Controversy resurrected: BBC to dramatise religious outrage that greeted Monty Python's Life of Brian

But would it ever dare challenge the dogma of religions other than Christianity, asks Gerard Gilbert?

He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy..." So BBC4 is making a drama about the controversy that greeted Monty Python's 1979 masterpiece Life of Brian, a film that was banned in countries as diverse as Ireland and Norway, as well as by many local authorities in Britain. Holy Flying Circus by Tony Roche, a co-writer on The Thick of It, will star Darren Boyd as John Cleese and Charles Edwards as Michael Palin, and recreate the furore surrounding the famous debate on a BBC2 chat show between Pythons Cleese and Palin and Roman Catholic journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood.

You can see the salient moments of the debate on YouTube, including Muggeridge's "squalid humour of a tenth-rate film" comment, Stockwood's remarks about being "familiar with undergraduate humour... the sort of thing the Footlights would do on a damp Tuesday afternoon" and Cleese's rejoinder that "400 years ago we would have been burnt for this film... may I suggest that we've come a long way since then." Muggeridge and Stockwood had apparently arrived 15 minutes late for the screening laid on for them.

On YouTube you can also find the inspired Not the Nine O'Clock News spoof, which inverted the arguments so that Python worshippers were scandalised by a Church film about the life of Jesus Christ. All of which begs the question: why bother making this BBC4 drama at all?

The short answer surely is that it fits the channel's history of making ratings-winning biopics of light entertainment legends, from Tony Hancock and the Steptoe and Son stars to Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams, although a BBC spokeswoman has stressed that "Holy Flying Circus is not a biopic", and co-producer Kate Norrish has been quoted as saying that it "takes a moment from our recent past to shed light on the present... it was a moment when freedom of speech was pitted against religious belief and it is a debate that is just as precariously balanced today."

I disagree – the debate is far more precarious and less balanced today. Freedom of speech can be a much tougher call in the polarised 21st-century than it was in the fag-end of liberal Seventies Britain, and if BBC4 wanted to take a moment from our recent past to shed light on the present, then there are plenty of controversies of younger vintage available to them.

How about the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie in 1989 over his novel The Satanic Verses, a death sentence that remains in place today, and that led to Rushdie spending almost a decade in hiding, as well as the violent attacks against various translators and publishers (including an arson attack at a cultural festival in Turkey that left 37 people dead)? Perhaps Sanjeev Bhaskar could play Rushdie.

Or how about a drama about the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, and the subsequent worldwide protests, or the play Behtzi, which sparked riots by Birmingham Sikhs in 2004. Or how about, for that matter, the remorseless attacks on journalists and academics in any way critical of Israel? Christians could well be forgiven for rolling their eyes in resignation at this point. The Church of England is a pretty soft target these days – albeit, to be fair, partly because of the very public wrong-headedness of Christians such as Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark over Life of Brian. To that extent, the Pythons can claim to have undermined the authority of the church. Nevertheless, and without saying that they shouldn't show up Muggeridge and Stockwood for the holy fools that here they were, the question remains: would the BBC lampoon a pair of intolerant Iranian ayatollahs with quite the same insouciance? Would they make a drama out of a fatwa?

"We would certainly not rule out any subject if the execution was good," says a BBC spokeswoman. "Holy Flying Circus is not a historical account but a fantastical exploration of censorship. Using the controversy surrounding the release of the 1979 Monty Python film Life of Brian as a platform, the comic drama examines how freedom of speech is and was pitted against intolerance of all kinds. Tony Roche has come up with a witty take on the nature of censorship using this pivotal moment as a focus, but the piece is about where we are now as well as where the Pythons were in 1979. It fitted with BBC4's desire to explore Britain's artistic and cultural landscape in a fresh and original way."

In short, the BBC would be open to making a drama about the Rushdie affair or the Danish cartoons controversy if the script was good enough. And the fact that, under their first Muslim head of religious broadcasting, Aaqil Ahmed, the Corporation has come up with a three-part life of Muhammad suggests that the BBC might become braver at exploring Islam in a more open way.

In any case, the Life of Brian controversy was, at the end of the day, an enormous red herring – crusty and patronising social conservatives who hadn't seen the film giving a knee-jerk dismissal of a historically well-researched comedy that was at pains to avoid offence. As has been noted by others, Life of Brian says just as much about left-wing politics in 1970s Britain as it does about religious sects in first-century Judea.

So how about taking religion out of the equation? How about a drama about the hoo-ha surrounding Chris Morris's 2001 Brass Eye spoof of the media paedophilia hysteria – largely orchestrated by those morally upright and law-abiding journalists at the News of the World – in which various celebrities were made to publicly endorse an anti-paedophilia charity called Nonce Sense ("I'm talking Nonce Sense!", Phil Collins cheerfully intoned).

Morris is, of course, one of our braver satirists, daring to go where most comedians (and TV companies) would fear to tread. Four Lions, his 2010 comedy about hapless British jihadists, was originally turned down by both the BBC and Channel 4 as being too incendiary, although Film4 finally came up with some of the funding.

Morris was a former BBC employee, so, closer to home, what about a BBC drama about the BBC's own history of in-house censorship, from Scum to Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle? Wouldn't that have a sort of purifying effect? Or, for that matter, Ian Curties's The Falklands Play, which was scrapped partly because of an impending general election and partly because of its sympathetic portrayal of Mrs Thatcher. A truncated version of the drama was eventually screened in 2002, with Patricia Hodge as the bellicose PM.

With The Iron Lady due for release this winter, and Mrs Thatcher the flavour of the moment, perhaps Hodge could be persuaded back into Mrs T's clothes for a comedy drama about the PM's campaign against the BBC, one which arguably neutered the Corporation's drama for a generation? After all, you could make a case that such a safely nostalgic canon as the BBC's light-entertainment biopics is in some loose way a legacy of this 1980s onslaught against "left-wing bias" at the BBC, and the sort of dramatists who really did test the boundaries of freedom of speech.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker