When news first began to surface last month that the surviving members of Monty Python were going to announce plans for a live reunion show, a number of articles appeared on the internet in response listing some of the best loved moments from the legendary comedy-team’s TV shows and movies. Well… ‘Conspiro Media’ is about to do the same – but – with an Alternative twist. Instead of acknowledging their most popular sketches or film-scenes, the emphasis here is on the ones that poked a stick at the so-called ‘Establishment’ and the people who operated within that system of rule which, of course, is still going strong today. It seems that almost no one or nothing was considered out of bounds. It didn’t matter if you were in the police, the armed forces, the judiciary, the health service, the aristocracy, politics, banking, education or a religious organisation, as far as Monty Python was concerned, you were potentially within its sights. However, as you’ll discover later on in this article, there were instances when the ribbing just got way too close to the bone for some and resulted in censorship.
BACK IN THE DAY – The Pythons pictured in 1969. From left to right (front); Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin.. From left to right (back); Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam.
Their anarchic brand of humour was inspired and shaped in part by the legendary comedy revue, ‘Beyond the Fringe’ which was written and performed by Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller. It took the West End and Broadway by storm during the first half of the 1960s and is often regarded to have ushered in the British satire boom of that decade. Python, Eric Idle went to see it when it was playing in London. In an interview some years back he said, “I remember just rolling around screaming with laughter like I never laughed before. It was just so great. It was a life-changing experience. Totally changed my life. I’d no idea you could be that funny. I’d no idea you could laugh at the Prime Ministers, or the Queen, or the Royal Family – everything I secretly hated was being laughed and mocked at. And there they were on stage doing this so wittily and funnily. Just changed my life. I wanted to be funny at that point.”
Beyond the Fringe… From left to right; Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller.
Hot on the heels of ‘Beyond the Fringe’ came the BBC TV satirical comedy-show, ‘That Was the Week That Was.‘ First screened in 1962, this short-lived but influential series hosted by a young David Frost, not only lampooned politicians, religions, the police, and the British monarchy, but cast a critical eye over a number of highly volatile social/cultural issues through a mixture of sketches, songs, debates and discussions. The scriptwriting team included, Dennis Potter, John Betjeman, Johnny Speight, Keith Waterhouse (the author of ‘Billy Liar‘), Peter Cook, and, a newcomer at the time by the name of John Cleese. He believes the show “was an extraordinary event – I mean, people now can’t realise how epoch-shattering it was in that very deferential culture that still existed in England.” In the following clip from the series, one of the regular cast-members, Millicent Martin (perhaps best known for her role as Daphne’s mother in the hit comedy, ‘Frasier’) sings a lullaby inspired by a government report that claims the number of babies born illegitimate in London has gone up from one in ten to one in eight. She croons, “don’t you weep my little baby ‘cos you haven’t got a dad. Go to sleep my little baby, things aren’t really quite so bad. There’s no reason any longer why you ought to feel so blue. The world is full of bastards just like you.” This is followed by a sketch sending up former Junior Admiralty Minister, Thomas Galbraith. Back in 1962, he was fighting off rumours of an affair with his one-time Personal Secretary, William John Vassall who’d been jailed earlier that year after he was blackmailed into spying for the Soviet Union because of his homosexuality (which was illegal in Britain then). Speculation as to the exact nature of their relationship was further fuelled by the Press after ‘unusually affectionate’ letters written by the high-ranking politician to the KGB asset and dating back to the 1950s were made public. Incidentally, apologies for the poor-quality sound of the clip (… works better with headphones – and it‘s worth the effort)…
In 1966, future Pythons, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Graham Chapman worked together as writers on David Frost’s satirical show, ‘The Frost Report’ along with John Cleese who also appeared in front of the camera as a member of the regular cast with Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, who later became of course, ‘The Two Ronnies.’ The sketch below, is perhaps the most recognised of all from the series…
Monty Python made their debut on October 5th 1969 on BBC TV, and, over the space of the next fourteen years, carved out their place in cultural history racking up a total of four television series (plus two German specials), and four movies as well as numerous albums and books. Their style of humour has affectionately been labelled, “crazy,” “silly,” and “surreal.” And quite rightly so, but beneath all that, there’s often a point being made, a message being conveyed, a perspective on life’s idiosyncrasies, absurdities, and injustices being shared. In 2011, Michael Palin opined, “silliness is terribly important, we all take ourselves terribly seriously, and you’ve got to see the absurdity in the human race.” It’s, he said, “a form of benign anarchy… silly people generally enjoy life and see through it.” Eric Idle meanwhile, has reportedly stated, “comedy’s job is to be against things, not for them. Monty Python was firmly apolitical, though anti-authoritarian in flavour. In the years in which it flourished, it was no longer possible to take any Party seriously. Thus, the Python attack is fixed on all authority figures… even those in charge of the BBC.” It could be argued that the Pythons, and indeed the members of Beyond the Fringe, were perhaps better qualified than many in the public eye to take pot-shots at, as Idle has purportedly described, “teachers, policemen” and those closer to the Pyramid of Power such as, “judges, minor royalties, politicians” and “army officers” given that they too had dipped their toes into