Friday, June 20, 2014

Jesus and Brian Conference, Day 1

Terry Jones, John Cleese and Richard Burridge
It's not every day that you get to go to a conference on Monty Python.  Jesus and Brian Or: What Have the Pythons done for us? is the mastermind of Joan Taylor at Kings College, London, with support from Richard Burridge.  The focus is Monty Python's Life of Brian (dir. Terry Jones, 1979), and how it interacts with scholarship on the New Testament, Christian Origins, the Historical Jesus and the history of early Judaism.  The conference began today at King's College London and continues for the next two days.

As a long time fan of Life of Brian, and with an interest in Jesus films, I could not resist the opportunity to make it to this one.  Luckily, I have a conference in Denmark beginning on Sunday, and the chance to stop off in London on the way there made it irresistible.  Having said that, travel was not straightforward.  We had a flight cancelled on Wednesday evening and another on Thursday morning and only made it in in the early hours of Friday morning.  With no more than a few hours sleep over the last three nights, this does make it more of a challenge than I had expected, but I have no doubt that it will be worth it.

Joan Taylor introduces the conference
The conference began at around 4pm today.  Immediately one could see several scholarly celebrities around -- A.-J. Levine, Bart Ehrman, Helen Bond, George Brooke, Martin Goodman, Adele Reinhartz, Philip Davies, James Crossley, Eddie Adams, and so the list goes on.  Kings College is right in the heart of London, on the Strand, with theatres and swanky restaurants all around.  As long as you are not in a car, it's a fantastic location for a conference.  I tubed in from Heathrow to Covent Garden and had just a five minute walk.

Joan Taylor introduced the conference with a lively and witty piece on "the Historical Brian".  She mentioned her delight that the Pythons themselves had expressed enthusiasm about the conference and her amazement to get a phone-call from John Cleese.  She looked also at the comparison between the Life of Brian and the Hollywood Jesus films, and especially King of Kings.  

Martin Goodman
George Brooke
Martin Goodman then spoke about "The Life of Brian and the Politics of First Century Judea" and there was a lively Q&A session afterwards.  George Brooke spoke third, on "Brian as a Teacher of Righteousness", and got the best laugh so far when he said that Brian "puts the mess back into messianism".  The audience were taking a little while to warm up, but they were gradually getting there.

From this first session we went upstairs for a nice wine reception, with a few of those posh little canapés going around on trays, the kind where you need about five hundred to fill you up.  As it turned out, this was the only food of the evening, so it was important to grab as many as you could, and I'm not sure that I was quite up to the job.  Rick Trainor, Principal at Kings, gave some opening remarks, and uttered the heresy that he had not in fact seen the film!

Terry Jones, John Cleese, Richard Burridge
After the reception, we returned to the lecture theatre for the highlight of the day.  In fact, I'm sure it will prove to have been the highlight of the whole conference.  Richard Burridge interviewed Terry Jones and John Cleese for an hour.  It was an utterly compelling session.  I have to admit that I was a little starstruck.  John Cleese took the lion's share of the discussion and pretty much everything he said was quite fascinating.

Cleese expressed genuine pleasure that the film had resulted in a conference like this, and said that it might just be one of the best things the Pythons had done.  He talked about how good a director Jones was, adding that it was because he was a megalomaniac.  He talked about an alternate story line that came to nothing about Brian (or some other character) failing to make it to the last supper.  He spoke in the most disparaging way about the media ("second rate scum") and expressed little surprise when Burridge mentioned how little interest they had shown in this conference.

Jones did do a Mandy voice at one point, and he generally seemed rather chuffed with the whole discussion while broadly happy to let Cleese dominate.  Burridge did a fine job of allowing them to relax and chat while at the same time reining them in a bit and asking some very interesting questions, including a discussion of the now famous Stockwood and Muggeridge discussion of the film, with Cleese and Palin, on Tim Rice's programme.  Cleese said that he was an admirer of Muggeridge and felt sorry for him that his responses to the film were so poor.

Terry Jones, John Cleese, Richard Burridge
If anything, the discussion with Cleese and Jones was too good.  The hour went too quickly, and I could have continued listening for hours.  There followed an opportunity to watch the film (via DVD projection) in the same theatre, but over half the audience including most of the top brass flocked out, perhaps having realized that two or three canapes is not quite enough for dinner, and going in search of food and drink.  If the timing was not ideal, it was still nice to have a chance to watch the film again, all the more so in appreciative company, and good to brush up on it ahead of a whole raft of lectures tomorrow, all of which look like they will be fascinating.

The first day of the conference was every bit as good as I thought it would be and better.  Richard Burridge has an article in the Church Times here: Is he more than a 'naughty boy'? and there is a pre-conference podcast here.

I will continue to live-tweet the conference tomorrow, along with several others, and all your reactions, using the #JesusandBrian hashtag.


Xephyr said...

Will there, as far as you know, be a video of this conference posted online at any future date, for those of us who were unable to attend in person?

Terry Wright said...

I'm only a single bus ride away from the Strand campus, so I'd have love to have gone to this conference. But I found the cost of the conference prohibitive. :( So thanks for your updates, Mark.