Anthony Burgess’s Flying Circus
In 1977, Franco Zeffirelli finished filming his elaborate mini-series Jesus of Nazareth, scripted by Burgess. As soon as the cameras stopped rolling, another production moved in to occupy the lavish Jerusalem sets, something that had Zeffirelli fuming and ranting about blasphemy. That production was Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which would eventually be released to yet more cries of blasphemy in 1979. Burgess was far more genial about these young upstarts moving in on his territory. In You’ve Had Your Time (1990), Burgess writes: ‘that comedy, which I have seen some ten times on videocassette, strikes me as being a very fair interpretation of the lot of Jews under Roman rule. I wish I had written the script for it’.
This was not that last encounter Burgess would have with the Pythons. In October 1992, Burgess appeared on Radio 4’s Start the Week with Michael Palin. They were reviewing Madonna’s coffee table book, Sex, which Burgess described as ‘a book for a sick age’. This meeting resulted in Palin revealing his great affection for Burgess’s writing, gifting inscribed copies of his travel books Around the World in 80 Days (1988) and Pole to Pole (1992).
After their meeting, Palin wrote this letter to Burgess, held in the archive at the Burgess Foundation. Along with the usual pleasantries, the extent of Palin’s admiration is apparent in the letter:
“Your books give me enormous pleasure, even though I’ve read only a small percentage of your output (I intend to rectify that!) The enclosed paperback of Little Wilson was my favourite reading of the “80 Days” journey, and I associate it with hot but beautiful days on the Bay of Bengal & stormy days on the South China Sea when it made me laugh out loud. I would be so pleased if you could scribble on it somewhere.”
Burgess’s response to the letter is not recorded.
By Graham Foster