The Life Of Brian at 40: are we more easily offended today?

Saturday 2 November, 14:0015:30, Barbican LibraryContemporary Controversies

Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released in the UK on 8 November 1979. The film had problems from the start, with its funding withdrawn by EMI films at the last minute, but it was rescued by former Beatle George Harrison putting up the money for it to be made. It attracted considerable controversy at the time, banned or given an ‘X’ (ie, 18 certificate) in 39 UK local authorities and completely banned in Ireland and Norway. Yet it is also regarded as one of the greatest film comedies of all time.

Forty years later, it would be nice to say that we’re more relaxed about religion and comedy. But in truth, while Christianity is considered fair game (notwithstanding the later controversy over Jerry Springer: The Opera), satirising Islam remains deeply controversial, as illustrated by the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the mealy-mouthed reaction to the killings by many supposedly liberal commentators and artists.

Along the way, Brian finds humour in everything from people with speech impediments to prostitution. The satire remains fresh, from the stoning of apostates and its echoes of Islamic State through to the ludicrous sectarianism of the left. And the dark comedy also still resonates, as illustrated by the singing of the delightful ditty ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ as the crucified wait to die.

While making comedy around the gospel story is now relatively uncontroversial, other aspects of the film would surely attract concern today, from the character of Loretta, the wannabe transsexual, to the blackface used in the opening scene as the Magi greet what they think is the newborn messiah. Moreover, comedy more broadly remains at the centre of controversies about free speech, as illustrated by calls for Jo Brand to be prosecuted for her ‘battery acid’ joke on Radio 4 and the conviction of YouTube comedian Count Dankula for his ‘Nazi pug’ video.

Could Brian be made today? Why does it still work today? Have we lost the ability to ridicule the dominant ideas of our society? Have comedians, writers and producers lost their edge for fear of causing offence?