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Monty Python and the last case of blasphemous libel in Canada

As ridiculous as it seems today, conviction and imprisonment for blasphemy in 1979 was a real risk to those facing the charges

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In the long-running annual series Oh, The Humanities! National Post reporters survey academic scholarship at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, with an eye to the curious, the mysterious and the hilarious. Once known as “the Learneds,” because it is a gathering of learned societies, the Congress is hosted this year by York University, and back to a real in-person conference after pandemic disruption. Over the coming days, Canadian academics will share their insights on such diverse topics as the phonology of hockey player nicknames, the perils of psychotherapy by artificial intelligence, and why married people tend to be wealthier. First, the criminal history of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

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News that John Cleese is planning a stage production of the Life of Brian has re-established the Monty Python parody of the ministry of Jesus as a lightning rod in the history of censorship and changing attitudes to free expression.

A Twitter feud has developed between Cleese and his estranged former collaborator Eric Idle, who has denied any involvement in the project. A new character has been added, the wife of Pilate, and Cleese has said the title character will not be crucified as in the movie. But Cleese, who is also planning 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 give birth to babies, on grounds of transphobia, describing this in a stand-up performance as an example of modern cancel culture which the Python comedy unknowingly foretold.

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Two elderly comics griping about jokes half as old as they are might seem distant from the modern culture wars, but it is the latest chapter in the long and controversial history of the film. Since the moment it first played in 1979, it has been a lens through which British, American, European and Canadian society has viewed free speech, religious tolerance, and the boundaries of decency. It has been called anti-Semitic and blasphemous to Christianity, and was even banned in Norway (as a 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 demonstrate, Monty Python’s Life of Brian played an important role in the history of free expression in Canadian law, as the inspiration for the last charge ever laid under the defunct criminal offence of blasphemous libel, and an illustration for why that law had to be repealed, which did not finally happen until about five years ago.

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

Like many of the loudest protesters against the movie, few of these parishioners had seen it. It made little difference that this was deliberately not a movie about Jesus, but about another man, Brian, born the same day next door, who is misidentified as the Messiah. What follows is a spoof of mid-century biblical movie epics like The Ten Commandments; a parody of the factionalism of the 1970s radical left wing (as in the bitter acrimony between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea); and a mockery of messianic religious belief. There is also an alien spaceship scene, but that caused less fuss.

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

Blasphemous libel, though it was punishable by two years in jail, was never actually defined in Canadian law. The concept was vague, roughly meaning disrespect to Christianity, but otherwise it was a question of fact that could be put to a jury without legislated guidance. No one had been convicted of it in Canada since the 1930s, and scholars had to cast back to Victorian jurisprudence in Britain for definitions such as “uttering or publishing contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ.”

But one successful prosecution in England of a publication called Gay News, for an erotic poem about Jesus, had been upheld on appeal the year Life of Brian came out, and the driving force behind that private prosecution, the British conservative campaigner Mary Whitehouse, was leading the charge against the Python film.

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So as ridiculous as it seems in hindsight today, conviction and imprisonment for blasphemy in Sault Ste. Marie in 1979 seemed a real risk to those facing the charges.

Eldred had watched the film at the Station Mall Cinema with the local Crown prosecutor, who agreed to pursue Eldred’s private prosecution. Two days later, Eldred went with police and laid the charge. That night’s screening was abruptly changed to The Last Waltz, the concert movie by The Band. Four days later, the cinema dropped the movie entirely.

The charges were against the manager and the cinema’s Toronto-based owner, although he dropped the charge against the manager after a few weeks. Eldred had bigger ambitions. In December, he met with a senior official in the Ministry of the Attorney General, and said he wanted to also charge the distributor, Warner Brothers. The ministry refused. By May 1980, it had reviewed the case and instructed the local prosecutor to drop the remaining charges.

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Eldred felt betrayed.

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

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

Douville said one might imagine such a litigant to be a “humourless, puritan, fundamentalist,” but this was not the case. Eldred, now converted to Catholicism and living in California, was highly educated and charming, had a hearty laugh, and was active in the amateur theatre community, Douville said.

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

A few years later, Canada’s Charter guarantee of free expression probably doomed any other cases of blasphemous libel that might have been brought, but none were.

The law against blasphemous libel remained on the books until 2017, when the Liberal government tabled a clean-up bill that eventually removed it along with other obsolete laws against challenging people to duels, and against fraudulent “witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration,” which of course were also favourite themes of the Pythons.

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