St Mugg, the bishop and the Pythons, an encounter reborn: a forty-year episode in Christian media history

Occasionally a particular event comes to stand for a shift in cultural history, a embodiment of the movement of impersonal forces at a key moment, or a sudden evidence that a shift has already taken place. One of these was a televised debate on 9 November 1979 about the newly released film by the Monty Python team, The Life of Brian. The programme, Friday Night, Saturday Morning was a late-night weekend chat show in front of a live audience in the mood for amusement. It pitted two of the Pythons – John Cleese and Michael Palin – against Mervyn Stockwood, the bishop of Southwark, and Malcolm Muggeridge, writer and former satirist, but in his latter years a very public convert to Christianity and one of the Church’s most trenchant apologists.

The show must be one of the most discussed television programmes of recent years, and in the last two decades it is the Pythons’ interpretation of it that has become dominant, for reasons I shall discuss shortly. Stockwood and Muggeridge are both long dead, and (as far as I know) never commented publicly on the programme after it was broadcast, and so their interpretation of it is hard to recover. It is clear that they had only seen the film earlier that day, and were likely still in a degree of shock, for reasons I shall come on to. Palin also gathered from Stockwood before the show that that he had missed the first few minutes due to confusion over times; Cleese later recalled that Muggeridge too had missed the beginning. These two facts together go a long way to explain the sheer misunderstanding of the film the pair showed, and the startlingly vitriolic way in which they showed it.

Watching it again, it is hard to disagree with Palin’s impression that Stockwood spoke ‘with all the smug and patronising paraphernalia of the gallery-player, who believes that the audience will see he is right, because he is a bishop and we’re not.’ Stockwood ‘posed and preened and pontificated’; Palin’s arguments were dismissed as ‘unworthy of an educated man’; the two were being ‘utterly dishonest’. How far the two misjudged the public mood is indicated both by the audience, and by the speed with which the programme – and Stockwood himself – were themselves lampooned on the satirical show Not the Nine O’Clock News. Within days clergy of the church of England were writing to the press regretting the pair’s performance.

In retrospect, it is hard to see the event as anything but a public relations disaster for the Church of England. (Even Raymond Johnston, who with the Nationwide Festival of Light was trying to have the film banned, had seemed to Palin to be embarrassed by Stockwood and Muggeridge.) Stockwood’s parting shot – ‘I’m sure you’ll get your thirty pieces of silver’ – was in retrospect terribly misjudged, a lack of communicative wisdom compounded by failures of charity and of respect. ‘We won the argument’ thought Cleese, ‘by behaving much better than the Christians’.

At one level the clash was visibly one of generations, of the residual authority of one generation over the next. Cleese had just turned 40; Palin was only 36. Stockwood, in contrast, was 66, and would within days announce a very welcome retirement after a long private struggle with depression. Muggeridge was a decade older still, at 76, having reached a similar stage of disillusion, but with life itself. ‘Extricating myself from the flesh I have too long inhabited,’ he wrote around this time, ‘disengaging my tired mind from its interminable conundrums, and my tired ego from its wearisome insistencies. Such is the prospect of death.’ Old and tired, neither man was likely to engage with the film and the questions it seemed to be asking. (After the event, the BBC’s head of religious broadcasting regretted having presented two ‘serious and brilliant’ performers with ‘geriatric’ opposition).

Stockwood emphasised the gap in generation by referring to his time as vicar of Great St Mary’s in Cambridge, the university church, in the late 1950s, and missioner to Blundells School before that: he was ‘familiar with undergraduate humour’. The impression was cemented by Cleese’s account of the religious education he had received at Clifton College in Bristol, during which time (it emerged) he had in fact heard Stockwood as a visiting preacher. But at another level, the four had as much in common as that which divided them: three Cambridge graduates (Cleese, Muggeridge, Stockwood) and one from Oxford (Palin, who was also an alumnus of Shrewsbury School).

And it is this closeness of the four men in social terms that should make us wary of reading the dispute in terms of class, of popular and elite. ‘Have we not become as established as the Establishment we seek to kick?’ Palin wondered, a few days later. Were the Pythons not ‘licensed satirists… Keepers of the Queen’s Silly Things’, and likely to be afforded the full protection of Oxbridge men ‘in an English Establishment that is still Oxbridge-controlled?’ Here was a conversation within the elite about other things.

So what was the dispute really about? Although much of the discussion was about the representation of Christ in the film, the law on blasphemy in particular was never really invoked. But it might have been. In July 1977 the Christian campaigner Mary Whitehouse brought a successful private prosecution against the publishers and editor of Gay News for the offence of blasphemous libel. Whitehouse and the Nationwide Festival of Light certainly had their eye on the Python team. Just as the filming had finished in the autumn of 1978, the NFOL was warning its supporters ‘that there seems little doubt the the film is blasphemous.’ However, the advice from J.A. Fisher, canon of Windsor (after reading the script) was that while the film was likely to be found ‘extremely offensive’, it was clearly not blasphemous, and soon the NFOL admitted the same.

