Out in Tunisia, a couple of sand dunes along from where George Lucas
shot Star Wars, the Monty Python team were
preparing their own little contribution to late 20th-century culture
– Life of Brian.
EMI, Britain's leading film production company, had kindly stumped
up the cash, a little over £2m. On the cusp of flying out to the
north African location, the rug was unexpectedly yanked from under the
crew on the direct order of EMI's 69-year-old chief executive, Lord
The moment is still remembered with incredulity. "They pulled
out on the Thursday," Terry Gilliam recalls. "The crew was
supposed to be leaving on the Saturday. Disastrous. It was because they
read the script... finally."
Royally shafted by EMI, the Pythons found themselves marooned in pre-production
limbo. Already in way too deep to back out, there began a desperate
scramble to raise funds.
Convinced that there was no way of financing it from within the UK,
producer John Goldstone left for California with one of the Pythons,
Eric Idle. By coincidence, a recent arrival in town was George Harrison,
a Python fanatic with a private library of records and film of just
about everything the comedians had done. He also happened to be an extremely
close friend of Idle.
Upon hearing that George was in Hollywood, Idle instinctively got in
touch. "I kept calling George, telling him that we were looking
for money. I was just filling him in on what was happening and where
we were at, and every time he would say, 'Don't worry, I'll get it.'
And I sort of put that out of my head. I just didn't believe anybody
could actually pay for it. Then eventually he said, 'Look, I'll pay
for this. I'm going to set this up.'"
Goldstone was dumbstruck at the possibility that one individual, be
he a Beatle or not, could single-handedly finance a project on this
scale, but time was pressing and he was willing to listen to any offers,
however crazy they sounded.
"We went up to see George at his house in the Hollywood hills,"
Goldstone says. "I can't remember whether he'd read the script
already or not... it didn't really seem to matter. I just couldn't believe
it. I felt... rock 'n' rollers, no sense of reality at all."
Everyone was taken aback by Harrison's generosity, not least Idle.
"This was totally unheard of. It was a spectacular move for somebody
to say, 'I will pay $4m for this movie,' it was really unheard of; that's
like $40m now, a huge sum of money, and without which Life
of Brian would never have been made."
Terry Jones remarks, "When Eric rang George and asked, 'What can
we do?' George said, 'Well, you know, when the Beatles were breaking
up, Python kept me sane, really, so I owe you one.'"
Six months after the withdrawal of EMI, filming on Monty
Python's Life of Brian got under way on September 16 1978. The
41-day shoot progressed remarkably smoothly.
John Cleese comments, "It was extraordinarily efficient. I will
always remember on the first day, I played the priest in the stoning
sequence. We got out there at eight o'clock and by lunchtime we had
the scene shot and I was in the hotel swimming pool. Usually, it takes
about three days till you get to know everyone on set; it's like moving
to a new football team, you don't know how people play, but Brian
was different. Terry Jones was very well prepared and the camera and
sound people were working like a well-oiled machine. God smiles on some
projects and he smiled on that one."
Photographically, Life of Brian stands as
the most accomplished Python film. One of the more grandiose images,
of a crowd swarming up the mount to hear a sermon from Christ as the
sun slowly sets, wasn't planned and came about purely by accident.
The crew had been shooting all day on a deserted hillside when at 4pm
the extras suddenly disappeared. With most being local women, the excuse
was that they had to go home and cook their husbands' dinners.
"But we haven't finished shooting!" yelled Jones, sending
his assistant director off to herd the largely unwilling crowd back
up the hillside. Eric Idle was beside Jones and tapped him on the shoulder.
"It looks terrific," he said. "Turn the camera on them
quick." Jones frantically spun round and reeled off as much footage
as he could of this mass migration of people scrambling back up the
mount. And that's the shot they used.
Indeed, all the extras were derived from the local population. Jones
remembers, "They were all very knowing because they'd all worked
for Franco Zeffirelli on Jesus of Nazareth,
so I had these elderly Tunisians telling me, 'Well, Mr Zeffirelli wouldn't
have done it like that, you know.'"
Another testing moment was Graham Chapman's nude scene. Famously, Chapman
opens the shutters of his room stark-bollock-naked only to discover
hordes of disciples waiting outside. The problem was that half of the
300 extras were women, and Muslim women to boot, whose law forbade them
to see such aberrations.
"It's absolutely forbidden for them to even think of viewing naughty
bits," Chapman later recalled. "So when I flung open the shutters,
half the crowd ran away screaming."
Four hundred years ago, the Pythons might well have been burnt at the
stake for making Life of Brian. But this was,
after all, the late 20th century and the rather antiquated British blasphemy
laws were something of an irrelevance. That was until July 1977, when
Mary Whitehouse, self-appointed guardian of national morals, won a blasphemy
libel case against Gay News for publishing a poem about a Roman centurion's
homoerotic leanings towards the crucified Christ.
It was the first successful prosecution for blasphemous libel since
the 1920s and had a personal resonance within the Python camp, for Chapman
had helped launch Gay News and was an ardent supporter of gay rights.
The possibility of being found guilty of blasphemy over Brian
was now a very real, if distant, threat.
In such a climate, it was decided to open Life of
Brian first in America, where freedom of speech and religious
choice is enshrined in the constitution. Or so it was thought. Life
of Brian received its world premiere in New York on August 17
1979, the same week as Apocalypse Now and
The Muppet Movie.
