I vividly recall trotting off to see Monty Python’s Life of Brian as a first-year college student. There would be a media storm surrounding it. I especially remember an indignant Malcolm Muggeridge attempting to condemn it in the face of a hostile audience on TV and looking silly. For us, you see, it was no big deal — we’d grown up and still lived in a cultural atmosphere that saw religion as a legitimate and hilarity-inducing punchbag. Muggeridge was an old fogey. The notion that we should refrain from causing offence by laughing along would have struck us as absurd — would have made us, indeed, laugh longer and harder.
I saw the movie again recently and it holds up well. It’s available on DVD, and features regularly in those lists of Best Comedies Ever. Its closing number, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, is a bona fide pop culture classic, still a sing-along fixture at good-natured drunken gatherings and coach journeys home up and down the country.
Thirty years ago, that country was ravaged by economic decline but culturally still knew what it was, and the assumptions it could safely make. Then again, few of us freshers had even heard of Islam. As we queued for the movie, we knew that something was going on over in Iran, yes, but we’d been told the Shah was a fascist tyrant. So the establishment of this new regime must have been some sort of victory for something we could vaguely assume was good, progressive, and to be supported.
The Shah’s replacement was an old man who famously went on to say: “There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humour in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious.” So there would be no Life of Iqbal showing in downtown Tehran. Blinded by a misplaced sensitivity, cringing cultural cowardice and a very well-placed sense of genuine fear, we followed suit. Now, three decades later, we can say with certainty that there will be no Life of Iqbal at Bradford’s local multiplex.
What we get instead in our brave new world is The Infidel. This new British comedy was written by the comedian and novelist David Baddiel, who says on the film’s website: “I think that people are terrified about race and religion, especially issues surrounding Muslims and Jews, and when people are terrified, what they really should do is laugh.” That’s all well and good, though I think it’s fair to say that there’s some disingenuous equivalence going on here. I don’t think many people are “terrified” of Jews, for the very good reason that they can be sure they wouldn’t have to live under constant police vigilance or fear their property being torched if they drew a few satirical cartoons incorporating the Star of David. Baddiel seemed to tacitly admit this when he spoke briefly at the screening I attended. The film-makers had striven not to be offensive, he said. “But what’s the most that Jews are going to do? Ban you from eating at Bloom’s?”
Starting out on a project like this with the desire not to be offensive must be like boxing with one arm tied behind your back. You will end up losing, and sure enough, The Infidel is simply not funny. Sidestepping the very basis of religion itself, it instead goes for good, old-fashioned fun at the expense of social stereotypes. The Iranian-born comedian Omid Djalili plays Mahmud, a relaxed, not especially devout London Muslim who on the death of his mother discovers that he was in fact born a Jew — real name Solly Shimshillewitz — and was adopted at birth by Muslim parents. Once the initial trauma dies down, he tries to find out more about his real identity, mostly with the help of a Jewish (and, bizarrely, American) London cab driver. Cue lessons in “Jewish-ness” — syntax, gestures, barmitzvahs and the rest.
The point about Life of Brian is that it went right for the source material. The Infidel, on the other hand, comes from the “It’s a funny old world, ain’t it?” school of comedy in which our foibles are laughed over in the warm, fuzzy knowledge that more unites than separates us. The truth is we’re not really that sure about that now, and it seemed to me, neither is the film. It treads carefully. Most of the humour derives from the funniness of a particular brand of North London Jewishess. Islam is, on the whole, left well alone. There is a send-up of Abu Hamza in the form of a radical with a hook, surrounded by threatening looking heavies. There are young women in burkas dancing. But the religion itself? That, it seems, is no laughing matter.
A word about this year’s Oscars: what a relief that that overblown, infantile piece of tosh Avatar was stopped in its tracks, and by a small film, The Hurt Locker, which, by the standards of James Cameron’s cartoon epic, has been seen by almost no one. More importantly, the simple-minded anti-Americanism of Avatar was trumped by a film which, whatever its makers’ view on the Iraq war, admires and celebrates the bravery of US troops. Such a film is inconceivable here — or anywhere else in Europe for that matter.
It was not ever thus: Noel Coward did a sterling job in In Which We Serve, admittedly a wartime effort. Even as late as the Sixties, with the star-studded The Battle of Britain, it was possible for audiences here to see a straight-faced tale of heroism where nothing much was called into question. But even then, the heart was already growing feint, and really from Tony Richardson’s revisionist take on the Charge of the Light Brigade in that decade it has been downhill all the way.
Even when they show up in science fiction dramas such as the zombie-fest 28 Days Later, British troops are portrayed as bigoted, psychotic grunts. Our film-makers, it seems, refuse to separate the message from the messenger.