeat it. We just had to sit there and be told repeatedly how good it was while we waited to become teenagers and for someone to invent VCRs.
The Life of Brian legend is foundational for British Boomers. It tells of a group of sophisticated, brilliantly educated, mould-breaking young Boomer comedians who made a film so clever, so scathing and so funny that it nearly dismantled the established church; like the Reformation, but funnier, and more effective.
This account was hugely bolstered by the strenuous efforts that were made to suppress it. It was very nearly strangled at birth when the original producers pulled out, before being saved by the intervention of George Harrison and his Handmade Films company. And then, once it had been released, the bannings began: in county councils across the UK, in the whole of Ireland and (weirdly) in Norway, it was banned for being blasphemous. At the peak of the controversy, Michael Palin and John Cleese took part in an extended edition of BBC2’s ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’ to debate the matter with the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge. Which is a sentence you would never be called on to write today, for a variety of reasons but principally because this film would not seem remotely controversial if it were released today; indeed, if anything, it would not seem controversial enough.
… They shall have the earth for their possession…
What was that?
I think it was 'Blessed are the cheesemakers.'
Ahh, what's so special about the cheesemakers?
Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.
You hear that? Blessed are the Greek.
Mmm. Well, apparently, he's going to inherit the earth.
Did anyone catch his name?
MRS. BIG NOSE:
Oh, it's the meek! Blessed are the meek! Oh, that's nice, isn't it? I'm glad they're getting something, 'cause they have a hell of a time.
To state the bleeding obvious, Terry Jones is right: this isn’t blasphemy. As in this scene featuring the Beatitudes, the Gospels are treated respectfully throughout Brian, with actual Biblical happenings taking place just at the edge of a shot. The film could not be more explicit that a) Jesus was a historical figure and b) Brian is not Jesus (as when the Wise Men realise they are in the wrong stable).
At some point between 1969 and the present day the UK stopped being an actively, professedly Christian country. It is still - as celebrated Spider-Man actor Tom Holland argues - a largely Christian culture, but these last few decades will be remembered, among other things, for the precipitous decline of active Christian observance. In 1969 daily acts of Christian worship were compulsory in schools, shops were closed on Sundays by law, and everyone - of whatever faith, or lack of faith - knew the words to the Lord’s Prayer. These things, to put it mildly, no longer hold true.
One of the things that strikes you most forcibly now about Life of Brian is its admirable religious literacy and - in its respect for the Gospels and careful treatment of incidents from Christ’s life - its revealed Christianity, a faith so deeply ingrained that it was all but invisible at the time. In 2023 only truly specialist nerds know enough to make jokes about the Roman occupation of Judea or first-century eschatological cults (‘There shall, in that time, be rumours of things going astray’). But almost everyone matriculating at Oxford or Cambridge in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as most of the Pythons did, had a decent working knowledge of classical history and Christian theology. Like 1066 And All That, and indeed like some parts of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the jokes are so good because the writers had such a deep understanding of their subject.
One suspects that this evident theological erudition was one of the film’s more infuriating aspects for religious conservatives; they were, clearly, not dealing with idiots. Terry Jones, for instance, gleefully inflamed the situation when he pointed out that while Brian isn’t blasphemous (in the sense of mistreating the sacred), it is heretical (contrary to Christian orthodoxy).
Like the good Protestants they are, the Pythons were going for the Church, and for the lore, special pleading and paraphernalia placed between the believer and the man who was nailed to a tree for suggesting that people be nice to each other (to paraphrase occasional Python collaborator Douglas Adams). The emotion and outrage they provoked - the militant, spluttering insistence that people must not poke any sort of fun, even of the most intelligent and well-versed kind - revealed a great deal about the Church’s perception of its own authority. To Python’s generational contemporaries, revelling in the contrast between the blustering old bastards and their clever, light-stepping target, it merely revealed the Church to be utterly ludicrous.
This, after all, is a film that opens with a Shirley Bassey sound-a-like performing something called ‘Brian Song’ with the assistance of a tremendous horn section. In the very act of opposing Life of Brian religious conservatives went a long way towards ensuring that they would never be taken seriously in Britain again, just as their brethren in the USA were gearing up for a multi-decade culture war.
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Bullshit or brilliant?
It’s brilliant, obviously. If the Monty Python team were The Beatles of comedy, then Brian is their Sgt. Pepper. Like Sgt. Pepper, you can see their influences; like Sgt. Pepper, it contains some crowd-pleasing bangers that have been hollowed out by repetition (‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy’; ‘You’re all individuals’; ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’). And like Sgt. Pepper, it is so extraordinary that it has become a monument.
It is also incredibly well made. The decision to assign Terry Gilliam to production design and Terry Jones to direction was inspired: Gilliam may have an brilliant eye for visuals (the depiction of first century Judea is extraordinary) but Jones - crucially - knows how to film a comedy routine.
We do, though, have to talk about Gilliam’s ‘bit’, a part-animated alien abduction skit that bears no relation to anything else and goes on far too long (much like the rest of his career). The Editors of The Metropolitan conducted an inadvertent litmus test of this over Christmas, when - needing a film that could be enjoyed by people whose ages ranged from 17 to 83 - we put on Life of Brian. It held everybody entranced apart from the bit with the aliens, when everyone wandered off to the loo or started looking at their phones.
But apart from that bit, it held all of them entranced. This is a testament (pun intended) to how consistently good the jokes are, and that is why (and this is blasphemous) Life of Brian stands out in the Monty Python canon.
Because the terrible truth is that much of the Pythons’ output was a dreadful disappointment when you were finally old enough to actually watch it. This is partly because many of the shouty Cleese/Chapman sketches hadn’t been that funny to begin with, but principally it’s because we came to know the sketches, word-for-word, through their ceaseless recitation by bores. (Fittingly, these absolute Colin Hunts echoed the tedious twerps and swivel-eyed obsessives who populate Python’s sketches.) Richard Curtis’s Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch, in which a Bishop furiously denies that the Gospels are a tasteless parody of Life of Brian before leading the panel in a solemn recitation of the Parrot Sketch, is somewhere between a joke and a documentary.
Python was a phenomenon, a bona fide, mould-breaking international British success story, and people would not stop going on about it. Among Python’s works Life of Brian is rare in being strong enough to withstand this crippling hagiography. Even now, when you can recite the entire script backwards, it remains a genuinely enjoyable, intelligent, funny film.
According to Co-op Funeralcare, the third most popular song at funerals in the UK - just after ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and ‘My Way’ - is ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. This is how people want to leave the world now: shepherded not by prayer and religious service, but by Monty Python whistling into the fade. It turns out Life of Brian did destroy organised religion after all.
For more stern reappraisals of Boomer favourites, check out our rewatch of The Godfather: