Not The Nine O’Clock News was the BBC’s first real attempt to make a comedy sketch show after the demise of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Nowadays, when NTNON is repeated it is in the form of heavily-edited compilations which remove much of the topical material, so it’s easy to forget that in amongst all silliness, it delivered a mean line in satire.
One of the best examples of this is this week’s classic clip – their General Synod’s Life Of Christ sketch.
To give some background, the first season of NTNON aired in 1979, the same year that the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released.
Life of Brian is a satire on organised religion. It uses the story of Brian – a man born at the same time as Christ and mistaken for the Messiah by fanatical followers who refuse to listen to his protests that he is not – to lampoon those who misinterpret or abuse religious teachings.
The film predictably proved highly controversial and sparked angry protests from Christian groups around the world, who saw the film as a blasphemous attack on their religion and beliefs, rather than an indictment of those who would pervert and corrupt those beliefs. Several local councils in the UK went so far as to over-rule the British film censors and ban the film from cinemas in their areas. These bans were astonishingly still technically in force in some places as recently as last year.
At the height of the furore, John Cleese and Michael Palin appeared on a late-night TV discussion programme called Friday Night, Saturday Morning to discuss the film. They found themselves confronted by veteran broadcaster and born-again Christian Malcolm Muggeridge and the then Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, who proceeded to insult the film and the Pythons, ignore all their attempts to argue why the film was not blasphemous and repeatedly talk over them, making it difficult for them to get a word in.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Cleese and Palin’s reasoned and rational arguments – compared to their accusers’ cheap insults and dismissive arrogance – got the audience of the show on their side and Cleese has often stated that he enjoyed the interview because he believes that him and Palin came out on top.
An episode of Not The Nine O’Clock News was broadcast shortly after the interview had aired and included the following sketch, which brilliantly turned the controversy on its head and exposed its absurdity by having a Python fan condemn a film called Life Of Christ that has been made by the Church Of England which he feels ridicules the members Monty Python.
Unfortunately, the Friday Night, Saturday Morning interview does not seem to be available online but, to give you a chance to compare the spot-on parody to the original, the following extract from the Channel 4 documentary The Secret Life Of Brian includes (about two minutes in) several clips taken from the interview, along with Cleese and Palin’s retrospective feelings about it:
Here’s a clip from another retrospective look at the film, narrated by Doctor Who star David Tennant, with some other footage from the Friday Night, Saturday Morning face-off: