Monty Python’s Life of Brian is fabled for many things. From poking fun at organised religion, to serenely encouraging us all to (always) look on the bright side of life, it is a film of many and varied attributes. All this is well documented. Today I’d like to focus on something special. An all-too-brief, yet all-too-brilliant cameo by an icon of British comedy.
Spike Milligan is revered in comic circles to this day. As a founding member of The Goon Show, he helped bring satire to a British audience and inspired a generation of young comics. The Pythons themselves were admirers of Milligan’s work and when the opportunity arose to include him in their seminal work, they grabbed it.
This coming-together occurred by pure chance. Life of Brian was filmed in Tunisia and it just so happened that Milligan was visiting the old World War II battlefields in the country. Once the Pythons were made aware of his presence, they promptly invited him to take part in a scene they were filming that morning.
Milligan’s scene-stealing moment occurs just as the eponymous Brian is beginning to ascend to prophet-like status. As Brian attempts to flee from the pursuing Romans, he leaves behind a solitary shoe, with which his newly-acquired acolytes become enthralled.
The disciples of Brian begin squabbling over how Brian’s shoe should be interpreted. Should all who follow Brian be shoeless or should they gather shoes in abundance? Many have since commented that this famous scene is one of the Pythons’ most accomplished. In just over two minutes, the Pythons poke fun at organised religion and the myriad interpretations of messages and signs, all of which are open to misinterpretation by the idiosyncrasies of mankind.
As the dust settles, and the disciples of Brian have gone their separate ways, one man is left behind. The prophet “Spike” utters one last incoherent speech, realises he’s alone, clicks his fingers absentmindedly and then walks directly out of shot stage-left.
Sadly, yet rather wonderfully, that was Milligan’s last involvement in the film. Shortly after the scene was filmed, Milligan left the set to continue his holiday. As a result, he is conspicuous by his absence in the subsequent publicity shots which emerged from the set.
Though it may be a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment, Spike Milligan succeeds in owning one of the most satirical moments in comic cinema. That his cameo is remembered in amongst the array of other memorable moments from Life of Brian is surely sufficient to place it in the hallowed halls of ultimate scene-stealing moments.