this elitist environment to some degree during their formative years. For example, with the exception of Terry Gilliam, all of them had either studied at Oxford or Cambridge University, and Peter Cook had even toyed with the idea of pursuing a career in the Foreign Office. Fellow Fringe member, Jonathan Miller was actually a trained medical doctor when their revue was enjoying success apparently, as was Python, Graham Chapman who qualified in medicine in 1962, and later, in his role as secretary of the St. Bartholomew‘s Hospital students union in London, had tea with the Queen Mother when she came to open a new biochemistry block there. In 1963, former public-schoolboy, John Cleese was all set to begin working with City law firm, ’Freshfields,’ solicitors to the Bank of England, but then received an offer to write for the BBC. A lecturer at Cambridge recalls, “oh! John was an admirable, excellent lawyer. And I’m bound to say, it’s a loss to the legal profession that he didn’t qualify as a lawyer. And I can just see him at the bar – which he never joined. And one can equally see him being elevated to judicial office. Which he never aspired to.” Michael Palin’s father (the son of a doctor) had studied at Cambridge too, and his mother was the daughter of the High Sheriff of Oxfordshire. So… it might be worth keeping all the above in mind when checking out the sketches and film-clips below. Ask yourself (if you haven’t already…) how much of the material was actually based on some kind of firsthand experience? How close to the Actual Truth were Monty Python taking us?
- ‘The Architects Sketch’ In this sketch first broadcast in October 1970, John Cleese plays the role of an angry architect who accuses a pair of businessmen of being freemasons after they reject his design of a new block of flats. Instead, they opt for a structurally dangerous alternative pitched by a rival (Eric Idle) who then proceeds to thank them with an extremely peculiar handshake. At this point, Cleese’s character looks at us and says, “it opens doors – I’m telling you!” There’s suggestions the sketch is based on the tragic events that befell ‘Ronan Point,’ a 22-storey London high-rise purportedly named after Harry Louis Ronan, a local official. In May 1968, just two months after the block had been built, four people were killed when it partly collapsed from a gas explosion. A public inquiry into the disaster was launched not long after. One of those to submit evidence was architect, Sam Webb who’d inspected the scene of the devastation for himself. He’s been quoted as saying, “I knew we were going to find bad workmanship – what surprised me was the sheer scale of it.” According to the official findings, the tragedy was quite literally ignited when a resident, 56-year-old Ivy Hodge, struck a match to light her cooker. The ensuing blast blew out pre-fabricated concrete panels causing the building to fall. Actually, there’s a possible reference made to this in the sketch when architect Idle’s scaled-down model of a high-rise catches fire during his sales-pitch. Then, a caption of the word, ‘SATIRE’ briefly appears across the screen. Webb claims “the only thing“ that was holding Ronan Point together as a structure “was the action of gravity. It was like a house of cards. Move one and they all fall.” For example, “any wall or column must safely transfer its load to the foundations and the ground otherwise it will collapse. The explosive force from the gas explosion didn’t kill the woman in the flat. She got up off the floor and walked out. It wasn’t a big explosion. If it had been she would have been killed because her lungs would have blown up and burst.” Webb also believes that the British Civil Service “altered” the findings of the inquiry’s report in order to hide damning evidence.
THE DAMAGE… Ronan Point post-explosion.
Ronan Point underwent repairs and subsequently remained standing until 1986 when it was demolished along with eight other tower-blocks. Interestingly, all nine were situated on the East London residential development, ‘Freemasons Estate.’
Following the sketch is a segment titled, ‘How to Recognise a Mason’…
- ‘Merchant Banker’ Sadly, the following sketch is as pertinent today as it was back in November 1972 when it was first aired. John Cleese plays the part of an unscrupulous merchant banker struggling to understand the concept of charity…
- ‘A Lesson In Anarcho-Syndicalist Commune Living’ … or sometimes referred to as ‘Constitutional Peasant,’ the following clip is taken from the comedy-group’s second movie which parodies the exploits of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Released in 1975, ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ was made on a shoestring budget of approximately £229,000 – a relative pittance in the world of film-making, even back then. A number of fans and admirers helped finance it, including the Rock bands, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin.
In the scene below, we see King Arthur (played by Graham Chapman) being sidetracked during his epic quest to find the elusive Holy Grail by a mud-infested peasant (Michael Palin) who launches into a long-winded politically-charged rant about “the working class” and what it’s like to be part of “an anarcho-syndicalist commune.” Commenting on this clip quite recently, John Cleese recalled, “there was a lot of this kind of angry, political crap around in England in the late sixties, and particularly in the seventies. It was rife. Lots and lots of Left-wing groups which splintered every two weeks.” His patience pushed to the very limit, King Arthur can stand no more of the peasant’s ramblings and proceeds to manhandle him. “Help! Help! I‘m being repressed,“ Palin’s character cries as onlookers gather round. “Did you see him repressing me?“ he asks them. Cleese has compared this moment in the scene to what was going on in the 1970s too. “That was being shouted out a lot at the time by extremely angry Leftist revolutionaries who actually would go home to quite comfortable houses and have quite decent dinners after the demonstration” he’s said. Be that as it may, the peasant makes some valid points, exclaiming that “we‘re living in a dictatorship. A self-perpetuating autocracy.” He also accuses King Arthur of attaining his regal status “by exploiting the workers – by hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society.“ Sounds about right.
