Television: It Was 20 Years Ago Today: Monty Python's Life of Brian
Sunday 15 August 1999
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."
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 5 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove