September 28, 2008
It May Be Blasphemy, but Brian Isn’t All That Funny
By Cole Moreton
Hero or Villain? Brian of NazarethWhat has Brian ever done for us? If that question produces a half- smile of recognition, then you're probably one of the people who believe 'Monty Python's Life of Brian' to be the funniest film of all time. It was given that title by Channel 4 viewers two years ago, and almost any middle-class male who inhabited a common room or student union in 1980, when the film came out, will probably launch into an unstoppable stream of quotations at the mere mention of it.
They'll know that the members of the Judean People's Front - or is it the People's Front of Judea, or the Judean Popular People's Front? - sit around debating what the hated Romans have brought them. Apart from sanitation. And medicine. And "education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a freshwater system and public health". Oh, and peace. "Shut up!"
Boys love this film. Is it all that dressing up as women? Is it the oh-so clever wordplay? (Biggus Dickus the centurion, anyone?) Is it the "brave" decision to metaphorically moon the Church?
That worked. There were protests outside cinemas, diatribes written and bishops on television bashing the boys. Parts of Britain, Ireland and America wouldn't show it. Down on the English Riviera, Torbay Council disagreed with the 15 certificate and banned the film. The councillors hadn't seen it. Neither had most of the bishops. That's the thing about 'Life of Brian' - it provokes the strongest reactions in the people who have never watched it.
That's true even now. The Torbay ban was forgotten for 28 years until a poll for a comedy festival found it was the town's favourite film. Despite - or dare we say because of - never having been shown in public there.
Tomorrow it will be, in a former abbey no less. Those who watch it will see it's ... all right. Nothing more. A couple of good laughs and a lot of arseing about that resembles a bad Footlights review.
The Pythons were accused of lampooning the life of Christ, but they hadn't. They were going to, but chickened out and told the story of Brian Cohen, born a few stables down on the same night and repeatedly - reluctantly - mistaken for the Messiah. The best gags were about the way some people are so desperate they'll believe in anything. Brian calls out, "You've got it all wrong ... you're all individuals!" And the crowd chants back in unison: "Yes! We're all individuals!"
Jesus would have laughed. And that's the problem with the myth of the life of the 'Life of Brian'. It wasn't as blasphemous as the protesters said. Neither was it as daring, revolutionary or funny as Pythonistas still believe. Sorry if that's sacrilege.
For all the wild-eyed protesters outside, there were actual Christians filing in on the sly, laughing at themselves and saying yes, the Church does some daft and stupid things. But that's not news. Any believer knows it. Only last week, the archbishops of York and Canterbury railed against those greedy people in the City - fair enough, until you remember that the Church of England has a huge portfolio of shares and property, and constantly plays the market for gain. You don't have to try hard to make the Church look silly; its leaders do that.
John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and the other Pythons chose an easy target. They took some fairly tame shots, with the air of public schoolboys delighted at themselves for making faces behind the chaplain's back. They will always be worshipped by some. But what has Brian ever done for the rest of us? Sorry, chaps. Not much at all.
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