- ‘Blackmail’ Taken from their first movie, ‘And Now for Something Completely Different,’ this sketch stars Michael Palin as the slimy host of a quiz-show which attempts to blackmail its viewers by showing pictures or film of them engaging in compromising acts of a sexual nature. It’s worth noting for the reference made to a “Mr. S. of Bromsgrove… a freemason and a Conservative MP” who potentially faces “possible criminal proceedings” unless he coughs up £3,000 to stop his full name being revealed as well as “the name of the three other people involved,“ and “the youth organisation to which they belong.” Given the revelations made in recent years courtesy of the Alternative media with regards to paedophilia, politics and secret societies, one might perhaps wonder whether this sketch from 1971 was, in fact, an early subliminal warning?…
Which brings us rather neatly onto…
- ‘Euro Sex Maniacs’ Who would’ve thought it? The sketch below which refers to sex-crazed bigwigs in the ‘International Monetary Fund’ pulling their pants down “to get into bed with young girls,” was first broadcast in 1972 – 39 years before Frenchman, Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned from his position as IMF head following his arrest for the attempted rape of a hotel maid in New York. The one-time hot favourite to become France’s President denied the accusations, although he did describe his liaison with her as “inappropriate,” and “an error.” The charges against him were eventually dropped. However, there was more…
Strauss-Kahn walking out of a New York police station in cuffs in 2011 after being arrested for allegedly sexually attacking a hotel maid.
At around this time, Paris prosecutors investigated allegations he’d sexually assaulted French author and journalist, Tristane Banon back in 2001 when she was in her early twenties. She first made the claims in 2007 during a TV discussion show. Likening him to a “rutting chimpanzee,” she said he unhooked her bra and tried to unzip her jeans. Strauss-Kahn, who dismissed her version of events, reportedly told police during an interview that he’d tried to take her in his arms to kiss her but pulled back when she rejected him. Although the investigation against him was eventually dropped, prosecutors in France acknowledged there were “facts that could qualify as sexual aggression” but that no legal action could be brought as this lesser charge has a statute of limitations of three years. In 2012, a French inquiry into yet another alleged incident was scrapped after the key witness, a young Belgian woman, withdrew her statement that linked the former IMF boss to a possible gang-rape in Washington. And there’s more; he’s currently awaiting trial on charges of pimping in connection with an alleged prostitution-ring at a hotel in France where sex parties were said to have been held. Although Strauss-Kahn has acknowledged attending, he says he was unaware that the women who participated were prostitutes.
In the sketch, which is played-out in the style of a spoof TV-news/current affairs item, our intrepid reporter (John Cleese) asks, “why are so many of these top financial experts so keen to get into bed with young girls? What exactly is it that makes them want to go to bed with these people and do these apparently irrational things to them?”
- ‘Eric Njorl Court Scene (Njorl’s Saga – part III)’ This clip features the bandaged figure of Eric Njorl. He’s a character that recurs throughout an episode from the third series of the comedy-team’s BBC TV show, ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ in which an Icelandic television saga fails to gain momentum (in typically surreal, silly and hilarious fashion). Forget this – it’s largely irrelevant here – and focus on the action around him instead. Cop brutality and questionable behaviour by the judiciary is the norm in this courtroom-based sketch which also stars Michael Palin as the comically-violent police constable, Pan Am.
- ‘Police Raid’ The following sketch first screened in November ‘69, focuses on yet another corrupt cop (played by police constable’s son, Graham Chapman) as he attempts to plant illicit substances in the apartment of a supposedly famous actor by the name of Sandy Camp (Eric Idle). Some believe this skit is based on the exploits of real-life Drug Squad officer, Norman Clement Pilcher who, in the late 1960s, busted a number of British Rock/Pop stars including Eric Clapton, and members of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. John Lennon reportedly said of him, “he went round and bust every Pop star he could get his hands on, and he got famous. Some of the Pop stars had dope in their house and some of them didn’t.“ He raided the legendary musician’s London flat in October ’68 and arrested him after traces of cannabis resin were found. “That thing was set up,” he was quoted as saying. “The Daily Express was there before the cops came. In fact, Don Short (a journalist) had told us, ’they’re coming to get you,’ three weeks before.” Interestingly, years later, the newspaper/website, ’The Guardian’ published an article highlighting information given to it under the ‘Freedom of Information Act’ and showing “Pilcher came under strong pressure from the then-Home Secretary, James Callaghan after the raid on the… flat. In his report, hand-delivered to the Home Secretary, Pilcher tried to explain why it had taken seven police officers and two dogs to raid Lennon’s flat, and how it was that the Press managed to arrive on the scene within minutes of the drug-bust.” Lennon said of the raid, “believe me, I’d cleaned the house out because Jimi Hendrix had lived there before in the apartment, and I’m not stupid. I went through the whole damn house.” In 1973, Pilcher was jailed for four years as a result of his corrupt practices in the Drug Squad.
