wed 21/03/2018

Holy Flying Circus, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Holy Flying Circus, BBC Four

Holy Flying Circus, BBC Four

Monty Python's Life of Brian controversy recreated as feeble pastiche

Rufus Jones as Terry Jones (left), dressed up as Mrs Michael Palin (Charles Edwards)

Reading the pre-transmission blurb, you might have formed the impression that Holy Flying Circus was going to offer new insights into the controversy that erupted around Monty Python's supposedly blasphemous Life of Brian movie when it was released in 1979. Instead, its 90 minutes were a thin gruel of flabby fantasy and caricature.

The individual Pythons were impersonated with slavish accuracy, notably Charles Edwards's Michael Palin, so much so that Life of Brian became merely an excuse for a limping parade of in-jokes and weak riffs on the Monty Python legacy. The incontinent zaniness rapidly palled, especially the way Michael Palin's wife was played by the bloke who also played Terry Jones (Rufus Jones, no relation) but in pantomime-drag, like the Pythons used to do in 1970. Jones's lisp was magnified to grotesque proportions ("this is weally weally wepugnant"), while for some reason Darren Boyd played John Cleese playing Basil Fawlty, restricting him to a narrow band of fascistic superciliousness and sarcasm. However, so knowing and postmodern was Tony Roche's script that he was able to step out of character to tell us that he was indeed playing John Cleese as Basil Fawlty. As an alibi, it didn't fly (Rufus Jones with Steve Punt as Eric Idle, pictured right).

But then, nor did anything else. You could quite literally see the writing on the wall from the start, when a long scroll of text in mock-epic block letters scrolled interminably up the screen, complete with its own built-in "joke" about how out of date and 1979-ish letters rolling up the screen were. Even worse were the cod-Python fantasy sequences which intermittently sprang up to remind you that there are few things in life more demoralising than people who do embarrassing Monty Python impersonations (I kept thinking of John Hannah in Sliding Doors). When Life of Brian's distributor, nervous about growing hostility to the film, urged that they shouldn't "start selling Life of Brian Christmas crackers", we jumped straight to a fake commercial in which John Cleese irascibly advertised Life of Brian Christmas crackers. A passing reference to censorship by the BBC's Head of Rude Words triggered an imaginary visit to the office of the BBC's Head of Rude Words, a fusty black-and-white place where the bow-tied Head formally dictated a list of prohibited obscenities to his prim and tweedy secretary ("cunt... motherfucker... cocksucker..." ). Funny? If only.

What's incredible about all this is that there must have been development meetings and script conferences during which somebody surely had an inkling that the project had a rotting cauliflower where its brain was supposed to be, yet they still went ahead and shot the thing. Odder still, alongside the attempts to stereotype people offended by Life of Brian as bearded, bed-wetting retards in cardigans, or in one case as a sufferer from Tourette's Syndrome, was the anti-BBC streak running through the piece. In another indulgent time-travel moment we visited the Head of BBC Four, to find that he was a coke-snorting yob who danced around his office to jungle music. It was here that I began to wonder if this programme marked the channel's symbolic suicide, in protest at the BBC cutbacks.  

It climaxed, albeit anti-climactically, with the TV encounter between Cleese and Palin and their critics, set up by the "Head of BBC Talk", Alan Dick (he had a subordinate called Harry Balls. Hilarious!). Jason Thorpe played Dick as a straightforward clone of Rik Mayall's Lord Flashheart from Blackadder, ranting hyperbolically at the thought of obscenity and blasphemy befouling the airwaves to create "the greatest TV show ever made".

That wasn't what happened. The Holy Flying Circus version was followed by an airing of the real 1979 Friday Night, Saturday Morning chat show in which Cleese and Palin were assailed by Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark, the Pythons remaining commendably rational in the face of their accusers' oozing smugness and interminable verbosity. It was a reminder that Monty Python's success depended on intellectual toughness as much as comic flair or surreal experimentalism. Holy Flying Circus looked like the pop-video version, clever, hyperactive and entirely pointless.

There are few things in life more demoralising than people who do embarrassing Monty Python impersonations (I kept thinking of John Hannah in 'Sliding Doors')

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Hahaha You TOTALLY missed the whole point!!

"... who danced around his office to jungle music." JUNGLE Music? Is that what you're calling it?

...I think you may have missed the point of the exercise. A poke at the pythons aswell as as controversial's also a tribute to the pythons and how their comedy change what we could laugh at. I find your review abit silly...

It was like visual fanfiction and it was phenomenal. Remove the dead kipper from your posterior, sir.

Why did the lion get lost? Because Jungle is Massive. LOLOCAUST

I TOTALLY missed the point too. Why don't you TOTALLY elucidate me, since YOU seem to have a prodigious level of INSIGHT, please.... x

I really think you missed the point. This was a dramatisation (billed as a "re-imagining"). It was one of the few bits of Python-esque writing that managed the jump from the 70s to the whatever-we-call-this-decade without seeming dated. It took some artistic liberties with the characterisations which seemed entirely in keeping with the Python oeuvre. It precis-ed the show itself in a pretty clever fashion, mixing entire segments as they actually happened with parody of other bits. I thought the worst bit was the intro scrolling text thing which almost made me turn over. I made myself stick with it and within 10 mins or so was actually laughing despite trying not to. It won me over. And that was because it was pretty damned brilliant. Sorry, chap.

Holy Flying Circus is the latest in a line of pointless BBC4 vanity projects, though this time without Mark Gattiss. "Fear Of Fanny", "Hattie", "Frankie Howerd-Rather You Than Me", etc., all shallow, signposted exercises in vintage clothing & bad impressions. Of course HFC was "post modern" & "knowing"'s essential in order to disguise the fact that it is an irrelevant & tediously unfunny potboiler. BBC, stop spending ( our ) money on empty schedule fillers like this, do away with the tripe that is BBC3 & just show your archived programmes.

I couldn't agree with you more, sir - I thought the decision to produce the programme in the style of Monty Python was a fantastic way of showing off both the talents of the actors (who were unbelievably accurate in both appearance and mannerism) and keeping the whole affair in perspective (the programme showed perfectly just how 'silly' 'Life of Brian''s opponents were in taking literally Monty Python's work). Acted, written and staged wonderfully (though slightly bemused how Lord Flash got into the story).

I don't think this reviewer particularly misses the point so much as not finding it funny. Perhaps you needed to have been there then? The writers did try and bring younger people into things by making anachronistic references, and even criticising themselves for doing so. But I can assure this writer that it was funny. Very very funny. The sheer comic talent of the cast was a wonder to behold, and I especially liked the Head of BBC4 making the complaints dept. chap dance in the office! So there! I'm 60 next birthday, by the way.

Dreadful script, obvious gags, old-hat self-referential tedium, one painfully unfunny scene after another. God this was awful. Watch five minutes of any Python show or film to show this lot what good comedy is. Absolutely dire. Even the great performances of the guy playing Palin and Darren Boyd couldn't save this from itself. Embarrassing.

Having enjoyed what I thought was quite an intelligent and amusing drama, I feel somewhat insulted by this review. Am I alone in detecting some parallels between the pompous outrage of Adam Sweeting and the humourless idiots who objected to the film 'Life Of Brian' when it first came out?

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