This was a theme that ran throughout the Conference, being touched on in the discussions between Richard Burridge, John Cleese and Terry Jones on the first evening; in Richard Burridge’s comments on Bishop Mervyn Stockwood’s response in the 1979 TV debate where he and Malcolm Muggeridge took issue with John Cleese and Michael Palin; in David Tollerton’s presentation Blasphemy! On Free Speech Then and Now, and in the final discussion with Julian Doyle, Film Editor of Life of Brian. Certainly, the Pythons today do not believe that they intended the film to be offensive, although there is evidence that at some time in the past, some of them had such an intention. We note that the the original working title of the film was Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory; a riff on the film title Patten – Lust for Glory about the Second World War General. Also, cut from the released film was the “Otto” scene where Otto (Judean People’s Front) is portrayed as a Hitler-like character wearing an insignia based on the Star of David with swastika-like extensions. This scene is needed to make sense of their appearance at the end of the film where the suicide squad kill themselves in front of Brian on the Cross.
John Cleese also referred to the Pythons principal target being 1970’s Britain with the Judean People’s Front, the People’s Front of Judea and the Popular Front of Judea (all one of him) representing the various left-wing groups; the Roman Centurion who corrects Brian’s Latin grammar as a prototypical public school teacher; and the civil servant, just doing his job “line on the left, one cross each”. One character that Cleese was coy about was Pontius Pilate, who had a speech impediment that prevented him from uttering the “r” sound with it coming out as “w” instead. One does not have to look far to find the origin and the reason for Cleese’s coyness. Roy Jenkins, who was at the time the first (and still the only) British President of the European Commission, had exactly this manner of speech, to the extent that his nickname was “Woy”. One can see the Common Market (as it was then called) with its founding principle of “ever-closer union” as being the inheritor of the Roman Empire and bringing about a modern-day Pax Romana to the countries of Western Europe. Cleese was close to the founders of the SDP, even making a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1987 so it is quite understandable that he would want to avoid any such suggestion, particularly whilst Roy Jenkins was alive.
Richard Burridge’s take on the behaviour of Mervyn Stockwood, then Bishop of Soutwark, and Malcolm Muggeridge over the film and particularly the brilliant parodying of them by Rowan Atkinson and Mel Smith in their Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch, illustrated the amount that British life has changed since the 1970’s and how much out-of-touch with modern life that establishment figures like Mervyn Stockwood were even in the 1970’s. One should not forget that here was a man who also sat on the red benches of the House of Lords and who by his arguments could affect public policy.
Marx said that “history repeats itself; first as tragedy, second as farce”. If Bishop Samuel Wilberforce’s enquiry of Thomas Huxley in the 1860 debate on evolution at Oxford, as whether he claimed his descent from a monkey through his grandfather or grandmother was tragedy (at least for the standing of the Anglican church); then Stockwood, shaking his pectoral cross at Michael Palin and averring that he had got his thirty pieces of silver, was undoubtedly farce.
David Tolleton devoted the whole of his talk to the question of blasphemy and free speech from 1st Century Judea through the 1970’s to the present day. In the stoning scene the (bearded) women are preparing to stone a man for uttering the word “Jehovah” and John Cleese plays the Priest reading out the charge, with the expected results when he, perforce, has to utter the word. This would be in line with Lv24:16 although there is evidence that the Saducees and Sanhedrin had a looser understanding of what constituted blasphemy more in line with Ex22:27 and both Philo and Josephus understood blasphemy in the latter context.
In Britain, the modern Blasphemy Law dated back to the Restoration and even as early as 1949 (the later Lord) Denning pronounced that there was no such danger to society and in effect the law was a dead letter. It was, however, revived in the Gay News trial of 1977 when Mary Whitehouse was given leave to bring a private prosecution against the magazine. This was part of a wider campaign by Mary Whitehouse and the Festival of Light against what they perceived to be a loss of Christian values in Britain. Tollerton suggested that John Cleese’s character and the “women” could be seen as a group of crazed Mary Whitehouses. In 21st Century Britain there is no blasphemy law (repealed 2008), but some may see the Racial and Religious Hate Act (2006) as a replacement. Without this being tested by the courts it is not possible to be sure, but there has certainly been no surge of cases brought under it.
If there is no God to blaspheme, then can blasphemy exist at all? In Durkheim’s philosophy, the individual becomes sacred and any attack on his life, liberty or rights is equivalent to blasphemy. Blasphemy can then be seen as censorship; banning the unacceptable. It is in times of rapid change, like 1st Century Judea or 1970’s Britain that the limits of what is acceptable become unclear.
So the conclusion of the Conference was that Life of Brian was not blasphemous and, while it had upset some Christians, it had not been intentionally offensive. The only positive conclusion was that it was indeed a masterpiece of parody.