- ‘Crackpot Religions Ltd’ There’s no point in describing the following sketch. The title does that satisfactorily enough. It doesn’t need any further explanation. However, do make sure to watch out for the highly suggestive cartoon at the end courtesy of resident Python animator, Terry Gilliam…
Of course, as you’re no doubt aware, when Monty Python tackled the subject of religion in their follow-up movie to the ‘Holy Grail,’ all hell (pardon the pun) broke loose. ‘Life of Brian’ is the story of a young Jewish man (played by Graham Chapman) who is born in a stable in Nazareth on the same day as Jesus and who is later crucified. It’s all thanks to his involvement in the ’People’s Front of Judea’ (‘PFJ’), a movement fighting against Roman occupation, that he ends up on the cross in the first place, but not before he stumbles through a series of hilarious misadventures as he struggles to stay in front of Pontius Pilate’s guards who’re giving chase not far behind. In a bid to avoid capture, he blends himself into the hustle and bustle of a public plaza, pretending to be part of a line-up of would-be prophets and mystics haranguing the passing crowds. Out of his depth but desperate not to blow his cover, he witters on clumsily and nonsensically about anything of a vaguely religious nature that pops into his head and unintentionally attracts a small but intrigued audience in the process. When he then proceeds to leave the scene having shaken off Pilate’s guards, he realises – much to his annoyance – that a group of people have started following him around, hanging off his every word, and proclaiming him to be “the Messiah.”
The idea for the film came about, according to Michael Palin, “when we were going round the world doing premieres for the ‘Holy Grail’ and we had a lot of time to spare in airports and cafes and restaurants, and we got to thinking about a new film, and what particular area we might go in – and we were still keen to do a historical film… and I think it was Eric who came up with this title out of the blue called, ‘Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory,’ and I must admit that when we started talking about it, we actually explored the idea of doing a comedy-film about Jesus… but, the more that we read about Jesus and the background to his life, it was quite obvious that there was very little to ridicule in Jesus’ life and therefore we were sort of onto a loser. The characters we like to portray in ‘Python’ are failures, and dim or idiotic… sort of incapable in one way or another. Jesus was a straight, direct man making very good sense, and so we decided that it would be very, sort of very shallow film just about Jesus, so we got Brian in.” In fact, Jesus only appears in the movie for (approximately) just under a minute. It was released in 1979 to worldwide protest and condemnation from Christian groups and various church and religious leaders who branded it “blasphemous.“ It was banned in Singapore, and South Africa, as well as in Norway for a year, and in Ireland for a total of eight. In Scotland, Glasgow officials finally granted it a licence for screening in 2009. The city was one of over 30 local UK authorities that had imposed restrictions on it. In the US meanwhile, as Terry Jones recalls, “it was banned in quite a few southern States.” He also remembers “a lot of protests there,” claiming that “several nuns used to parade outside a theatre in New York with placards, telling people they’d be doomed if they went to see the film.” Talking about the controversy in a 2007 interview, Terry Gilliam declared, “this is what makes me crazy, is this ability to just close – say, ‘no. Don’t even look at that. Don’t even think about it.’ But, it’s a way of keeping people ignorant, under control, and not thinking, and I think that ‘Python’ – one of the things I thought that we were all pretty proud of is trying to make people think.” The ill-will and animosity that was directed against Monty Python and their movie was of such intensity that each member of the comedy-team was told to make a will. “They had no idea whether someone would take a shot at them or not,” said one insider.
