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Monty Python and the last case of blasphemous libel in Canada

In the long-running annual series Oh, The Humanities! National Post reporters explore academic scholarship at the Humanities and Social Sciences Congress, with an eye toward the curious, the mysterious, and the hilarious. Formerly known as “The Learners” because it’s a gathering of learned societies, the Congress is being hosted by York University this year, and we’re returning to a real live conference after the pandemic hiatus. In the coming days, Canadian academics will share their insights on topics as diverse as the phonology of hockey player nicknames, the dangers of artificial intelligence psychotherapy and why married people tend to be richer. First, the criminal history of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

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The news that John Cleese is planning a stage production of The Life of Brian has re-established the Monty Python parody of Jesus’ ministry as a lightning rod in the history of censorship and changing attitudes towards free expression.
A Twitter spat ensued between Cleese and his estranged former collaborator Eric Idle, who denied any involvement in the project. A new character, Pilate’s wife, was added, and Cleese said the title character would not be crucified as in the film. But Cleese, who also plans to reboot his hotel sitcom Fawlty Towers, also said he would resist suggestions from actors to cut a scene about a man who wants to be called Loretta and have babies, based on transphobia, describing it in stand-up performance as an example of the modern culture of cancellation that the Python comedy unwittingly prophesied.

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Two older comics pulling pranks half their age might seem far removed from the modern culture wars, but it’s the latest chapter in the film’s long and controversial history. From the moment he first played in 1979, he was the lens through which British, American, European and Canadian society viewed freedom of speech, religious tolerance and the limits of decency. It was called anti-Semitic and blasphemous for Christianity, and was even banned in Norway (as the promotional poster boasted), but also one of the best comedies of all time.

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As a presentation at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences will show, Monty Python’s Life of Brian played an important role in the history of free expression in Canadian law, inspiring the last ever prosecution for the defunct blasphemy offence. defamation, and an illustration of why that law had to be repealed, which finally happened only about five years ago.

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It started with an Anglican priest in Sault Saint Marie, Ont., named Michael Eldred, then 32, who claimed his parishioners were upset, according to Bruce Douville, assistant professor of history at Algoma University, who researched the prosecution.

Like many of the most vocal protesters against the film, few of these parishioners have seen it. It didn’t make much difference that this was deliberately not a film about Jesus, but about another man, Brian, born on the same day next door, who was misidentified as the Messiah. What follows is a spoof of mid-century biblical film epics like The Ten Commandments; a parody of radical left-wing factionalism in the 1970s (as in the bitter resentment between the Judean Popular Front and the Popular Front of Judea); and mocking messianic religious belief. There’s also an alien spaceship scene, but that caused less of a stir.

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It famously ends with Brian, played by the late Graham Chapman, singing “always look on the bright side of life” on the cross.

Blasphemous libel, although punishable by two years in prison, was never defined in Canadian law. The concept was vague, which roughly amounted to disrespecting Christianity, but otherwise it was a fact that could be put before a jury without legal guidance. No one has been convicted of it in Canada since the 1930s, and scholars have had to go back to Victorian jurisprudence in Britain for definitions such as “uttering or publishing shameful reproaches of Jesus Christ.”

But one successful prosecution in England of a publication called Gay News, over an erotic song about Jesus, was upheld on appeal the year Life of Brian was published, and the driving force behind that private prosecution, British conservative activist Mary Whitehouse, was leading the charge against the Python film.

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So, as ridiculous as it may seem in recent times today, the conviction and imprisonment for blasphemy in Sault Saint Marie in 1979 seemed a real risk for those facing charges.

Eldred watched a movie at the Station Mall movie theater with the local prosecutor, who agreed to initiate Eldred’s private prosecution. Two days later, Eldred went with the police and filed charges. That evening, the screening was abruptly changed to The Last Waltz, the band’s concert film. Four days later, the cinema abandoned the film entirely.

The charges were against the manager and owner of a Toronto movie theater, although he dropped the charge against the manager after a few weeks. Eldred had bigger ambitions. In December, he met with a senior official at the Justice Department and said he also wanted to indict the distributor, Warner Brothers. The ministry refused. By May 1980, he had reviewed the case and ordered the local prosecutor to drop the remaining charges.

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Eldred felt betrayed.

The film’s release “coincided with a resurgence of conservatism and the rise of a new religious right in the United Kingdom and the United States,” Douville writes in the next chapter. But it also “coincided with a growing antipathy to the censorship of controversial works.”

Something had to give, and in the end censorship lost the big battle.

Douville said that such a party could be imagined as “heartless, puritanical, fundamentalist”, but this was not the case. Eldred, who has now converted to Catholicism and lives in California, was highly educated and charming, had a hearty laugh and was active in the amateur theater community, Douville said.

“His views today are exactly the same as his views in 79-80,” Douville said. Eldred told him, “I thought I had done my part. I did my part the best I could for the love of God.”

A few years later, the Canadian Charter’s guarantee of free expression probably doomed any other defamation cases that could have been brought, but none were.

The anti-blasphemous defamation law remained on the books until 2017, when the Liberal government introduced a cleanup bill that eventually scrapped it along with other outdated laws against challenging people to duels and against bogus “witchcraft, sorcery, bewitchment or bewitchment “, which of course were Python’s favorite topics.

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