Friday A/V Club

Monty Python Meets the Bishop

Friday A/V Club: The 40th anniversary of Life of Brian's British debut—and of a legendary TV debate

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Forty years ago today, Life of Brian made its British debut. The Monty Python satire, in which a man born next door to Jesus is mistaken for the Messiah, was already playing in America, where the movie had earned such notices as "a disgraceful assault on religious sensitivity" and "Never have we come across such a foul, disgusting, blasphemous film before." Now it was coming to the Pythons' home country, where several towns promptly banned any screenings of the picture.

Needless to say, not everyone who disliked the film tried to suppress it. Much of the anti-Brian backlash took the form of criticism, not censorship. And that criticism was never more entertaining than it was the night after the film's premiere, when two members of the Python troupe—John Cleese and Michael Palin—faced off against two of their critics on the TV show Friday Night…Saturday Morning.

The episode was hosted by Tim Rice—yes, the guy who wrote Jesus Christ Superstar—and for the first quarter of an hour it was an amiable affair. The only people onscreen were Cleese, Palin, and Rice, and they had a fairly normal late-night-talk-show conversation, with jokes and stories and so on. Then the other two guests came onstage. One was the humorist Malcolm Muggeridge, who had converted to Christianity a decade before and was not amused by what he called the Pythons' "graffiti version" of the Gospel. The other was Mervyn Stockwood, the bishop of Southwark, who set the tone for the hour when he compared the Python picture to "a farce about Auschwitz."

This section of the program started out rather drearily: Rice asked the bishop what he thought of the movie, and Stockwood replied with a five-minute filibuster of an answer that covered everything from Mother Teresa to Nicolae Ceaușescu. But then the four men started going back and forth, and you got great exchanges like the moment, at the 37-minute mark, when Cleese started reminiscing not-so-wistfully about his days at Clifton College, a preparatory school:

CLEESE: I was given eight or 10 years—10 years—of a form of Christianity which I grew to despise and dislike. Largely, it insulted my intelligence. The sermons that were given, at the age of 11 and 12, I felt insulted my intelligence. When I got into writing this film, we all had exactly the same reaction. We started to discover a lot of stuff about Christianity and I started to get angry, because I started to think, "Why was I given this rubbish, this 10th-rate series of platitudes, when there were interesting things to have discussed? There were factual things." Nobody ever told me they don't know what language the Gospels were written in, that they don't even know who wrote them, and they're not sure what cities they were written in….

STOCKWOOD: John, it's bad luck for you, but you see, I used to go to Clifton College to preach very often when you were there.

At times the guests seemed to be talking past each other: Cleese and Palin kept explaining that their film's protagonist is not Jesus, and Stockwood and Muggeridge kept insisting that he is. But it's an engaging, sometimes electrifying piece of television—and how often do you get to see John Cleese invoking Karl Popper? Watch the full hour here:

At one point, Muggeridge declared of the film: "I don't think in the eyes of posterity it will have a very distinguished place." I guess posterity is a relative thing; the picture's reputation seems intact today, but we can check in after another 40 years and see how it's faring then.

Postscript: Not long after the debate aired, the sketch-comedy show Not the Nine O'Clock News spoofed it, with Rowan Atkinson playing a character who was simultaneously a send-up of the bishop and the Pythons. Watch the original interview before you watch the take-off—otherwise you'll miss half the jokes:

(For past installments of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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  1. Such brave, biting irreverence, desecrating a religion already dead for a quarter century at the time. It’s a good thing Mr. Cleese had a come to Mohammad moment before his bravery earned him a car bomb.

    1. MUGGERIDGE: If you made that film about Muhammad, you see, there would’ve been an absolute hullabaloo in this country, because all the anti-racialist people would’ve risen up in their might, the same people who would approve of this, and would’ve said this is quite disgraceful—and behind people’s minds would be the thought maybe they might lose a bit of oil by doing it….

      CLEESE: You’re right! 400 years ago, we would have been burnt for this film. Now, I’m suggesting that we’ve made an advance.

      1. That was a fantastic moment.

        And revealing… I had no idea that sensitivity to Islam’s followers was already a thing in London at that time.

        1. I’m always amazed when watching old interviews like that at how little many things change.

      2. Yes, 400 years ago moving pictures would’ve been sorcery.

        1. A witch! Burn her!

          Sorry, wrong Python.

          1. No, first you need to make sure she weighs less than a duck, then you can burn her.

            1. Ask her. A woman will always say she weighs less than a duck, and you’d better believe her.

              1. But the witch (the lovely and very funny Python straight woman Connie Booth) said, “That’s a fair cop” as the peasants came to carry her off.

                She did weigh the same as the duck, and she admitted guilt. Most of us were laughing too hard to notice the punch line.