The fact that the movie was made in the first place is quite something in itself, and it‘s largely due to ex-Beatle, George Harrison who put up all the money himself after the original investor, ’EMI’ pulled out just before filming was due to start over concerns the script-content was “sacrilegious.” Sensing that the movie might wind them up in court on blasphemy charges, the Pythons sought the advice of top defence lawyer, Sir John Mortimer prior to its release. “They came to see me and I saw the film which I thought riotously funny,” he said in 2007. However, there is a scene which he regarded “rather dangerous.” It’s the one where Brian is approached by the ex-leper (Palin) who starts complaining about the “bloody do-gooder” Jesus for healing him and thus depriving him of his livelihood as a beggar. In a 2011 interview, Terry Jones did go as far as to say the movie was “heretical because it criticised the structure of the church and the way it interpreted the Gospels,” but didn’t accept the view that it was “blasphemous.” As far as John Cleese was concerned, what it also wasn’t was an “attempt to say, ‘you should not believe in Christ,’” it was merely warning people “to take a critical view” first. Speaking during the height of the controversy back in 1979, he said, “find out about it. Don’t just believe because… somebody in the pulpit says something. Question it. Work it out for yourself.” In short, “make up your own mind about things and don’t do what people tell you.” There’s a scene in the movie which conveys this message with particularly memorable effect; Brian, having managed to escape from the growing mob of followers who refuse to believe him when he tells them he’s not the Messiah, takes Judith, the only female member of the PFJ, back to the seclusion of his house where they make love. The adoring horde however isn’t far behind him, and, the next morning when he opens the curtains, he sees an enormous crowd of people waiting desperately for him to address them. None too happy with the sudden influx of unwelcome visitors at the door, his mother, Mandy (Terry Jones), confronts them…
Of course, there’s probably very little need in pointing out that the sheep-like mentality of Brian’s followers in the above clip, and his attempt to break them out of it will resonate with many of you reading this for one reason or another. It’s a scene that can be applied well beyond the context in which it is set, symbolising as it does (whether intentionally or not on the part of the Pythons) the thought-control that’s all too pervasive around us in the modern-day courtesy of governments, political organisations, think-tanks, the media, the education system, and indeed religious institutions. Michael Palin is of the view the movie itself is “about authority and about the way people blindly follow… what other people tell them to do.” So, hilarious as the above clip is of Brian struggling to wake-up his flock of followers, his message is far from a joke; Yes – we are all individuals, and we do have to work it out for ourselves. Only you can bring about the change you want in your life. We cannot rely on others to seek the solutions for us. Speaking in 2007, Palin said, “people are always looking for leaders, or they’re looking for a hero somewhere or someone they can follow – whether it’s a sportsman, or it’s a politician, or it’s a Pop group, or some religious fundamentalist – always looking for someone like that, and so, a lot of it’s about gullibility and about the lengths people will go to sort of be led – give up their own sort of powers of reason to somebody else’s.” Commenting on the movie shortly after its release in 1979, he said, “I think that what we’ve chosen to do is what we’ve always done in ‘Python’… we have taken a certain group of people which are generally sort of England in the present day and put them into a historical context. I think that’s what we’ve done with this film. It’s about the people who live in – anyone who lives and makes up our society today.” In other words, the movie addresses issues that would’ve been as relevant to people in 1970s Britain as they were to those living 3,000 or so years earlier. Scenes in the film dealing with crucifixion are a case in point. Palin said, “people were crucified… as common criminals – it was just a form of capital punishment employed by the Romans who’re regarded as a highly civilised people. But it was capital punishment. And in the film we examine attitudes to capital punishment. As far as I know… the majority of people – we’re constantly told – are in favour of capital punishment. It just seems we haven’t come that far…” A number of surveys released in recent years (if they’re to be believed) would suggest that support for the death penalty is almost certainly a “majority” today, regardless of whether it was or wasn’t over three decades ago when Palin made the observation. A 2009 poll conducted by ‘Harris Interactive’ concluded that 54% of people in the UK were in favour. Another, carried out by ‘Angus Reid’ in the wake of the London riots of 2011, found that 65% backed re-introduction. In May 2013, just four days on from the reported killing of Lee Rigby by so-called ‘Muslim extremists,’ researchers, ’Survation’ stated that 63% would endorse it for convicted terrorists. The very same pollster in 2011 showed 53% in approval. Furthermore, when asked which methods should be used, 66% of those questioned in the survey said lethal injection, 12% hanging, 5% electric-chair, 4% firing-squad, and 4% gas-chamber. In the clip below, Roman guard, Nisus Wettus (played by Palin) spares a moment whilst supervising a queue of men destined for crucifixion to ponder on what a “senseless waste of human life” it all is. One of those lined-up incidentally is Brian who attempts to escape the cross by trading on his mother’s claim that the father he’s never met is a centurion. If there’s any one scene in the movie to back-up Michael’s declaration that the Pythons were examining attitudes to capital punishment, then this perhaps is it…
Another topic relevant to 1970s British society that’s addressed within the context of the movie (with the exception of religion of course) is Left-wing politics. John Cleese spoke about this at length during his commentary for the 2008 DVD re-release of the film stating that the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ was the Pythons’ vehicle to make “fun of… the extraordinary proliferation of… political Parties – all of them very, very small on the far Left in Britain at that time. The biggest of the Parties was known as the ‘Socialist Workers Party,’ but there were an enormous number of them and they were all Leninist or Trotskyite or they sort of were Maoist or they were Leninist/Maoist or they were Maoist/Trotskyite and they all had these extraordinarily precise labels and they all fought with each other and hated each other – it seemed to everyone else – much more than they actually hated the Parties on the Right. You would think being on the Left there would’ve been a kind of coalition… but no, they hated each other – much more strongly than the real opposition because it was so necessary for them to be doctrinally pure.” The scene below illustrates his point. It takes place in the Roman coliseum in Jerusalem where, true to Pythonesque form, we see Brian earning a living as a Biblical-era equivalent of a fast-food vendor at a sports-venue selling such snacks as wolf-nipple chips, wrens’ livers, jaguars’ earlobes, and otters’ noses to audiences watching the games. Whilst peddling these tid-bits, he comes across the principle members of the PFJ played by Idle, Cleese, Palin, and actress, Sue Jones-Davies who takes on the role of Judith…
The above clip, says Terry Gilliam, represents “England at the time we were doing it – the unions and the different Left-wing factions… they spent their whole time nit-picking about terminology and titles at the expense of actually getting out and doing anything.” Michael Palin recalls “there were just an awful lot of liberation groups around in the ‘70s, everyone was setting up a group somewhere… and they’d all be run very sort of bureaucratically and with a lot of sort of motions being passed… and of course the feminist movement was just beginning to sort of make a mark, and some of it was very confused… all these great ideas for changing the world – basically it’s all stymied, it’s all reduced, it’s all swamped by this minutia of procedure, but everyone being very earnest.” The clip below sums all this up…
The ‘Life of Brian,’ said Cleese in 1979, is partly “about closed systems of thought whether they’re political or theological, or religious – whatever. Systems by which whatever evidence is given to the person, he merely adapts it, fits it into his ideology. You show the same event to a Marxist and a Catholic for example, they both of them find they both have explanations of it. I mean, once… you‘ve actually got an idea that is whirring round so fast that no other light or contrary evidence can come in, then I think it‘s very dangerous.”
Terry Gilliam as the Blood and Thunder prophet in the ‘Life of Brian.’ (CLICK TO ENLARGE).
Commenting on the movie in 2011, he said it was “an attack on how people hold religious beliefs, an attack on what I would call intolerance and narrow mindedness.” He added, “I’m personally fascinated by religion and spirituality and sometimes think spirituality is a bit of a threat to religion because the organised churches are so into power and influence and indeed wealth.” This is a point which he spoke about in much greater detail a few years earlier in 2008 saying, “here’s what I think in a single sentence: I think that the real religion is about the understanding that if we can only still our egos for a few seconds, we might have a chance of experiencing something that is divine in nature. But in order to do that, we have to slice away at our egos and try to get them down to a manageable size, and then still work some practiced light meditation. So real religion is about reducing our egos, whereas all the churches are interested in is egotistical activities, like getting as many members and raising as much money and becoming as important and high-profile and influential as possible. All of which are egotistical attitudes. So how can you have an egotistical organisation trying to teach a non-egotistical ideal? It makes no sense, unless you regard religion as crowd control. What I think most organised religion (is) – simply crowd control.” Terry Jones meanwhile has said on more than one occasion that the Pythons would “think twice” about making the ‘Life of Brian’ in this day and age because “free speech is really under attack at the moment, you know, in a very devious way.” Furthermore, when asked in 2011 if the comedy-group would ever reunite to create a similarly satirical film about Muslims, he replied, “probably not – looking at Salman Rushdie. I suppose people would be frightened. I think it’s whipped up by the arms industry. I read an in-house magazine called Weapons Today before the Gulf War and the editorial was headlined, ‘Thank God for Saddam’ and went on to say that since perestroika we have an enemy no one can complain about. So in future we look for Islam to replace Communism. I thought they were joking – the Crusades were 1,000 years ago – but of course that’s what’s happening now.” However, it would appear that Eric Idle isn‘t as cautious as Jones suggests. When asked during an interview a few years ago if comedy should poke fun at thorny issues such as terrorism, he replied, “oh. You must. Oh, I think the whole point about humour is that it’s the closest to us. I think it describes our humanity and that, er, there’s nothing must be barred from comedy… anybody who tries to bar a subject, you have to look very closely at who’s doing the barring – and for very good reasons. I mean, the first thing Hitler did was to get rid of the comedians. It’s one of the first signs of countries going towards Fascism as they start curtailing freedom of speech and what subjects should be talked about. Why would you not ridicule terrorists? Why should they escape ridicule?” How would he go about this? Well, “eeerrm… a suicide-bomb lesson. I mean, you have a school of suicide-bombers. In fact, we did it in the ‘Life of Brian’ but we cut it out.” Yes they did. He’s referring to a deleted scene he wrote which undoubtedly would’ve caused a controversy all of its own had it of been left in the final cut, given that it was centred around Otto, a Zionist with an Adolf Hitleresque moustache who leads the widely-hated suicide-squad, the ‘Judean People‘s Front.’ Their logo, which they wear on their helmets, is a Star of David with a small line attached to each point to resemble a swastika (designed by Gilliam). Although rubbed from the film, the clip is available to watch either on ‘YouTube,’ or in the ‘special features’ section of the movie’s 2008 DVD/blu-ray re-release package. You can see it here too – directly below in fact. In the scene, Otto (played by Idle, who’s Jewish, incidentally) approaches Brian and asks him if he’s seen “the leader.” Then, after introducing himself, he launches into a rant, exclaiming, “oh, I grow so impatient, you know. To see the leader that has been promised our people for centuries. The leader who will save Israel by ridding it of the scum of non-Jewish people, making it pure, no foreigners, no gypsies, no riff-raff.” He then proudly shows off his “thoroughly-trained suicide-squad” who “can commit suicide within twenty seconds.” The scene is preceded by a deleted segment from the clip featured here earlier of Brian addressing the crowds at his house. He bolts from there, escaping the followers and hangers-on who’ve invited themselves in, and sits alone outside…
