Members of the British comedy team, Monty Python, during the 1979 filming of their controversial film "The Life of Brian," from left: John Cleese as a centurion, Michael Palin as Pontius Pilate and Graham Chapman as Biggus Dickus. (Photo: Getty Images)
The historic town of Aberystwyth, Wales, was founded in 1109 on a land grant from King Henry I, conquered by Prince Harry of England in 1408 and razed by Parliamentarian troops in 1649. It erected the first-ever Welsh Evangelical Church in the mid-20th century. But the town didn't become relevant to the international comedy community until 1979, when it banned Monty Python's classic Jesus spoof "Life of Brian."
The film tells the story of a Jewish man living at the time of Jesus Christ, who is mistaken for the Messiah and crucified. Upon its initial release, it met with a torrent of protest from religious leaders worldwide, and a slew of UK towns prohibited the movie from being screened, according to "Life of Brian's" director, Terry Jones.
"'Life of Brian' was banned by quite a few local councils in the UK - including councils in Devon, where a certain Counselor Pinney was asked why he had voted to ban the film when he hadn't actually seen it, and he replied, 'One doesn't need to see a pigsty to know it stinks,'" Jones told Truthout. "So Aberystwyth was just following the trend. As far as I know, all the protesters and people who wanted to ban the film had never seen the thing."
Thirty years later, Aberystwyth is officially letting the movie back into town, and for good reason: The town's current mayor, Sue Jones-Davies, starred in the film.
"We thought it might be a nice gesture before my year of office was up to show the film, since it is also the film's 30th anniversary," Jones-Davies told NPR earlier this month. ""It's generated a lot of interest and really put us on the map."
The film was screened Saturday night at a charity event in Aberystwyth, with Jones and Michael Palin - a cast member - in attendance. Jones selected Truthout as the beneficiary of the event.
Opposition to the film has not dissolved quite yet in Aberystwyth. In fact, the town's conflicted response to the dissolution of the ban presents a microcosm of the larger questions of censorship and church-state separation that many communities have faced since the spread of the evangelical movement.
Rev. Canon Stuart Bell, vicar of Aberystwyth's St. Michael's Church, told the BBC last month that many of the town's Christians feel strongly that the ban should remain in place.
"The film at its root is poking fun at Christ and we don't want that to happen," Bell said. "If someone was going to make fun of my wife in a film then I would oppose that. Making fun of Jesus Christ, whom I love more than my wife, in a film is going to offend me."
Bell would have been in good company in 1979, when "Life of Brian" premiered. Several American states banned the film, as did Ireland and Norway. However, the world appears to have moved forward in the past 30 years, at least on the "Life of Brian" front. Ireland and Norway have long since rescinded their bans (perhaps with a little prodding from Sweden, which marketed the movie as "so funny it was banned in Norway"). Until Saturday, Aberystwyth remained one of the few places where the restriction languished.
"It's great that Aberystwyth is moving on," said Marc Ash, executive director of Truthout. "We've come through a dark time recently in the US. Our right to speak and express ourselves freely came under attack in ways we never imagined they could. Truthout is honored to be the beneficiary of the screening. We'll use the additional funding to further candid expression."
Meanwhile, back in Aberystwyth, Reverend Bell and the whole crew of "Life of Brian" detractors had a surprise coming to them Saturday night. Jones-Davies, who plays Judith in the film, is shown lying naked with Brian in one scene.
"I guess it'll be the first time a mayor of Aberystwyth has appeared naked on screen," Jones said prior to the event.