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.

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