Idle has said the scene, “was about rampant nationalism and how dangerous that is to all of us in any society… Otto’s like a proto-type Fascist really… he wants to purify his religion and get rid of the foreigners. This is terribly contentious ‘cos it’s sort of suggesting that in extremes, Zionism can be compared to Nazism.” It was, however, “ultimately cut because I did feel it was holding up the narrative flow at a crucial point of the film while we were all moving with Brian towards the climax of him being arrested and crucified. In an odd way, Otto was an intrusion… when Otto came in it was introducing a whole new character and what was this about? You know, it was coming from leftfield and it wasn’t adding. It was puzzling… we’d always have… lots of previews and so Otto wasn’t just cut out of the blue, it was cut because watching previews and feeling the audience shift… you can feel when you’re watching with an audience when they get restless and when they start shifting and nodding off. You can sense that when you watch a film with an audience, and it was always coming back to us at around that point – no matter what we put in there – things were starting to nod… and that’s why we made some cuts, because… cutting lets you drive through to the end quicker, and they can see which way we’re going and the plot is building and that made it work better I think.” Speaking about the Otto scene during the commentary for the 2008 DVD/blu-ray re-release of the movie, Terry Gilliam noted that “we did make a lot of choices that tried to maintain the narrative at the expense of sketches – like the Otto scene is one of those which is a wonderful scene, but it came too late in the film to introduce new characters…. always the problem is when you’re making a film – you know – over ninety-minutes, somewhere in the middle of a comedy-film it just – nothing works. And so we trimmed it down and decided – tried to keep the narrative moving.” However, “I’m never certain whether we were right or wrong, to be honest.” Indeed, in the 2007 UK TV-documentary, ‘The Secret Life of Brian,’ he says, “I’m still not convinced cutting it out was the right thing ‘cos I think that scene’s really important. It’s right on the edge. Again, you’re saying things you’re not supposed to say. This time, not about Christians, but about Jews ‘n’ Israel. Important stuff to say because it’s sort of cutting through the hypocrisy.” Terry Jones took a similar viewpoint when discussing the movie during the 2008 DVD/blu-ray commentary, saying, “I regretted cutting it out but it did seem that the film worked better without it.” John Cleese has also said “it was a good scene,” but “was not as funny as all that, so I was certainly in favour of losing it.” He also noted that “it was… saying something that I think might have offended a lot of people although I can’t remember what it was.” Michael Palin states in his published memoirs that the Otto scene for him was, “a magnificent creation – a Jewish Hitler… who wants more Lebensraum for the Jews” and recalls it was still being considered for inclusion in the final cut just four months before its release when it was see-sawing ”between condemnation and popularity” at private viewings. Remnants of Otto do survive in the film of course. He appears as if from nowhere along with his suicide-squad towards the end during the crucifixion scene. Cleese believes “it’s a weakness of the scene you haven’t seen these people before but this is what happens on filming sometimes, and I think it would’ve been a mistake to have put the earlier scene in.” And, “so, that’s what it was,” Idle has said. “It’s hard, tough comedy and it makes… a very strong point. But in the end, you know, you say, ’well, do we really wanna offend all these people who’re gonna misunderstand what the point is? Is that really our target in this movie?’ And it isn’t really, and the movie’s target is really about Christianity and its sects and its followers and its ability to go to war over peace. Which is the great irony, you know? So, that’s the Otto story.” Well… not quite. Take note of the chopped dialogue at the 39-to-40 second mark in the above clip. That’s where a section of Otto’s rant is missing. He should be seen and heard saying, “time that we Jews racially purified ourselves,” and, “we need more living room. We must move into the traditionally Jewish areas of Samaria.” Brian then asks him, “what about the Samaritans?” He replies, “well, we can put them in little camps. And after Samaria we must move into Jordan and create a great Jewish State that will last a thousand years.” However, you can hear (but not see) the deleted clip in its entirety – with no cuts – on Monty Python’s audio-CD of the movie released in 2006, along with two versions of ‘Otto’s Song,’ a number that conjures up images of the Third Reich in all its goose-stepping glory…
On the face of it, it would certainly appear (and sound) as though the controversial Otto film-clip has been tampered with. A deletion within a deletion as it were. But why and by whom? If anyone reading this has any information that might shed some light on this, then do please share it here, because ‘Conspiro Media’ has so far failed to find a definitive answer. In the meantime, let’s assume for the sake of argument that the scene was chopped without the Pythons’ knowledge and/or consent – after all, the legendary comedy-team mightn’t have been at all keen to include the segment in the finished movie, but they did make it available in full on the audio-CD, leading one to conclude perhaps that they had no particular interest or justification in removing sections from the film-clip on the DVD version. Take note also that the screenplay – with chopped scene included in its entirety – was apparently published commercially alongside the release of the film back in ‘79 in a two-volume paperback set titled, ‘Monty Python The Life of Brian / Montypythonscrapbook‘ – or otherwise referred to as, ‘Monty Python‘s The Life of Brian (of Nazareth)’ and/or, ‘Montypythonscrapbookofbrianofnazareth.’ Below are some purported scans from these publications, one of which even lists Otto in the credits…
Scan apparently from page 5 of Monty Python ‘Brian Scrapbook’ showing Otto in credits.