Even if not blasphemous, The Life of Brian did cause offence, and the NFOL pressed for it to be banned by local authorities if it could not be stopped nationally. Robert Hewison documented the campaigns against the film in towns across the UK, in the USA and in Canada, a subject ripe for a detailed historical investigation now. But the television debate in particular showed two older Christians grappling with rapidly shifting understandings of the proper purposes of the arts (broadly conceived) and the kind of treatment established Christianity could expect from them.

The decade and a half or so before 1979 saw all kinds of new interactions between faith and the arts, both ‘high’ and ‘low’. In 1968 the Theatres Act lifted the last vestiges of theatre censorship, allowing for the first time the personation of Christ himself on stage, not least in Jesus Christ, Superstar (1970). In 1978 A.N. Wilson’s novel Unguarded Hours depicted all manner of vanity and vice in an Anglican theological college. In Chichester, Walter Hussey welcomed the dramatic music of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms into the cathedral, and the cast of the London production of Hair sang songs at St Paul’s. Meanwhile, missionally-minded Christians experimented with film and drama, and ‘pop’ church music gradually moved from the margins to the centre of Sunday worship in an increasing number of churches.

Viewed in the round, the whole period is one of negotiation, the forging of new terms of trade. If traditional ways of communicating the gospel by means of words were failing, perhaps the arts were another way. But in return for such co-operation, the churches could no longer expect the kind of reverential treatment that had been the case only twenty years before. However, by no means all British Christians were comfortable with all this. Indeed, by the late 1970s a kind of siege mentality had in places set in, a sense that all that had been stable was under threat: the King James Bible (endangered, it was thought, by modern translations), and the Book of Common Prayer, about to be pushed out by the Alternative Service Book 1980, after 15 years of experimentation with new services; traditional hymns replaced with ‘trivial’ choruses.

It is in this light, and not as mere abuse, that we should read Muggeridge and Stockwood’s scorn for the film on grounds of its quality: ‘cheap and tenth-rate’, something the Footlights company in Cambridge would have done ‘on a damp Tuesday afternoon’; it was ‘not worthy of you’. The Pythons had taken a subject previously the preserve of the ‘greatest art’ and made out of it the ‘lowest art’; posterity would make up its own mind about this ‘squalid little number’. It is striking that Muggeridge, himself editor of Punch in the 1950s and a satirist whose work Cleese and Palin knew and respected, should make such a category error as to try to equate the purposes of Brian with the art of the Renaissance or Chartres Cathedral (‘not a funny building’, as Cleese put it). But the assertion that higher art forms, executed to the highest standard, were the only acceptable means of reflecting on religious truth was a common one, and with a long history.

At base, the two sides were at cross-purposes, and so there could be no real meeting of minds. The Pythons sincerely believed that their purpose was not to ridicule Christ himself but to examine certain elements of human credulity. (Had Muggeridge and Stockwood seen the whole film, they would surely have accepted Palin and Cleese’s insistence on this.) Interviewed by Dick Cavett on American television not long afterwards, Cleese described the film as ‘profoundly religious’; although the Pythons had toyed with the idea of a film about Christ himself, they had found him to be ‘wise, flexible, intelligent’, and lacking in precisely the characteristics on which comedy thrives: envy, greed, malice, stupidity. It was these perversions of the religious impulse that the Pythons had in their sights. Only if religion was defined as something unexamined, controlled by institutions exempt from critique, was Brian an irreligious film.

Both at the time, and in more recent years Christians have embraced the critique in the film and used it for evangelistic ends. Canon Fisher of Windsor (the father of a friend of Graham Chapman) thought there were things in the film that (in Chapman’s words) ‘he’d been wanting to say the whole of his life’. And with those aspects of the film Muggeridge and Stockwood would have no doubt largely agreed if discussed in the abstract, with an appropriate seriousness. Christians of their generation were more than accustomed to intellectual challenge, but not when framed in this way. Even if one disagreed strongly with Christianity, matters of faith could not be dealt with lightly; they were much too important for that. The Pythons’ offence was to touch theology with unwashed hands.

For all the sound and fury, the episode might have disappeared from public consciousness, had it not been for technological change and the retrospective assembling of a ‘history of Python’ on the Pythons’ own terms, in which the episode assumed a prominent place. The episode was first documented in 1981 by the cultural historian (and friend of long standing with Palin) Robert Hewison. But books go out of print, and television shows disappear into the air. (Home video recording was available to some in 1979 – the writer Douglas Adams, a friend of Palin’s, had recorded the show and watched it repeatedly – but such recordings were hard to circulate.) Stockwood had nothing to say of it in his 1982 memoir, and it is not noted by his biographer, or in either of the two biographies of Muggeridge that appeared together in 1995.

In the last twenty years, however, as the Python team approached retirement, a record of their careers has been assembled, both by the group themselves and by the media. Biographies and autobiographies began to appear, both of individuals (Cleese in 1999, Chapman in 2005), and of the group as a whole; the team recalled the broadcast in the 2003 group ‘autobiography’. Palin himself gave an account in his diaries, published in 2006. Channel 4 screened a documentary on the episode in 2007 (The Secret Life of Brian) which was followed by a 2011 film, Holy Flying Circus. One morning in 2013 the BBC’s flagship morning radio news programme Today gave the guest editorship to Palin, during which show he and Cleese reflected on the dispute.

At the same time, footage of the Friday Night, Saturday Morning encounter was beginning to be reborn online, and on YouTube in particular. The earliest clip I have so far found was carried on the channel of the campaigning Atheist Media Blog in 2009, which boasted several thousand subscribers. (The clip is now deleted, but archived by the Internet Archive). And before long the footage was itself being re-edited, captioned and republished on YouTube to frame Muggeridge and Stockwood as both idiots and persecutors.

That the footage has now floated entirely free of its historical moorings was evident in the reaction in early 2020 to a Facebook post by the BBC Archive. The posted clip showed six minutes of the programme, from towards the end when the tensions between the four men became most apparent. (The post was ostensibly to mark the death of Terry Jones, even though he did not take part in the programme). Posted on January 23rd, at the time of writing it had attracted some 1,800 comments. Many took the same dim view of Muggeridge and Stockwood as has become the orthodoxy; at the same time many Christians commented on their own appreciation of the film. A good few seemed not to grasp that the footage was historic. Some reacted to Stockwood in particular with comments concerning historic sexual abuse within the churches (there is no suggestion that Stockwood had any involvement in the several cases that have recently come to light). The subsequent revelations concerning Muggeridge’s own reputation as a serial sexual harasser of women are also noted, having been given new prominence by Jean Seaton’s 2015 book on the BBC. 

In 1979 Muggeridge and Stockwood doubtless thought that they were dealing with an ephemeral film, in the similarly airy medium of a television chatshow. Instead, their performances are reborn again and again in new media contexts, as the established narrative of the Christian churches as both ridiculous and hypocritical continues to evolve.

Unguarded Hours

After six years and dozens of posts in my series on fictional clergy, a new record has been set for the most priests in a single novel. In Unguarded Hours, by A.N. Wilson (1978), I counted some ten clergy, plus half a dozen ordinands in theological college, and a wandering bishop. It is to Mar Sylvestrius (Exarch of the Isles, Abbot of Cluny, Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, but otherwise plain Mr Skegg, retired electrician) that we owe the intervention that catapults the hapless hero into the sphere of the Church of England. But it is in the other characters that most interest lies.

Wilson’s fiction has often been likened to that of Evelyn Waugh, and our hero Norman Shotover is, like Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, knocked off his professional course by a ludicrously minor misdemeanour into a situation for which he is manifestly unsuited. But while Pennyfeather is ejected from the study of theology, Norman is instead thrust into it. Wilson himself had spent an abortive year in training for ordination at St Stephen’s House in Oxford, and we are invited to identify Norman’s experience with Wilson’s own (Norman is Wilson’s middle name). It is perhaps for the goings-on, the ‘mucking around with sex’ and more besides at St Cuthbert’s College that the novel is most remembered. Though it is not my concern here, Wilson’s portrayal of the high camp subculture of the college is of a time when the Church of England, having in 1967 supported decriminalisation of homosexuality had not yet begun to reassess its own discipline which remained conservative. The antics of Thelma, Amelia and the other St Cuthbert’s ‘bags’ were a symptom of what has recently been called the ‘undigested’ nature of the Church’s relationship with homosexuality.

St Cuthbert’s is worth pausing over for a moment, however, as a portrayal both of a particular type of college, and of the general disorientation of Anglican Catholicism in 1974, when the book is set. The Church of England was in the process of rationalising its training, and a number of the colleges that were in cathedral towns – and distant from the universities – were under threat of amalgamation or closure. St Cuthbert’s is in the Sussex cathedral town of Selchester, and exudes the whiff of decay that the reformers wished to remove. Based in two houses in the cathedral close, the college is the proud possessor of a biretta blessed by Darwell Stone, and a stole worn by Father Tooth which has taken on the character of a holy relic. Norman, however, is unable to find the library, the books having been sold off to pay for repairs to the chapel roof; instead of writing essays, the students recycle old ones from a collection kept in the Common Room. The principal, Father Fosdyke, is on ‘paid leave’ after a series of scandals the previous year, and another colleague, ‘Dahlia’ Dickens, left to get married, leaving only ‘Felicity’, the vice-principal Arthur Fogg.

Not a few of the clergy Wilson shows us are in states of decrepitude, and their churches with them. The bishop we never meet, though we learn that he is unwell. The wizened Canon Pottle has been incumbent of St Botolph Bowlegs for sixty years, and the local conservation societies can only hope that he expires before the building falls down. Felicity Fogg is another, with his stammer (which Wilson lampoons mercilessly), ‘one of those moth-eaten clergymen who look as if they are falling to bits’ (part 2, chapter 7). Fogg is happiest when recounting stories of the shrine at Walsingham in the old days, but unable to exert any influence whatever on the student body, good or bad. Little of value emerges from Wilson’s account of Fogg, St Cuthbert’s and the particular kind of Anglo-Catholicism they represent. The most fully-drawn caricature in the novel, however, is of a quite different kind.

Image via Flickr (jamesbradley, CC BY 2.0)

The Very Reverend and Honourable Ronald Etherington-Hope, dean of Selchester – or just plain Ron Hope, as he preferred to be called – is an amalgam of every possible kind of liberal or radical cleric from the 1950s to the 1970s. His early career clearly evokes that of John A. T. Robinson, author of the controversial 1963 book Honest to God. A doctoral thesis on Rudolf Bultmann and a well-regarded book on early Christian texts lead to academic success in his college. A contribution to the best-selling collection of controversial essays Rumblings (a clear reference to Soundings, published in 1962), opens the way to the equally successful Room for Doubt, television appearances and articles in the newspapers.

Such theologically radical and media-friendly clergy also appear in the work of Iris Murdoch and A.S. Byatt. Ron Hope’s journey, however, was not yet finished, and Wilson gives to him more markers of a kind of politicised cleric of the early 1970s. As the angry young of the 1950s became older, the new generation of the late 1960s had less appetite for Hope’s writing, and so ‘jauntier, and yet more aggressive, tones had to be adopted.’ Unlimited abortion and the abolition of the age of consent are causes he adopts, along with government aid to guerrilla movements (the World Council of Churches had in 1970 begun to aid certain southern African groups, and it was not quite clear that the money had not been used for arms). Newly arrived in Selchester in the early 1970s, his projects include hospitality to just such a group of African freedom fighters, and raising money to support striking car workers. His solution to the disorder at St Cuthbert’s is a course of lectures on ‘The Church in the Modern World’; the ordinands are packed off to experience ‘real life’ in factories, mental hospitals and immigration centres.

Leaving aside the implausibility of his career path – such a figure was a highly unlikely candidate for a deanery – Wilson’s Dean is a stereotype of an earlier period updated for the Seventies. What is more unusual is Wilson’s depiction of Ron Hope’s family life. Of his seven daughters, several seem to have achieved the kind of enlightenment that he might have desired: one is experimenting with communal living near Glastonbury; another is travelling to Kathmandu; Cleopatra – whom we meet – runs a natural food store in Selchester which has displaced the old tea room and its doilies, after returning from a squat in south London. Only the eldest – respectably married to an MP with three privately-educated children – is a disappointment. The reader is however, invited, I think, to compare them with the clergymens’ daughters in Orwell, Barbara Pym and others, and not quite favourably; it is not only in St Cuthbert’s that people are ‘mucking around with sex’, but the Dean’s daughters too. The expectations most readers would have had of a clergyman’s home life are further confounded by the fact that the Dean’s wife has taken what is tactfully described as an ‘extended holiday’ in South Africa with Hope’s elder brother, an embarrassment in Cambridge which he has come to Selchester to escape.

Wilson’s acidulous and well-informed picture of the Church of England would seem to leave nothing unscathed. But there are two priests with whom, though very different from each other, Norman/Wilson seems to appreciate rather more, and who in their shambolic and somewhat ridiculous way still seem to point towards a faith and practice that have something of value. The worship at St Willibrord’s, the ‘highest’ in Selchester, with its (to Norman) inexplicable smells, costumes and gestures, and its chant, ‘half like the mysterious music of an oriental temple and half like a cat caught in a mangle’ is both ridiculous and in some vague way moving. And it is as curate to Father Crisp that Norman feels that his unwonted vocation might be worked out. Crisp is cheerfully dismissive of the Dean (a ‘silly donkey’), and pragmatic about the youthful indiscretions at St Cuthbert’s. Mucking about with sex is to be expected; the question was whether or not they would, in time, make good priests. And Norman is impressed by Crisp’s own sense of vocation, which had pressed itself on him despite his doubts, and through his simply carrying on had lasted forty years. It is to Crisp that Wilson gives the only opportunity to speak at length in his own voice (part 1 chapter 5). It was simply by obedience to the Divine Will, he tells his congregation, that Christians could hope to stand in the same company as the saints, however inscrutable that will might seem.

Norman’s prescribed dose of ‘real life’ after the scandal in the college was to be taken in a parish in an obscure part of the Surrey commuter belt, all mock Tudor houses with neat little gardens. Mr Dumble is, as the students had thought, rather ‘low’: communion only once a month, no list of times for confessions, and Mr Dumble preaches in just a surplice and scarf. Instead of a fug of wax and incense, the church smells of polish, flowers and damp. Norman preaches his first sermon, on neighbourliness, which seems to be appreciated, and visits the hospital. And the parishioners who host him every day to lunch or tea seem kind, and speak of their family and their pets. Like the Dumbles, with their garden and with Nationwide or Dr Finlay on the television, they are unglamorous, conscientious and happy. Though the vicarage was not full of nice things, and the Dumbles’ talk did not scintillate, Norman resolves to be as much like Mr Dumble as he can. ‘How much good Mr Dumble is doing by stealth’, says another character: ‘if we only had half the goodness of some of those pathetic little clergymen.’ (part 3 chapter 2) For all its comedy, the Church of England still seems to Norman/Wilson a force for good.

Sacred and secular martyrdom: a review

Sacred and secular martyrdom in Britain and Ireland since 1914
John Wolffe
London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, viii + 197pp., £85 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-35001927-0.
[A review forthcoming in the Journal of Beliefs and Values.]

After the terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001, and in London four years later, the idea of martyrdom gained a new salience. This important study by John Wolffe is the product of a RCUK Global Uncertainties Leadership Fellowship: an attempt to build an informed religious literacy on the subject to aid the making of public policy. The book fills a gap that, after having read it, seems obvious, and indeed glaring, but which was not so before (to this reviewer, at least): a measure of how significant and new a perspective on the period it presents.

Wolffe expressly adopts no a priori definition of martyrdom, opting instead to trace its shifting meanings. The churches, both Protestant and Catholic, had their sixteenth century martyrs, and the nineteenth century had seen their ranks added to from the mission field. While the Christian martyr tended to be passive, the historic shape of Muslim martyrdom was more activist, a life lost in struggle. Wolffe’s achievement is to show how far the idea could be extended into more secular contexts, concluding that no easy line may be drawn between sacred and secular varieties. Martyrs could be made in defence of a nation (particularly during the First World War), even if they were conscript soldiers, or of a different faith to the national one, or indeed of no faith at all. In Ireland in the 1920s there were competing martyrologies, nationalist and unionist. The former focussed on the Easter Rising of 1916 or the hunger strikers of the 1980s; the latter (though less explicitly articulated) centred on the Battle of the Somme. Whole nations could be cast as martyrs in a collective sense for rhetorical purposes, or individual towns. And it was not even entirely necessary to lose one’s life for it to be glossed in this way; such was the case of Martin McGuinness, a former IRA member who died of natural causes at the age of 66 after serving as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

Wolffe’s reading of the language of martyrdom is deft and subtle, showing the complex uses of religious texts and their overtones in the wider commentary, and the interplay of this specific language with the more ambiguous concept of sacrifice. The extent to which martyrs were made and remade according to the needs of the present is a persistent theme. But the range of sources is wider than this, taking in dozens of interviews, as well as fine readings of the architecture of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in France and Belgium, and of myriad local war memorials at home.

Wolffe’s chronology is too complex to be easily summarised, but the period began with an unusually tight interweaving of national and religious stories. This was exemplified by the bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, who in 1914 described the war dead as ‘martyrs as really as St Stephen … covered with imperishable glory they pass to deathless life.’ Even then this connection was contested. Wolffe shows just how contingent on events and personalities the shape and symbolism of the commemoration of the war was. But by the centenary years of 2014-18, the process of secularisation had left the imagined community (on which such an idea depended) much less Christian, and (in the context of Scottish and Welsh nationalism) without another glue with which to bind itself together. Though the centenary events were in a sense a renaissance of remembrance, it was without a stable consensus on its meaning. By the end of the century, the language of martyrdom or sacrifice for the nation was being replaced by that of victimhood, a motif both more inclusive and more reflective of the ambiguity with which death in the trenches has come to be viewed.

All this will be of absorbing interest to scholars of national identity, but there is a parallel story concerning the churches. The view of William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury between 1942 and 1944, was subtly but substantially different to that of Winnington-Ingram. Even though the Nazi regime was a more unambiguously anti-Christian opponent, Temple could mark the sacrifice of those who had died without speculating on their salvation. By the time of the Falklands conflict, it was clear to many that too close an association with national remembrance compromised the churches’ attempts to present a Christian view of conflict focussed on reconciliation. The churches in both Britain and Ireland had also come to view Catholic and Protestant martyrs of the sixteenth century not as opponents, but as common witnesses to a larger truth, to whose number had been added others from other countries: Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King and the German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These and others were commemorated in 1998 above the west door of Westminster Abbey, just inside which is the tomb of the unknown soldier: old and new (or perhaps rediscovered) understandings of Christian martyrdom in a symbolically crucial building. Wolffe’s telling of these stories will be required reading for all students of British and Irish religion and politics of the last century; no serious historical library will want to be without it.

