Monday, July 11, 2022

GUEST POST Monty Python’s Life of Brian: Were Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood very naughty boys?

David Grace disproves the theory that two prominent Christian critics of The Life of Brian misunderstood the film because they missed its opening scenes.

In 1979 Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released and I went to see an early-evening performance in the West End. As we left the cinema, I noticed Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark, going in. Funny, I thought. Funny, not their sort of film.

Later that night we tuned into the BBC2 review programme Friday Night, Saturday Morning, in which Muggeridge and Stockwood laid into the film and it was ably defended by John Cleese and Michael Palin.

Muggeridge and Stockwood's refusal to grasp that Brian was not Christ is often attributed to their not having seen the opening scenes, which make this clear. 

Another Python advanced this theory to the Guardian in 2011:

Terry Jones too, remains annoyed by Muggeridge. "It was quite a cheek because he had missed the opening of the film," he said. "They had a good lunch and then arrived late at the viewing theatre that day."

It can't have been a lunch, unless it was an exceptionally good one, but may have been an early dinner. But if that's so, what did they do between when I saw them going in and the start of the film? They would have been in time for the adverts run by Pearl & Dean, let alone the start of the film.

Anyway, later in the film we see Brian at the back of the crowd listening to Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps Muggeridge and Stockwood had fallen asleep or nipped out for a fag. Perhaps they did not wish to be reassured.

Eleven days later I watched an edition of Not the Nine O'Clock News with a sketch in which a Python-worshipping Alexander Walker (a film critic of the day, played by Mel Smith) laid into the fictional General Synod's Life of Christ. This would have made no sense if I hadn't seen the original debate.

I'm delighted to find that both the Friday Night, Saturday Morning debate and the Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch are available on YouTube. You can see the sketch above.

I thought Muggeridge and Stockwood were pretty awful when I saw the show 43 years ago, but their bigotry and contempt look even worse today.

I admit I had been shocked by the crucifixion scene myself, but the Christian girl I was with had not been at all upset by it. 

What does strike me now is the length of time the review programme was prepared to devote to one subject, impossible in the impatient, ratings-driven world of modern TV.

You can follow David Grace on Twitter.

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