Think of a Monty Python film with blasphemous content, and Life of Brian springs to mind.
Yet previously unseen files from the British Board of Film Classification show that the comedy team’s earlier offering, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, fell foul of the censors for repeated use of the words ‘Jesus Christ!’
A scene in which King Arthur encounters a taunting Frenchman played by John Cleese - “I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries” - is followed by the French catapulting cows over the ramparts at the king and his men.
The repetition of ‘Jesus Christ’ in the film seems to us unnecessary
Stephen Murphy, then BBFC secretary
In the version that appeared in cinemas on the film’s 1975 release, King Arthur yells: “Jesus Christ!” as a cow missed him by inches. But in the uncut original, he said it three times, and the BBFC was not impressed.
“We are less than enchanted by your funny Frenchman,” wrote Stephen Murphy, then BBFC secretary, in a letter to John Cleese.
“The repetition of ‘Jesus Christ’ in the film seems to us unnecessary. There is good evidence that this does distress people who would otherwise enjoy the film. Can you look not only in Reel 2 but in other places to see if you can reduce the incidence of this usage.”
Mr Wright also requested that a scene in which a nun used a four-letter word should be excised.
The Holy Grail is considered a British classic - the Knights who say Ni, the killer bunny rabbit, and the riding of pretend horses (the BBC budget did not stretch to real ones) are all beloved by comedy fans.
But Mr Murphy wrote that the film has “one or two places where, in our view, the humour is not very effective”.
The letter also listed a number of scenes considered too gory.
The BBFC initially saw a script for the film and advised an ‘X’ certificate, as it was deemed to have crude sexual references and very strong language.
The script was duly toned down and submitted for classification in early 1975. At this point Mr Wright wrote his letter, which resulted in two incidences of ‘Jesus Christ’ being removed.
Under modern classifications, the film is a 12A with ‘moderate sex references’ and ‘comic violence’.
Michael Palin told his local paper, the Camden New Journal, that even the film’s investors thought it too violent. “Then, with an audience off the street, they howled with laughter - in fact, some people said there should have been even more violence included because it was so funny.”
Concern over The Holy Grail’s controversial content was played out behind the scenes. But when Life of Brian was released in 1979, it outraged the nation.
Thirty-nine local authorities either imposed an outright ban or an X-certificate. Cleese and Palin faced Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, in a notorious television debate.
Cleese maintained that Life of Brian was questioning blind adherence to faith but was not a mockery of Christianity.