    2. desecrating

      Oh, so you didn’t see the movie. You should, it’s a good one.

  2. All I can say is, I have a strong hankering for Cheez Whizz right now, and…

    Blessed are the cheese fakers!!!

    1. By the way, Cheez Whizz is real cheese. 😛

  3. That was an important film in my life. The sermon on the mount scene was transformative: The guys in the back arguing over what Jesus “clearly fails to understand” changed my view of all historical events. Prior to watching that scene, I thought of these figures and events from the bible and world/us history as somehow larger than life. George Washington was somehow beyond human, as were all of the figures in history books. And the people in the bible? Definitely superhuman.

    They didn’t have our same life experiences… because they always knew what to do, they always did the right things…. people who questioned or opposed them were obviously dimwitted and possibly malicious.

    Then I watched the sermon on the mount. Two guys arguing about how Jesus just doesn’t get it… and they are so much smarter… That was it! That fit my experience perfectly. I watched the adults talking about Nixon like that. Nobody talked about Jesus or Thomas Jefferson like that.

    Suddenly the people of history became real people, with real problems and real struggles. Suddenly all of the stuff they leave out of the story became real….

    So I put Life Of Brian near the top of important social commentary in my life.

    1. It was someone Monty Python was genius at.

  4. An amazing thing to me starts at about 18 minutes in – Rice asks the Bishop what he thought of the movie and the Bishop answers for 4 straight minutes. Is that a difference between British talk shows and American or just the difference between 1975 and Short Attention Span Theater? Nobody’s going to be allowed to develop and expound upon an idea or an argument for 4 straight minutes on TV these days, in fact I think it’s the host’s job to make sure nobody blathers on for more than 20 seconds and then it’s time to interrupt the guest and move him along to some other topic.

    But when Rice does finally interrupt, it’s to question the Bishop’s contention that the movie clearly ridicules Jesus – no, you pompous jackass, the movie is ridiculing you. It’s not making a point about Christ, it’s making a point about Christianity, about organized religion and how it misses the point – in exactly the same way the Bishop misses the point. And of course, being born and raised Catholic, I have to suggest that there’s some disagreement over whether or not an Anglican bishop can claim to know what the hell he’s talking about.

    1. Yeah, that was a great piece in that debate – they clearly did not understand that they were they target of the lampooning, as is pretty much everyone except Jesus.

    2. > Nobody’s going to be allowed to develop and expound upon an idea or an argument for 4 straight minutes on TV these days

      Which goes far in explaining American presidential debates.

      But Great Britain used to have talk shows like this. Hell, America used to have talk shows like this! People were given the time to expound on their ideas, and someone like Warren who starts to stutter after twenty seconds would be out.

      1. I agree. The ability to talk in more than sound-bites is something both cultures have lost in the last several decades. Americans have the dubious distinction of having started down the path a little sooner and a little farther but it’s only a matter of degree.

      2. Yeah, even daytime talk used to be long-form interviews that were able to explore issues.

        And you had Larry King, Tom Snyder, Alan Thicke…. There were loads of hour-long in-depth interview shows.

        I suppose you get that on podcasts these days…..

        1. Ever listen to “Caravan to Midnight”? John B. Wells will let guests talk for two hours or more, hardly interrupting them at all.

    3. As a denomination constructed of whole cloth by the state, for the express purpose of letting a king get divorced, and whose bishops are appointed by the state, and where membership is by default, and whose precepts are still taught in state schools by law, it’s hard to drum up a lot of respect. It’s the very model of a state religion.

      1. It’s the very model of a state religion.

        Yeah – there’s no such thing as a devout Anglican. Anglicans are Anglican by default.

        1. Outside of the UK there are some devout in the Anglican Communion. Especially in Africa.

  5. When it came out I remember (yes, I’m that old) complaining it was spoofing Jesus, that Brian was Jesus. Even today I still run across people complaining that Brian was Jesus.

    Brian was NOT Jesus. That’s the whole point of the movie! There was only one joke in the movie directly related to Jesus. Otherwise it was about the life of this guy named Brian who kept getting confused with Jesus.

    It’s a mockery of organized religion, NOT of Jesus. Also a mockery of revolutionary fronts and Latin classes.

    1. Not sure that even if they get the distinction, the true believers will be mollified. I suspect most of them love themselves and their tribe more than they love Jesus.

  6. I do love that movie, in fact I like it better than the Holy Grail. Which is funny, funny, funny but this movie is the best. Remember children, “Always look at the bright side of life.” And they are sincere with that platitude, because they are comedians and it is a laugh out loud comedy. Got to laugh. One of the earlier comments talked about how it portrayed people and got him to think. I was the same way when I was young, I thought some people just knew the right thing to do, and then because of this movie, and other input, I started to realize the truth. All of the Monty Python’s movies got me to question my assumptions about life, and this one more than any other, while making me laugh so hard I cried. What better form of theatre is there?