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Hypocrisy, class and faith in Britten’s Borough

Whether or not one enjoys Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, its significance is hard to dispute. Premiered in London just a month after the declaration of victory in Europe in 1945, on June 7th, it represented a rebirth. The opening night, thought the Picture Post, ‘may well be remembered as the date of the reinstatement of opera in the musical life of this country’, and to Britten and his collaborators it confirmed both the need and the appetite for contemporary English opera. Some slept on the pavement outside the Sadlers Wells theatre to be sure of their place in the auditorium on the opening night; others came back for all eight of the first performances.

Sadlers Well Opera Books, No.3 (1945), issued for the London premiere. It contains essays by Britten, Montagu Slater, Edward Sackville-West and E. M. Forster.

But its importance was not merely musical. In less than a month the British people would reject Winston Churchill, despite his record as war leader, and elect a Labour government on the promise of a different kind of rebirth: a new society; a rejection of the memory of the inter-war years and of the Conservative governments that dominated them. For a moment, which in fact continued for several years, the social and moral settlement of the 1930s was at a discount, and newness, progress at a premium.

Though the opera is ostensibly set around 1830, the invitation to read it in contemporary terms is irresistible. Most readings have centered on the person of Peter Grimes, as an individual driven to self-destruction by the Borough, the society in which he was trapped, unable to realise himself. Britten and Pears themselves in later life tried to connect the sensitive, conflicted Grimes to their own status as creative artists, and as conscientious objectors to the war; later critics have come to focus more on a queer Grimes as a reflection of Britten’s own status as a gay man in a society which criminalised homosexuality. However configured, though, this opposition of individual and society in readings of the opera has obscured some of the complexity within the Borough itself.

Had the opera developed differently, this might not have been so. The libretto, by the socialist poet and activist Montagu Slater, was derived from verse by the eighteenth century clergyman poet George Crabbe. Both Crabbe and Slater were rather less concerned with Grimes’ interior life than the completed opera is, and more with the social conflict within the Borough. Here I want to look at two of the characters in Slater’s Borough, to reveal some of the religious and social complexities in play in the opera: nuances of class and faith that have become obscure to modern listeners. If the reception of Grimes was indeed part of an appetite for a new society, what, in fact, was to be discarded? The two characters are the Methodist lay preacher Bob Boles, and the Rector, Mr Horace Adams

Bob Boles, written by Britten as a volatile, frenetic tenor, is one of Slater’s fishermen, the ordinary working men oppressed by the bourgeoisie of the Borough. And his voice is a moralistic, censorious one, a stereotype of a certain kind of English nonconformity. Slater here was surely influenced by his own background in Cumbria, where his father was a Methodist lay preacher. (Slater’s wife Enid remembered her father-in-law as ‘one of those awful Methodists – on Sunday he pulled all the blinds downs [and] you weren’t allowed to read anything but the Bible.’ It was ‘ghastly’, and Slater left it for Oxford ‘very thankfully’, she thought.) Boles denounces Auntie, the landlady of the Boar, the local pub, whose ‘vats flow with poisoned gin’; the Boar is also a house of ill repute, as Auntie’s ‘nieces’ comfort the Borough’s menfolk: ‘God’s storm will drown your hot desires!’, Boles warns. And Boles is central to the hostility to Grimes that eventually boils over in Act III, as he goes with the mob to hunt Grimes down: ‘This lost soul of a fisherman must be shunned by respectable society!’ Grimes has sold his soul, and fears the flaming sword of judgment.

Later, in Act 2 scene 1 inside the Boar, we are invited to see Boles as a hypocrite, as he fails to hold his drink and drunkenly demands the ministrations of the nieces for himself. But Boles is also conscious of his class and of social ill, in ways that must have resonated in post-war London. The doctor, Crabbe, we never hear speak, but Boles tells us the regard in which he is held: ‘he drinks “Good health” to all diseases!’. (The inequality of access to healthcare was vital in securing support for the National Health Service in 1948.) At the heart of the opera is the brutality of the conditions in which men and apprentices had to work, and the absence of the kind of social safety net that the reforming Labour government was to create. At the prospect of workhouse boys being bought and sold, Boles exclaims ‘Is this a Christian country? Are pauper children so enslaved, their bodies go for cash?’ He will speak his mind, as the system concerns everyone: ‘this prentice system’s uncivilised and unchristian!’ The coming storm is the judgement of God on an iniquitous society: ‘God has his ways which are not ours: His high tide swallows up the shores. Repent!’ Few in the Borough accepts Boles’ understanding of providence, but they recognise the injustice; we are to read him as the voice of a genuine class interest, alive and well in Slater’s conception of contemporary England.

Slater’s libretto, then, captures the tone of a certain kind of popular Christian moral conscience, which had waned considerably by 1945. But it also pinpoints an antagonism between ‘Methody’ Boles and the established religion that the Reverend Horace Adams represents. It is an antagonism that is borne both of class resentment and specifically religious feeling; powerful enough to influence elections a century ago, it is hard now to spot with an untrained eye. On Sunday morning, the Methodist Boles is not at prayer in the parish church, but watching as Grimes and his love Ellen Orford realise that their bid for respectability has failed. As the whispers against Grimes grow (in the video excerpt below), Boles calls bitterly for the parson: ‘where’s the pastor of this flock? Where’s the guardian shepherd’s hook?’ While the parson and his flock ‘worshipped idols there / The Devil had his Sabbath here’. It is clear where Boles thinks the moral centre of the Borough lies, and it is not with those in the ‘church parade’ after prayers end. The rector is far too ready to ‘ignore, growing at your door, evils, like your fancy flowers.’ (The image of the country parson in delicate repose in his garden was a common one indeed, and comes direct from Crabbe.)

As the mood sours and the chorus cry out for the parson, fired by Boles, Adams asks ‘is it my business?’ Hitherto we have seen little of him, save for a cheery greeting in the opening scene. Now he is forced to hold an impromptu inquest into Grimes’ supposed mistreatment of his apprentice, interrogating Ellen as the crowd continues its hostile commentary. ‘You planned to be worldly-wise’ he tells Ellen as she speaks of her hope of redemption with Grimes, ‘but your souls were dark’. Reluctantly Adams leads a party of inquiry to Grimes’ hut (followed by the crowd), which they find empty yet ‘reasonably kept / Here’s order. Here’s skill’. Another of the well-to-do draws the moral: ‘Here we come pell-mell / Expecting to find out – we know not what. / But all we find is a neat and empty hut / Gentlemen, take this to your wives / Less interference in our private lives.’ Nothing to be done, Adams supposes; it would not do to egg people on too much.

Britten was first alerted to Crabbe by an essay by his friend E.M. Forster, published in The Listener in 1941, which Britten thought sufficiently important to have it reprinted in the booklet accompanying the premiere (illustrated above). It is not often remarked, given the relatively minor place given by Britten and Slater to the character of the rector, that he looms rather large in Forster’s essay. That said, Forster and Slater are agreed on his fault, which is weakness. He is a man ‘whose constant care was no man to offend’ (the line is Crabbe’s); who ‘valued friendship, but was not prepared to risk anything for it’. Crabbe’s epitaph for him is damning: ‘They who knew him best, proclaim his life t’have been entirely rest.’ At play in his garden, ‘no trifles failed his yielding mind to please’.

And it is in his pusillanimity, his readiness to hope that the emotions stirred in the Borough will simply regulate themselves, that we’re invited to see Adams in the worst light.

In Act III, a few days later, he, Crabbe and the group of burgesses excuse themselves from the dance at the Moot Hall, though the whispers have returned, not least from Mrs Sedley, one of his own flock. ‘I looked in a moment’ he sings, and ‘the company’s gay / With pretty young women and youths on the spree.’ Whether oblivious to or afraid of what the night holds, he retires to his house, to light, trivial music (a hornpipe, in fact) that jars, and is meant to; it is grotesquely carefree when framed by the rest of the score. Good night, he bids them all, ‘don’t let the ladies keep company too late! / My love to the maidens, wish luck to the men! I’ll water my roses and leave you the wine.’

Now without any of the better sort to moderate the atmosphere as it darkens, a mob soon assembles to hunt Grimes down, among which is Boles. Adams has refused the chance to try to restrain the mob, to act as peacemaker to the whole parish. And in the morning he walks to church for morning prayer (according to the directions in the published libretto), as on any other day, while the waters close over Grimes’ boat in the distance. What is that in the distance, people ask, a sinking boat? ‘Nothing I can see’ says Boles; Grimes is gone.

Where Boles’ religion is hot, vital (if hysterical), Adams’ is formal, complacent, and in the last instance unable to act. In the religious life of the Borough, the Rector is the Ego to Boles’ Id. In the end, it is the Id that is overwhelming, but both are complicit in Grimes’s destruction. As Peter Garvie observed in 1972, the Christianity in the opera is ‘uninfluential for good’. Neither provides a path to peace for the community or to repentance and redemption for Grimes. In 1945, on the cusp of a new start, neither variety of English religion seems to merit its place in the new Jerusalem.

[The essays by Peter Garvie and E. M. Forster are both reprinted in the Cambridge Opera Handbook to Peter Grimes. The production shown above is a 1969 television film, with Pears in the title role, Gregory Dempsey as Boles, and Robert Tear as Horace Adams.]

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Martyrs, memorials and meaning in Protestant England

Sitting in what William Morris described as ‘a great amphitheatre of chalk hills’, the market town of Lewes is one of Sussex’s particular delights. For all its quiet charm, the town is perhaps best known for its elaborate celebrations of Bonfire Night, during which the several bonfire societies in and around the town converge ina grand procession. It is an anarchic mixture of revelry and symbol, pipes and drums, in which effigies of contemporary political bogeymen are burned. In 2019 it was Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but every year Pope Paul V (who was pope in 1605) is also committed to the flames. There is also an act of remembrance for the dead of the two world wars at the memorial in the town centre, and seventeen burning crosses are borne in procession, representing the seventeen Protestants burned at the stake outside the Star Inn under the Catholic Mary I (1555-7). A more eclectic mixture of religious and secular memory and political commentary would be difficult to find in England.

The path from the topmost road of the estate to the memorial field. Image: Peter Webster

But there is another memorial of that Reformation past in Lewes, although one must now work hard to find it. Though it is difficult to see from most of the town, from the vantage point of the castle keep one can pick out, across the Ouse valley on Cliffe Hill to the east, an austere obelisk, described on the tourist viewfinder as a memorial to the Lewes martyrs. Intrigued by this during a visit to Lewes last August, my unplanned pilgrimage to it began.

It was harder than I expected to find my way. There were no signposts that I could see (though I later found it marked on a town guide), and it was invisible from the valley floor due to the trees on the hill. I asked a couple of people – one passer-by, the waitress in the cafe – if they knew it, but no. Eventually, just by a church, I found a road that seemed to snake up the steep hill. But the keepers of the Cuilfail residential estate (which I suppose dates from the 1970s) provide no signposts. Indeed, such signage as there is leaves the visitor in no doubt that the road is private, with no parking allowed. But eventually, up a narrow path (which did have a sign), I found it, on a flat patch of grass sandwiched between the back fences of the gardens of the houses of the estate and a golf course. On a pleasant Sunday in summer, I saw not another soul in the hour or so I spent on Cliffe Hill, while the castle did a healthy trade in visitors, and the town bustled gently; no-one passes by this place. If a memorial must be visible to operate, then this one can have little effect.

As I write, the politics of public memorials are being discussed with a fervency we rarely see, in the wake of the felling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in the centre of Bristol. There is much talk of ‘erasing history’. But – in and of themselves – such monuments tell us almost nothing at all about those they commemorate – about the history that is supposedly being erased. What they do reveal, much more naively, is the intentions of those who created them, acts just as political (in the broadest sense) as toppling Colston and symbolically drowning him in the waters in which so many of his slaves met their deaths. These objects are indeed historical artefacts, but not of what is commonly supposed. In the case of Lewes, the obelisk and the burning crosses represent two distinct ideas of memory and martyrdom – one largely secular and the other strictly doctrinal – that for a time converged but now are as separate as ever.

John Wolffe has recently shown that the Protestant recovery of the Marian martyrs is relatively recent, a twentieth-century reaction to increased Roman Catholic assertiveness of their own recusant martyrs. The Lewes memorial was erected in 1901; elsewhere, in the 1920s, the Protestant Alliance renovated memorials in Brentwood and at Smithfield in London, and set up new ones in Amersham and in Norwich (both 1931). Wolffe points out the particular conflation in Lewes of religious and secular remembrance in the placing of the new memorial to the First World War on the site of the burnings in the town centre. The Sussex Martyrs Commemoration Council, formed in 1925, provided for the illumination of the memorial on every November 5th, further cementing the connection between the events.

But the years after 1945 saw a remarkably swift waning of this Protestant-Catholic antagonism, so much so that the planned canonisation by the Pope of forty English and Welsh martyrs in 1970 jarred with the ecumenical advances being made at the same time between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, regretted the move, both privately and publicly, and appealed for a new shared Christian martyrology. And in time the ecumenical spirit further pushed this kind of polemical Protestant self-consciousness to the margins, though it continued to thrive in the particular conditions of Northern Ireland.

Yet the annual commemoration service at the Lewes memorial continued, and continues still under the auspices of the Commemoration Council – in June, on a date more congruent with the burnings in the 1550s, not November 5th. (The Council also continued to fund new memorials elsewhere in the county to sixteen more Marian martyrs, the most recent in 1997). The church at the foot of the hill that I passed on my pilgrimage was formerly the Jireh chapel, a Calvinistic Independent chapel built in 1805 and now Grade One listed. As the congregation dwindled, the building was taken over by Lewes Free Presbyterian Church, one of only a handful of English outposts of Ian Paisley’s new church in Northern Ireland. And there appears still to be a close connection between the church and the Council, which retains a postal address in Lewes. The church’s minister, Pastor Philip Knowles, an Ulsterman himself, was the preacher at the 2019 service.

And the collected sermons and addresses from these events that the Council publish are of a kind familiar to students of this continuing Protestant remnant. They speak of a self-conscious, defensive community, dwindling with age, at odds with the mainline Christian denominations, continuing to contend for a pure gospel as the martyrs did. The Council is also connected through personnel and joint activities with Christian Watch, formed in 2001 and devoted to ‘informing Christians about the possible loss of their religious liberties from current and proposed developments within the UK and European Union.’ And so the language of persecution persists, but not at the hands of Rome but of an aggressive secularising state. While the secularised commemoration of Bonfire Night burgeons, a smaller, more specifically religious memory still attaches to the gaunt obelisk on the hill. The object remains, but its history is still being made.

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