Just remember that the last laugh is on you
Monty Python - 'Look on the Bright Side of Life (All Things Dull and Ugly)' (Life of Brian OST - 1979)
At the climax of Monty Python’s 1979 film, The Life of Brian, Protagonist Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) is again spending time with Eric Idle’s Mr Cheeky. Cheeky, despite almost blagging his way out of a crucifixion once, manages to get the Roman soldiers to take him off the cross by invoking an I’m Spartacus. This leaves another Idle character, the even more stupidly named Mr Frisbee III, to try and cheer Brian up with a song.
The ending is everything we would expect from the Python crew; Ironic, silly, satirical and something completely different. Mr Frisbee III informs Brian that even though he is facing death, he should always look on the bright side of life.
The song was written when Idle and the other Pythons realised that they had to follow through on a crucifixion to end the film but didn’t want it to feel like one in which hundreds of people had been killed. So, using jazz chords from the book Micky Baker Jazz Guitar Course, Idle wrote a ludicrously cheery number. It wasn’t until they were filming in Tunisia that the idea to sing the song in the style of Mr Cheeky came to Idle, and he recorded the vocals into a tape recorder in his hotel room. This gives the song a feel of an optimistic Disney tune like ‘Give A Little Whistle’ and the air of the Victorian English music hall.
Idle told Vanity Fair in 2019
I’d given us a rather bad ending for Holy Grail” [in which modern-day police interrupt the climactic battle and round up the medieval knights] which my daughter still says is the shittiest ending of any film ever. But all our characters were heading for crucifixion; how do you find an end to that in a comedy? So that was my suggestion: we’ll finish with a song. I had an instinct it should be like a Disney whistle song. We should be cheery and upbeat... It went into the script that day as ‘I’m Looking on the Bright Side,’ and then I went home and wrote it immediately in about an hour... I took it in the next day.
The song had been recorded in London before the move out to Tunisia with the Fred Tomlinson Singers on backing vocals and Neil Innes doing the whistling. He wasn’t the only sixties musician involved either. In 1978, George Harrison set up a production company called HandMade Films, which he established to help fund the film, as the film's original financiers had pulled out due to the film's controversial subject matter. Harrison stepped in and provided the necessary funding to complete the film. In the movie, he also appeared as one of the crowd members following Brian, shouting, "Hallelujah!"
Unlike Brian in the film, the song did have a form of resurrection not three days later but three years. During the Falklands War, on May 4th, 1982, a Super Etendard aircraft from the Argentine Navy fired a missile at the HMS Sheffield, causing the ship to be severely damaged. The crew was forced to evacuate the vessel. While waiting to be rescued, Sub Lieutenant Carrington-Wood noticed a noticeable decrease in morale among the crew and began singing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. Something similar happened a month later with HMS Coventry.
The remaining Python members sang it at Graham Chapman’s funeral at the decade's end. Just after that, troops fighting the Gulf War relieve the tension with renditions of this classic British stoicism and stiff-upper-lip humour. English football teams were also breaking into it when clearly about to lose games or to inform other sides that they’d “Always shit on the old <colour of rival teams kit>” Eric Idle found out about this from the England and Tottenham forward, Gary Lineker, who was his neighbour at the time.
A BBC Radio 1 DJ, Simon Mayo, also started playing the song on his breakfast show, as he would do with novelty records. By September, Virgin had a clean edit of the song (“Life's a piece of spit”) and removed all the "this record is available in the foyer" chat. The song was ready to try and take down Bryan Adams, whose ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ was stuck like a limpet to the number #1 spot for weeks.
Idle again, this time in his 2018 autobiography:
It was strangely exciting as each week it rose higher and higher. It eventually got to number three, where it peaked after I had been persuaded to sing it on Top of the Pops, a deliberately chaotic performance with John Du Prez leading the band. Simon Mayo said it was because I had sung it on Top of the Pops, and he may well have been right, but it did get to number one on the ITV charts, and, even more satisfying, it became number one in Ireland, which was great because the movie had been banned there, and the soundtrack album on Warner’s was withdrawn and pulled out of record stores after protests when it was first released. A fitting revenge.
Twenty years later, Idle performed the song for maybe, hundreds of millions at the 2012 Summer Olympics closing ceremony. At this point, it had become the most popular song played at British funerals, usurping Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’.
I was at school at the time, and to indicate how long sixteen weeks is, it was number one before I broke for the summer holidays that year and was still number one during the October half-term when U2 finally did the decent thing.