Norway banned Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’. Now a book about film censorship is in the pipeline

February 23 2024

Critic and writer Johanne Elster Hanson is making her debut as an author with a book about the time when Norwegian film censorship took the world by surprise, not least the Monty Python group of comedians, by banning the ‘Life of Brian’ satire film. The author would like to track down any Norwegians who went on a film safari to Sweden in 1980 to circumvent Norwegian censorship.

The now defunct censorship body the State Film Control (Statens filmkontroll) used to record the minutes of its meetings in a green leather-bound journal.

In the minutes from a meeting on 11 January 1980, they gave the film designated number 66793 a so-called ‘white’ rating. The film was banned on the grounds that it could be considered blasphemous. Monty Python’s religious satire ‘Life of Brian’ was thereby banned in Norway.

The decision came as a shock and a surprise to the film importers as well as to the Monty Python group itself. However, it was to the delight of Swedish cinemas, which were able to market the film under the slogan “so funny that it has been banned in Norway”.

While much has been written about this ban, no one has ever written a book featuring an in-depth exploration of what actually went on behind the scenes during the ten months that ‘Life of Brian’ was banned in Norway. Writer and critic Johanne Elster Hanson (b. 1996) plans to remedy this. In February, she was awarded funding to develop the script for her book ‘The Brian Problem. When Monty Python’s Life of Brian was banned in Norway’.

Johanne
Johanne Elster Hanson. Photo: Melina Spanoudi

Dormant blasphemy law revived

‘The Brian Problem’ is a in-depth study of the controversies surrounding the act of censorship. The censoring body referred to what was then section 142 of the Penal Code, the so-called blasphemy section, even though it had not been applied in Norwegian law since the author Arnulf Øverland was sued and acquitted in 1933 for his lecture ‘Christianity – the tenth plague’.

The blasphemy clause is mentioned in several of the detailed typed minutes from the State Film Control’s meetings that were attended by the author.

“The minutes were intended for internal use and may now seem unintentionally funny,” remarks Hanson.

She cites an example from the discussion about the sexually explicit film ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ (1981). The notes state: “you voted 18 in favour of Pacific Banana, and it had no sexual intercourse scenes at all”.
Despite the fact that the censors often disagreed, ‘Life of Brian’ was censored unanimously. Instead, the debate exploded in Norwegian media.

Life of brian
The decision on "Life of Brian", 1980. Photo: Johanne Elster Hanson.

A parallel in our time

“The book will be about more than simply what happened in 1980,” says the author. The film has been specifically mentioned in several of the recent debates about Koran burning. The attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie and the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo are two examples of the consequences of alleged blasphemy. In 2022, when Theatre Innlandet staged a play in which Jesus was portrayed as a transgender person, all performances had to have police protection.

“I hope to draw a parallel to how allegedly blasphemous expressions of culture and humour are also censored and attacked in today’s public discourse," continues Hanson.

She points out what a paradox it is that many media experts subscribe to the opinion that ‘Life of Brian’ could not have been made today, despite the fact that the freedom to watch and say whatever we want is greater now.

“By revisiting the controversies of 1980, we can detect weaknesses in today’s discussions about freedom of expression. Social media have eroded people’s ability to put things into context. Accordingly, some seem to believe that artistic expression should be required to be as serious, well-intentioned and based on one-to-one argumentation as an opinion piece. As a result, the pietistic fringe country of Norway of 1980 has been replaced by a different form of artistic justice that functions in a manner that is surprisingly similar to 40 years ago," contends Hanson.

‘The Brian Problem’ will mainly be based on archival studies and new interviews. Hanson tells Fritt Ord that she would like to establish contact with people who crossed the border to Sweden to see the film while it was still banned in Norway.

“Rumour has it that busloads of Monty Python fans crossed the border to see the movie," she smiles.

“I don’t know if this is true, but if it is, I would very much like to get in touch with these avid moviegoers.”

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