The opening salvo in what became a heated and often surreal religious
war of words arrived on August 19 from Rabbi Abraham Hecht, president
of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, who claimed to speak for half
a million Jews. Speaking in Variety, he declared, "Never have we
come across such a foul, disgusting, blasphemous film before."
Hecht went on to make public his view that Brian
"was produced in hell".
After Hecht's denunciation, outraged religious leaders queued up to
vent their spleen to any hack with a microphone, in stark contrast to
other more liberal churchmen who defended the film's right to be shown.
The voice of Protestant protest belonged to Robert EA Lee of the Lutheran
Council, whose tirade against Brian - "crude
and rude mockery, colossal bad taste, profane parody. A disgraceful
assault on religious sensitivity" - was broadcast across 1,000
Not to be outdone, the Catholic film-monitoring office rated Brian
"C" for "Condemned" and implored its flock not to
visit theatres where it was playing, it being a sin to do so.
Naturally, the protests and marches only served to heighten Brian's
media profile and so increase its box-office take. Nothing sells better
than when it comes attached to the whiff of notoriety. When the shit
started hitting the fan Stateside, the original plan to open Brian
on 200 screens nationwide snowballed to nearer 600.
"They have actually made me rich," Cleese ribbed on an American
chat show. "I feel we should send them a crate of champagne."
In Britain, the war against Life of Brian
was fought a little differently. The most vociferous critics were the
Nationwide Festival of Light, a watchdog association working in league
with Whitehouse, who opened the batting by lobbying the British Board
of Film Censors to refuse Brian a certificate.
They failed, and it was passed uncut as an AA (the equivalent of a
15 today) after much legal advice. The then British censor James Ferman
publicly defended the decision. "We took the view that 14-year-olds
are quite capable of telling the difference between a lampoon and a
serious attack upon people's religious beliefs."
Unperturbed, the Festival of Light, supported by the Church of England
Board for Social Responsibility, began circulating anti-Brian
literature and even encouraged their Christian members to pray for the
With protests almost inevitable, distributors CIC moved cautiously,
deciding to launch Brian in just one London
cinema, waiting until after the religiously sensitive Christmas period
to put it out on general release.
So Life of Brian opened exclusively at the
Plaza, Lower Regent Street, on November 8, 1979 and, in spite of hymn-singing
demonstrators outside, went on to break box-office records, raking in
£40,000 in its first week, smashing the previous house record
set by Jaws.
The film was backed by an ingenious advertising campaign in which each
Python recruited either a relative or friend (Gilliam's mum, Michael
Palin's dentist) to present their own radio spot.
By far the best was Cleese's 80-year-old mother, Muriel, reading an
appeal to listeners, claiming that she is 102-years old and kept in
a retirement home by her son, and that unless enough people see his
new film and make him richer, he will throw her on to the streets where
she will assuredly perish. The ad won a delighted Muriel an award for
best radio entertainment commercial of 1979.
The day after the London opening, Cleese and Palin famously appeared
on a late-night BBC2 discussion programme hosted by Tim Rice, himself
no stranger to religious controversy as the lyricist of
Jesus Christ Superstar. Their inquisitors were Mervyn Stockwood,
the Bishop of Southwark, and Malcolm Muggeridge. Both harangued Brian
from the outset calling it "a squalid little film" and "tenth
rate"; no amount of measured argument on the Pythons part would
dissuade the pious double act of their firmly held belief that Life
of Brian mocked Christ.
Michael Palin recalls, "We had done our homework, thinking we
were going to get into quite a tough theological argument, but it turned
out to be virtually a slanging match. We were very surprised by that.
I don't get angry very often, but I got incandescent with rage at their
attitude and the smugness of it."
As the debate reached its conclusion, Stockwood, dressed grandly in
a purple cassock and pompously fondling his crucifix in a way that was
devastatingly lampooned by Rowan Atkinson a week later on a Not the
Nine O'Clock News sketch, delivered his parting shot of, "You'll
get your 30 pieces of silver."
Cleese sums up the affair best, observing dryly, "I always felt
we won that one by behaving better than the Christians."
When Life of Brian opened across Britain
in the new year, the battle lines altered dramatically and Python became
a victim of regional censorship. "There was a loophole in the law,"
Palin recalls. "Local authorities had power over certain cinemas
through health regulations, and they used this extraordinary clause
to ban Monty Python because it was unhealthy.
I don't know if they thought it would spread diseases in cinemas."
Life of Brian ended up being banned in Harrogate,
parts of Surrey, east Devon (where councillors refused even to watch
it, arguing, "You don't have to see a pigsty to know that it stinks")
and Cornwall (where, after one screening, a local councillor rather
overstated the case by arguing for all the participants in the film
to be locked up in Broadmoor).
Gilliam noted, "In Britain, it was banned in different towns;
what that meant was that people in those towns organised charabancs
and went to the neighbouring town where it was showing. But in the States
they banned it in the Bible Belt area and nobody went. You see, the
British can't be controlled and the Americans can... that's what we
learnt over that."
Life of Brian remained banned in Swansea
until 1997, when it was permitted to be shown in cinemas in aid of Comic
Relief. Informed of the ban's lifting, Idle told the press, "What
a shame. Is nothing sacred?"
© 2002 (reprinted with permission)