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Recalling the view, such as it was

Monty Python's messiah relives his days on the cross, as 'Life of Brian' returns to the big screen. Call it crucifixion lite.

April 25, 2004|Eric Idle | Special to The Times

I was crucified once and frankly I don't recommend it. It's a scary experience, especially when you find John Cleese next to you, and there's that odd Graham Chapman smoking a pipe, and Terry Gilliam is complaining about the shot and Michael Palin is nattering away to everyone in particular.

I was singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" and so yes, it was a movie, but still there's something a bit chilling about turning up first thing in the morning and finding a cross with your name on it. Thirty-foot crosses they were too, with a neat little sign on the back: Mr. Idle. Oh all right, we had bicycle seats to ease the discomfort and they didn't use real nails, but we were still up there for three days.

We were of course filming "Life of Brian" in Tunisia, a film that would never have been made but for the extraordinary generosity of George Harrison who, hearing we had been dumped by EMI, immediately mortgaged his home and put up all the money because, he said, "he wanted to see the movie." At $4 million, this is still the most anyone has ever paid for a movie ticket. George and his partner Denis O'Brien were like Bialystock and Bloom from "The Producers," a similarity that only increased when the movie, which Denis had set up to lose money as a tax loss, suddenly and unexpectedly went into profit.

Now, thanks to Mel Gibson and his holy snuff film, you're going to get a chance to see the second coming of "Life of Brian," a movie that was made during the lifetime of three popes. (Two died and two were elected during the eight weeks of location shooting.) I haven't seen Mel's film "The Passion of the Christ" -- I am a lapsed anti-Catholic -- but I gather that Mel doesn't handle the comedy too well, and he seems to totally ignore the singing opportunities of the crucifixion altogether.

In the beginning

I suppose we should be grateful he makes a film where for once the Brits aren't to blame for everything. Personally I think that the wrong Mel made it and that it should have been done by Mel Brooks, though I suppose if Mel Gibson had done "The Producers" we would have had to sit through 40 minutes of Nathan Lane being flayed alive. How appropriate that Mel's long and violent film should be replaced at the box office by a horror film ("Dawn of the Dead"). Actually we were planning a rerelease long before the whole Mel thing, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the movie, for which reason Vanity Fair recently photographed us all in our coffins.

Brian began life as a bad joke at the opening of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" in New York. When asked what our next movie would be I ad-libbed glibly "Jesus Christ, Lust for Glory." This struck a chord in the collective unconscious of the Pythons. It was such a naughty idea to even contemplate a comedy about religion that it was virtually irresistible. For a start there was a totally clean palette. No one had done any biblical gags since the Medieval Mystery Plays. Secondly we had all been dragged up in British schools with compulsory attendance in the Church of England and had been subjected to the peculiar tedium and hypocrisy of that church, founded by an adulterous king to escape a tedious wife. This would be a wonderful way to get back at our tormentors.

Now I have nothing against Jesus Christ; what he says is actually great: forgiveness, love one another, peace on Earth, turn the other cheek -- all are excellent principles, and if only more Christians would practice them the world wouldn't be in such a mess today. Our current crusaders, with their anxiety to strike the other cheek, first seem to be closer in philosophy to Reg the Revolutionary: "What Christ fails to realize is it is the Meek that are the problem." Oddly enough, although almost all religious bodies came out and attacked the movie, thereby ensuring it was a hit, the Communists and Lefty Revolutionaries left us alone, although the French did complain a lot about our movie not being blasphemous. But then they are Catholics.

If the movie has any message at all it is contained in the following dialogue:

BRIAN: We are all individuals.

MAN: I'm not.

So what was it like being crucified? Well, my prevailing memory is being desperate for a pee. It was cold up there and there were 30 actors pinned up on crosses and only three ladders. Each break in the filming resulted in desperate pleas to the prop department to get us down please. I'm not sure Mel deals with the bladder issue in "The Passion"; as I say I haven't been to see his movie and I shan't be going either as I'm an Alzheimer's agnostic: I can't remember whether I don't believe in anything or not.

However I do believe religions are the cause of most of the problems in the world today and there should be a moratorium on the use of the G-word. I think it should be replaced by something less controversial that we can all agree on. Like Chocolate.

I can quite happily confess that I believe in Chocolate without upsetting anyone. No one ever killed anyone else over Chocolate. (All right, outside of Beverly Hills.) "One Nation under Chocolate" is surely something we can all get behind. But I suppose, like all my ideas, it will be dismissed as just too silly.

Eric Idle has adapted "Monty Python's Spamalot," from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," for Broadway; it opens at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago in December. He lives in Los Angeles and is occasionally mistaken for Michael Palin. The revival of "Monty Python's Life of Brian" opens Friday at Laemmle's Sunset 5 Theatre in West Hollywood.

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