Read more here:
So. If we work on the assumption that the Pythons weren’t to blame in any shape or form for chopping out the dialogue in the deleted scene about moving “into Jordan,“ creating “a great Jewish State,” and putting Samaritans “in little camps,” then that surely means the focus of suspicion should be on the movie-industry big-wigs instead, right? As Robert Hewison, Oxford University friend of Michael Palin’s, and author of the book, ‘Monty Python: The Case Against’ has suggested, Otto “was a problem character because of course this is not the sort of character that would appeal to an American film distributor where the Jewish lobby is very strong.” Indeed… and the plot thickens. The deleted (and crudely censored) scene was first made publicly available in 1997 on laserdisc. According to ‘Wikipedia’ (not the most reliable of sources, granted, but when there’s nowhere else to look, you can’t be picky), “an unknown amount of raw footage was destroyed in 1998 by the company that bought ‘Handmade Films,’” the studio that George Harrison formed in order to finance the movie. “However,” it adds, “a number of them (of varying quality) were shown the following year on the ’Paramount Comedy Channel’ in the UK; it has not been disclosed how these scenes were saved or where they came from; possibly the source was the… laserdisc.” In 2011, Terry Jones said “the film was sold on to various companies and then to the ‘Royal Bank of Scotland’ who threw it away. Another black mark for them. We should sue.” It is all rather odd, isn’t it? “Destroyed”? Thrown away? What’s going on?
In 1983, Monty Python released their next movie, ‘The Meaning of Life,’ a selection of sketches loosely structured around Man’s journey from birth to death taking in topics including religion, sex, war, and corporate greed along the way. Weighty stuff indeed, but nowhere near as controversial as ‘Brian.’ It could’ve been though. John Cleese recalls, “Graham and I wrote a thing about a mad ayatollah, and it was not included, and I thought it was a mistake that it was not included, but it probably explains why I’m still here, because there would’ve been a fatwa on Graham and me, without any doubt, and probably the whole group. And it was all about him fulminating against all the sins of western civilisation, like toilet paper. And there was a scene where the mad ayatollah’s men had caught some British, uh, adventurers of the… sort of 1880s, you know. And there was a very funny scene when they were all gonna be tortured to death. And the regimental sergeant major went up to the colonel and asked for permission to panic. The colonel refused them permission, and he said, ‘can we panic just a little, sir? Just a couple of minutes, sir. I think it would, uh, raise the men’s spirits.’ And I just thought that was very funny stuff. I think they were really good ideas.”
After ‘The Meaning of Life’ in 1983, the Pythons went their separate ways and didn’t work together again for almost six years. When they did re-form in 1989 for a tribute-special hosted by Hollywood actor and comedian, Steve Martin, their appearance was unfortunately all too fleeting. Sadly, it also turned out to be Graham Chapman’s last performance with the group. He died of cancer a day before it was broadcast. He was 48. The remaining members have reunited twice; once in 1998 for a one-off live chat show-style comedy stage-event in in the US in which they looked back over their career, then a year later when they wrote and filmed some new material for a BBC 30th anniversary TV special, although Eric Idle’s contribution was noticeably minimal only appearing with the Pythons in one sketch for a total of fifteen-seconds and via video-link from America with the other four members playing their parts in a studio elsewhere. That means, next year’s live reunion (which has been extended from one to ten dates at London’s ’O2 Arena’) will be the first time all of them have performed in the same room together for 16 years. The shows will mostly be made up of old classics along with a sprinkling of never-before-seen material too. Officially unveiling the plans at a Press conference last month, the Pythons were asked by a journalist from the American ‘NBC News’ network if they’d consider some gigs in the US in 2014 as well. No doubt referencing that country’s recent financial woes, Eric Idle replied, “if you’re still open by then,“ thus demonstrating that at least one of the legendary comedy-troupe hasn’t lost his bite – So, if they do indeed showcase any new material next year as hinted, don’t be surprised if some of it is taking a critical, but silly-natured swipe at the so-called ’Establishment’ of today.
‘Diaries 1969 – 1979’ – Michael Palin.
‘The Story of Brian’ documentary from ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian Immaculate Edition’ DVD – 2008
DVD commentary from ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian Immaculate Edition’ DVD – 2008.