    1. I do love that movie, in fact I like it better than the Holy Grail. Which is funny, funny, funny but this movie is the best.

      Yes – Life of Brian was their masterpiece.

    2. Which brings up some of their other, prescient bits from that movie.

      There are many to chose from, but I’m going to go with “I want to be called ‘Loretta’.” Holy crap, that was genius, and relevant today!

      Here! I’ve got an idea. Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb, which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’, but that he can have the *right* to have babies.

      Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother. Sister, sorry.”

  7. And rumors that the good Bishop Stockwood was gay were confirmed after his death.

    From Wiki – Shortly before his death he was one of ten Church of England bishops ‘outed’ (i.e. alleged to be a closet homosexual) by the radical gay organisation OutRage!. Michael De-la-Noy’s biography, Mervyn Stockwood: A Lonely Life (September 1997), paints him as a socialist who loved the trappings of wealth, privilege and royalty.

    1. I think that description fits most CofE bishops.

  8. One of my fave movies of all time. We all sang ‘Bright Side’ at my mothers service; she was a huge fan and lapsed something or other about some sort of Christian religion.

    Watched Python starting in ’70 on CBC in Canada. Another huge influencer in my comedy perspective, that along with Doug Kenney and Henry Beard.

    This is the most important scene in the movie WRT to religious schisms. It defines religion other than the infinite bullshit that it is.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ka9mfZbTFbk

    1. Wow, that must have been quite the memorial!

  9. ay gevalt my priest showed us Life of Brian in youth group … dude had a sense of humor

  10. “a farce about Auschwitz.”

    Hogan’s Heroes came close. It ran from 1965 to 1971.

    1. Only Hogan’s Heroes actually existed!

      /Mizek.

      1. And the POW camp they were in wasn’t anywhere near Auschwitz IIRC

  11. I think that, to commemorate the film, some organization should stage a public filming – of the whole movie, mind you, including the “Stan/Loretta” scene.

    Then invite the Great and the Good to come and praise this inspired satire, see how many beg off for fear of the trannies.

    1. I’m not sure that people would take that as an insult to trannies.

      Though I wouldn’t have thought people would take it as an insult to Jesus either.

      1. Most of the modern references to the scene which I found online are on the order of enjoying the supposed discomfort of SJWs at witnessing the scene. I once found a blog where a guy criticized the scene for real but now I can’t find it again.

        But making that scene today would…well, look at Dave Chappelle.

        1. This reddit dicsussion seems to give Monty Python a pass because the joke is old – from a less enlightened time when expectations of trans justice were lower or whatever.

          Suggesting that if it were a new joke, it would Definitely Not Be Funny.

          https://www.reddit.com/r/asktransgender/comments/2wsscr/the_monty_pythons_lumberjack_sketch/

          1. And the lumberjack sketch, too. I forgot about that one. “I wish I was a girly, just like my dear Mama.”

            1. For the kids:

              PALIN
              I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK
              I sleep all night, I work all day

              MOUNTIES CHOIR
              He’s a lumberjack and he’s OK
              He sleeps all night and works all day

              PALIN
              I cut down trees, I eat my lunch
              I go to the lavatory
              On Wednesdays I go shopping
              And have buttered scones for tea

              MOUNTIES CHOIR
              He cuts down trees, he eats his lunch
              He goes to the lavatory
              On Wednesdays he goes shopping
              And has buttered scones for tea

              He’s a lumberjack and he’s OK
              He sleeps all night and works all day

              PALIN
              I cut down trees, I skip and jump
              I like to press wild flowers
              I put on women’s clothing
              And hang around in bars

              MOUNTIES CHOIR
              He cuts down trees, he skips and jumps
              He likes to press wild flowers
              He puts on women’s clothing
              And hangs around in bars…?

              (The choir begins to look uncomfortable, but brightens up as they go into the chorus.)

              He’s a lumberjack and he’s OK
              He sleeps all night and works all day

              PALIN
              I cut down trees, I wear high heels
              Suspenders and a bra
              I wish I were a girlie
              Just like my dear papa

              MOUNTIES CHOIR
              He cuts down trees, he wears high heels
              Suspenders and a bra?!?

              (The choir mumbles angrily, and the song breaks down.)

          2. It would still be fucking hilarious. In fact I am now inspired to drunkenly sing this song at some SJW dominated watering hole just for the hateful staring.

  12. The Python troupe had some great moments, but Life of Brian is my all time favourite. I watch it over and over and know some of the dialogue by heart.

    1. There is a certain age group – Welch and Gillespie are right in the center of it – where a group of guys could have a conversation almost entirely composed of Python quotes.

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