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Life of Brian: the Aberystwyth sub-plot

With Good Friday coming up, our thoughts turned to movies – how about a suitably Biblical film? We were thinking of going to see Mary Magdalene, but it would appear that that’s not showing anywhere near us (apart from a midday screening with subtitles down at the Phoenix), so perhaps not. I then thought that it would be fun to dig out a DVD from our collection – Life of Brian or, to give it its full title, Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

We’ve seen it loads of times, of course. The 1979 Monty Python film is a classic and I can quote quite a few of the lines should I so desire (“He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”, “I’m Brian and so’s my wife”, etc, etc). I can tell you a few random facts about it, too: George Harrison put up the money for it (thus leading to the formation of Hand Made Films, through which the ex-Beatle also funded movies like Mona Lisa and Withnail & I);Spike Milligan made a cameo appearance after the Python team found out that he happened to be on holiday down the road from where they were filming; and Michael Palin later revisited the scene of his ‘crucifixion’ in Tunisia when doing his 2002 travelogue Sahara (or to give it its full title, Sahara with Michael Palin).

Life of Brian is about one Brian of Nazareth, an ordinary guy living in first-century Roman-occupied Judea who was born in the stable next to the one in which Jesus was born and who gets mistaken for the Son of God. Due to its content the film was highly controversial at the time – to many, it was seen to be blasphemous although that may well be based on the mistaken assumption that Brian was meant to be a send-up of Jesus. They are actually shown to be two different characters in the film (when Jesus is shown – as a minor character, like Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – he is played with respect in the Sermon on the Mount scene, with the humour coming from the people in the crowd who mis-hear what he says). This in turn leads one to assume that some of those who protested against the film, by way of picketing outside cinemas that were showing it, had not actually seen it. Michael Palin, by the way, was highly amused by the fact that the protesters included banner-carrying nuns, which makes one think of that episode of Father Ted where Ted and Dougal stage a half-hearted protest outside their local cinema when it shows a blasphemous film that’s been banned everywhere else, which only serves to let everyone know about the film and draw in the crowds. Certainly in the real-life case of Life of Brian, the protests did serve to give the film more publicity than it might otherwise have had.

Terry Jones, who directed Life of Brian, has always denied that it was blasphemous. He said that it was doubtless heretical, because it poked fun at religious dogma and the interpretation of religious belief, but not blasphemous as it didn’t attack religious belief itself.

Be that as it may, it’s reckoned that over 30 local authorities in the UK either banned it outright or insisted that the film carry an X-certificate, which amounted to the same thing (prior to 1982 in this country, an 18-certificate was called an X-certificate; Life of Brian had been given an AA-certificate, meaning that it could be seen by anyone who was 14 or over, and the distributors said it couldn’t be shown unless it had the original certification that had been given to it by the British Board of Film Censors). It’s been claimed that some of the councils which banned it didn’t actually have any cinemas within their boundaries, so as with those protesters who hadn’t seen the film there may well have been some righteous (or perhaps self-righteous) jumping-on-the-bandwagon going on. A few counties – most notably the Republic of Ireland and Norway – also banned it. Some of the bans lasted for decades, and it is arguable that the film got as much free publicity from the bans as it did from the protests.

One British local authority that banned Life of Brian was Torbay. It wasn’t until 2008 that the council permitted the film to be shown in the borough (which covers the Devon coastal towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham), and even then it was only because the film won an online vote at the English Riviera International Comedy Film Festival. A similar story followed in the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth. Like many a British local authority, Aberystwyth Town Council works on the ‘Buggins’s turn’ principal when it comes to the question of who gets to be the mayor, meaning that it’s done by rotation – if a councillor on the ruling party (or ruling coalition) is there for long enough, chances are that he or she will at some point get to serve as mayor for a year, after which it’s someone else’s turn.

In Aberystwyth in 2008, it was the turn of Cllr Sue Jones-Davies. Before going into local politics, she had been an actress – and, among other things, she’d been in Life of Brian as Judith Iscariot (a member of the People’s Front of Judea – not the Judean People’s Front – who becomes Brian’s love interest). On becoming the mayor, she found out that Life of Brian was apparently still banned in the town. Naturally, she decided to overturn the ban by showing a charity screening. As it happened, she had remained friends with Terry Jones and so invited him along; his response was to ask if he could bring Michael Palin along too, which was of course agreed to! The screening happened in March 2009 and a fun time was had by all (how could an event attended by Terry Jones and Michael Palin not be fun?), and as well as raising money for good causes it also had the benefit of generating some publicity for Aberystwyth.

Funnily enough, though, there’s a little twist. As Aberystwyth was getting ready for the screening and the visit of two ex-Pythons, someone at the university did a bit of research and found that Aberystwyth Town Council had never actually banned Life of Brian. Council records show that they discussed banning it, but in the end they didn’t enforce a ban. Life of Brian was in fact shown in an Aberystwyth cinema in 1981. Still, the story of an actress-turned-mayor overturning the decades-old ban of a film she was in is a good one – perhaps too good to let the facts get in the way. Actually, it brings to mind a quote from a different film entirely – “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

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