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?

Thursday 21 July 2011 00:00

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.

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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.

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