A pair of little-seen but brilliant short films that accompanied The Life of Brian in British cinemas.
In 1983, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life was accompanied on its theatrical release by The Crimson Permanent Assurance, a wildly extravagant short film by Terry Gilliam that would infamously become a drain on the main feature’s budget but which was also an integral part of the film and now is included as part of the main narrative – a lengthy pre-credits scene that immediately confuses anyone unfamiliar with the movie when they first sit down to watch it.
While pretty much everyone with even a passing interest in Python movies will have seen The Permanent Crimson Assurance, the shorts that accompanied Monty Python’s Life of Brian during its original 1979/1980 release are less well known. This was, of course, the era of the ‘full supporting feature‘ which, by the end of the 1970s, increasingly meant any old travelogue or cheap documentary short that could fulfil British film quotas to qualify Eady Levy tax relief for the main movie. While some of these shorts now have a certain camp value – the assorted ‘visits’ by Telly Savalas to industrial British cities being especially amusing – and every so often a really great short drama or comedy would appear in the support slot, audiences were so used to utter tedium by this point that the appearance of Away From It All – from the appropriately downmarket-looking Taylor Hyde International – understandably elicited groans for despair. After all, people had come to see the most controversial film in years and the long-awaited return to the screen of the Pythons (whose cult had only grown in the second half of the 1970s thanks to live shows, LPs and books keeping the Python name fresh) – some had even crossed county lines after the film was banned, sight unseen, by several local councils. The last thing that they wanted was some dismal travelogue that looked and sounded as though it had been hanging around since the 1960s.
But wait – doesn’t the voice of the narrator, Nigel Farquhar-Bennett, sound oddly familiar? Why, you might think that it was John Cleese for a moment. Well, of course it is, here doing a great job of recreating the narrative blandness of these films before starting to crack up and become more and more hysterical and excitable. For audiences watching this in the cinema, the hints that it might not be quite what it seemed came slowly (and remember, most viewers would not even be really paying attention) and you’re probably about halfway through before it becomes apparent that this is a bitingly spot-on satire as Cleese rages about the various countries featured in the stock footage and “more of those fucking gondolas” – the point when the audience I was in erupted with delight. The descent into existential despair at the end is a masterclass in hysteria – and also rather bleak in its deadening finality – before becoming a savagely on-the-nose criticism of “these cheapo rip-off-fillers”. It’s quite brilliant.
Also showing as part of the supporting programme was Terry Gilliam’s 1968 animated movie Story Time, made just prior to the formation of Monty Python. The cartoon features Gilliam’s immediately recognisable style and a lot of the gags – visual and verbal – show just how significant a part of the Python team he really was – a lot of this humour would be recreated across their work over the next few years.
Neither short has made it onto the disc releases of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but at least they are finally available for viewing online. Enjoy!
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