TODAY is the 40th anniversary of the world premiere of the film Life of Brian, the Monty Python team’s very irreverent take on religion which shocked many people when it was first released but is now accepted as a classic of British cinema.

It has regularly been voted Britain’s funniest film and in 2000 the readers of Total Film magazine voted it as the funniest film ever made anywhere, an accolade which Channel 4 repeated in 2006.


IT should be noted that after the success of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Python team of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin deliberately set out to use humour to mock religiosity and blind faith.

In 1976, however, Mary Whitehouse – the self-proclaimed campaigner against the permissive society – brought a prosecution against the publishers of Gay News and its editor Denis Lemon over their printing of a poem by James Kirkup that depicted a Roman centurion having sex with Jesus Christ.

Gay News Ltd and Lemon were found guilty of blasphemous libel and fined, with the judge telling the editor that he nearly jailed him. The appeal was dismissed in 1978 and again in 1979 meaning that anyone whose work was found blasphemous could be sent to prison.

Fearing criminal action, the Monty Python team decided to have the premiere in New York as it did not have any blasphemy laws. It opened in five cinemas, the biggest being Cinema 1 in New York.

On August 17 the film opened to good reviews and massive protests by Christians, mostly, but also by Muslims and Jews, none of whom could possibly have seen the film.

This was to be a recurring theme over the next few months – vehement protests and condemnations by people who had not seen the movie.

Religious leaders in the USA queued up to blast the film which only ended up making it even more popular – John Cleese would later say to the critics “thanks for making me rich”.

At Cinema 1, it broke box-office records and ended up being the highest-grossing British film of the year in the USA.


FOR those who haven’t seen it, the joke was that the “life” of the title was that of a Jewish lad, Brian Cohen, who just happened to be born on the same day, and next door to, Jesus Christ. He is subsequently mistaken for The Messiah and perhaps the film’s best known line shows why it was not blasphemous.

Terry Jones, who directed the film, also played Brian’s mother. Exasperated by the crowds following him she bellows: “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”

Had the Pythons depicted Jesus Christ as the main character, they could have faced blasphemy charges. But they were very careful not to involve any direct disrespect of Jesus - Brian got it all.


THOUGH there are not even any blasphemy laws in the UK any more, back then it was still possible for councils to change a film’s certificate or ban a film altogether on various criteria – too much sex and violence, or suspicion of blasphemy. Britain’s film censors only gave the film an AA certificate, the equivalent of a 15 certificate now, which infuriated Mary Whitehouse and church leaders who had demanded that it should get an X.

We can look back now and laugh at the antics of local councillors up and down the UK, some of whom were alarmed at the reports of protests coming from the USA and banned it on public safety grounds, though some of the 39 councils which banned it across Britain did so as they accused the Pythons of blasphemy.

Glasgow District Council banned it, and its successor body, the City of Glasgow Council was the last authority in the UK to lift the ban some 29 years on.


THAT’S the miracle, if you’ll pardon the word, of Life of Brian. EMI were committed to financing the film but two days before the cast and crew moved to Tunisia for the main shoot, EMI chief Bernard Delfont pulled the plug after somebody in the organisation read the final script.

At the last minute, in stepped George Harrison, the former Beatle, who put up $4 million of his own money. He said he owed the Pythons because their antics had kept him sane during The Beatles’ break-up.

His substantial profits, helped along by all the controversy, went towards financing HandMade films, makers of The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa, Time Bandits and other British films of the 1980s.