The afterlife of Brian

Does a 30-year-old blasphemy row still have relevance today?

More than 30 years on, the controversy surrounding the release of Monty Python's Life of Brian seems more than a bit ridiculous -- a fit subject for a comedy. Certainly, the BBC thinks so: Holy Flying Circus, based on those events, will be broadcast on BBC4 in a few weeks. Taking centre stage is a recreation of a notorious TV debate in which the Pythons John Cleese and Michael Palin took on a fired-up Malcolm Muggeridge, who denounced the film as "squalid", and the slightly milder Bishop of Southwark, who predicted that the team would "get their 30 pieces of silver".

That event (you can watch extracts on YouTube) is indeed rich in comic potential. The bishop, all wild hair and purple cassock, waves around an enormous silver cross. Muggeridge (in his day a significant public figure, though few now remember him) just looks demented. Palin looks, at times, genuinely distressed. The show was parodied shortly afterwards on Not the Nine O'Clock News but the original is much funnier.

At the time, though, the debate was deadly serious. Life of Brian was banned in several US states and a number of countries (including Ireland, in those days still virtually a theocracy -- and we all know how well that turned out). There were protests, too, in Britain, co-ordinated by the Festival of Light, an evangelical group associated with Mary Whitehouse. After an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the BBFC to ban the film, the group masterminded a letter-writing campaign to local authorities. Thirty-nine responded by banning or reclassifying it.

There was even talk of bringing a private prosecution for blasphemy -- sufficiently serious for the team to take legal advice from John Mortimer QC, who had led the defence in Whitehouse's earlier, successful prosecution of Gay News.

It wasn't the Satanic Verses, nowhere near, but the principles at stake were the same. On one side, freedom of expression and the right to treat religion with not greater reverence than, say, politics or literature. On the other, the view that one shouldn't make fun of religion, either because it annoys God or, more pragmatically, because believers tend to get quite upset. The issues remain, sadly, as topical as ever.

Yet it can be hard, today, to see what all the fuss was about. Partly, that's because the film is such a classic. It has given immortal phrases to the English language: "Blessed are the cheesemakers"; "What have the Romans ever done for us?"; "He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy." After all these years, it's still extremely funny; but the religious satire has largely lost its power to shock. In some ways, it has almost become an object of veneration in its own right, as one of the greatest comic films ever made, a high point of British popular culture.

Blasphemy, too, has gone, at least as a crime in British law. After a last, failed attempt to revive it in the case of Jerry Springer: the Opera, the ancient law of blasphemous libel was quietly euthanised in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. It was probably the campaign against Jerry Springer (led by Stephen Green of the small pressure group Christian Voice) that nudged the then government into repealing the law. There was a rearguard action in both the Lords and Commons to preserve it but the illogicality of the blasphemy law was well summed up by the late (and much missed) Earl of Onslow: "If God does not exist, nothing will happen; if he does exist, it is up to him to get hold of the chap who wrote it and make sure that he does time in the diabolical house of correction."

Stephen Green is a much more marginal figure than Mary Whitehouse and the Church of England is no longer much of a force in the land. The same government that repealed the blasphemy law, however, introduced a new crime of "religious hatred", replacing the fear of insulting God with that of insulting believers. The talk is of mutual respect and social cohesion. Where insult is perceived, it can be very difficult to distinguish between the believer and the belief.

Here, Life of Brian remains as subversive as ever. If not an overt attack on Christianity, the film is devastating in its satire of religious behaviour. Blasphemy is parodied in the famous stoning scene. Just as pointed, in its own way, is the depiction of a would-be disciple who thinks that Brian will heal his wife's headache because "her brother-in-law is the ex-mayor of Gath". The scene in which Brian flees from a crowd of would-be worshippers manages to encapsulate the whole history of religion in around three minutes.

Brian himself is something of a holy fool. Though naive, and far more interested in getting off with Judith than in either revolution or starting a religion, he sees with more clarity than any of the idiots, charlatans and human sheep that constitute the local population. In some ways, he may indeed be the Messiah:

Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't need to follow me! You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals!

Life of Brian is about much more than just religion. All human life is there: at least, all human folly, which is to say much the same thing. It's a film about human vanity and stupidity, about pretension and wishful thinking, about people's almost irresistible tendency to think inside the box. The grammar-obsessed Roman centurion who forces Brian to write "Romans go home!" in huge letters all over the city wall as a punishment for getting his inflections muddled up is as caught up in his own self-referential universe as Reg, the all-too-recognisable leader of the People's Front of Judea, whose idea of defeating the might of Imperial Rome is to pass resolutions and inveigh against the "splitters" in the Judean People's Front.

Religion, in this wider context, is just another manifestation of human stupidity. Subversive indeed.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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No, William Hague, there's nothing anti-democratic about opposing Brexit

The former Tory leader appears to be suffering from a bout of amnesia. 

William Hague just made an eyecatching claim in the House of Lords during the debate over Article 50. He attacked those Remainers still seeking to restore Britain’s European Union membership in general and Tony Blair in particular, saying that if he had called on voters to “rise up” against New Labour after he lost the election, Blair would have told him to listen to the voters.

To be fair to Hague, it has been sixteen years since he went down to crushing defeat to Blair, so he may have forgotten some of the details. Happily, the full text of his resignation speech the morning after is still online.

Here’s Hague, 2001:

"The people have spoken. And just as it is vital to encourage everyone to participate in our democracy, so it is important to understand and respect the result. The Labour party have won the election and I have already congratulated them on doing so. But they have done so without great public enthusiasm….It is therefore a vital task for the Conservative party in the coming parliament to hold the government to account for the promises they have made and the trust people have placed in it.”

And here’s Blair, 2017:

“I want to be explicit. Yes, the British people voted to leave Europe. And I agree the will of the people should prevail. I accept right now there is no widespread appetite to re-think. But the people voted without knowledge of the terms of Brexit. As these terms become clear, it is their right to change their mind. Our mission is to persuade them to do so.”

And here’s Blair’s last line which has so offended William Hague:

“This is not the time for retreat, indifference or despair; but the time to rise up in defence of what we believe – calmly, patiently, winning the argument by the force of argument; but without fear and with the conviction we act in the true interests of Britain.”

This is funny, because here’s William Hague’s last line in 2001:

"I wish I could have led you to victory but now we must all work for our victories in the future.”

 Here’s what the “you lost, get over it” crowd have to explain: what is the difference between these two speeches? Both acknowledge a defeat, acknowledge the mountain to climb for the defeated side, but resolve to work harder to secure a better result next time.

It’s particularly galling when you remember that taking Britain back in would not require a second referendum but a third: because the Brexiteers, far from losing in 1975 and getting over it, spent four decades gearing up to take Britain out of the European Union.

There’s a more valid criticism to be had of the value of a continuity Remain campaign which appears to hold many of the people who voted to Leave in distaste. Certainly, at present, the various pro-Remain forces look more like the unattractive fringe that lost in 1975 than the well-disciplined machine that won the replay in 2016. But the fact there was a replay in the first place shows that there’s nothing anti-democratic about continuing to hold on to your beliefs after a defeat. What is anti-democratic is trying to claim that the result of any electoral contest, however narrow or how large, means that everyone who disagreed with you has to shut up and pretend you were right all along. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.