Television: It Was 20 Years Ago Today: Monty Python's Life of Brian

On 17 August 1979, Monty Python's Life of Brian was released in the US. The satirical film told the story of a man (Graham Chapman), born in the stable next door to Jesus, who lives 33 unremarkable years before being mistaken for a messiah and sentenced to "cwucifixion" by the Roman governor (Michael Palin). John Cleese played a pedantic Roman centurion and a pedantic Judean terrorist leader; director Terry Jones was Brian's screeching mother; Eric Idle leapt around saying "only joking" a lot.

In true Python style, it was ridiculous, irreverent and irresistibly quotable. For many, Brian meant blasphemy, but the American critics thought it harmless: "A sly commentary on humanity's capacity for meanness, cruelty and self-deception"(New York Post). "Bad taste of this order is rare but not yet dead" (New York Times). One critic thought it was "a truly lousy movie ... dumb, repetitive and unfunny", but didn't think "anyone of genuine religious conviction" would be affected by it (New York).

America's Catholics, Protestants and Jews disagreed. The Catholic Conference called it "morally objectionable in toto", and gave it a "C" (condemned) certificate. The Lutheran Council called it a "disgraceful and distasteful assault on religious sensitivity". The Rabbinical Alliance claimed it was "an incitement to possible violence". When Brian reached the Bible Belt, cinema owners faced pickets and prosecution for "criminal blasphemy".

John Goldstone, the producer, says that, in the UK as in the US, the problem was due to "the ignorance of people who weren't prepared to see the film but took other people's word for it". He adds: "It's about organised religion, it's not lampooning Christ. But when we were funding the film, EMI pulled out because someone had told them it was blasphemous. That's when George Harrison came in to fund it."

The British censor took legal advice before giving the film a certificate - Gay News had just been successfully prosecuted by the Festival of Light for blasphemy - and it opened in London in November 1979. The critics loved it: "One of the most hilarious comedies for years" (News of the World). "I could find nothing deeply offensive in it" (Sunday Mirror). "It's irreverent, it's unholy, it's outrageous ... but it's dreadfully funny" (Sunday Express). "The only blasphemy it commits is against the late Cecil B DeMille," said the Spectator. The Sunday Telegraph advised that no one need "risk placing themselves in the path of possible offence".

Only the Glasgow Herald upheld the blasphemy charge and the city council banned the film before it was on general release. Other councils followed their lead; the film took pounds 20,000 a week in London, but many provincial cinemagoers were unable to see it locally.

Would Brian provoke the same response now? "The Church doesn't seem to have the same power," says Goldstone. "It's as much to do with what else is around - attitudes to sex and violence and everything else are so different. And video has enabled Life of Brian to be seen on a non- stop basis since its release - somehow that dilutes its effect."

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