TV Review: Holy Flying Circus

21/10/11 | Posted by MattPage

There have been many controversial films, books and television programmes over the years, but there's something completely different about Monty Python's Life of Brian: people actually like it. Many defend the right of Martin Scorsese to have made Last Temptation of Christ, or Salman Rushdie to have written the Satanic Verses, but few people hold the strength of feeling for them as they do for the anarchic tale of a man who was mistaken for the Messiah.

 Cleese (Boyd) and Palin (Edwards) prepare for the show.

It’s no doubt because of this strength of feeling that BBC4 commissioned Holy Flying Circus about the events leading up to the release of the film. The programme is the latest in a long series of fictional recreations of the off screen lives of 60s and 70s entertainers and focuses on the, now infamous, TV debate between Michael Palin and John Cleese on the one hand, and the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge on the other. The story is told from three sides, that of the Pythons, that of the programme’s production team, and a group of Christians (distinct from Muggeridge and the bishop) who object to the film.

This last part of the film, interspersed with the occasional deviation into Palin’s mind, is clearly the strongest part. The gags are refined and the drama takes over. Much of this is also due to a stronger focus on the better defined characters. Charles Edwards’s take on Palin is outstanding. Complex and nuanced Edwards manages to play the domestic scenes touchingly despite the fact he is playing opposite Rufus Jones in drag.  Darren Boyd also does a great job playing Basil Fawlty even if the concept he was given is a bit odd. And Mark Heap’s turn as the head of the Christian protestors is marvellous.  Sadly, the other characters are rather weak and two-dimensional.

One of the thing that is interesting about the film is the way that the story is told in a surreal and Pythonesque way. In addition to the general atmosphere of silliness we also have over-the-top characters, men playing women, animated sequences, and obscure interludes and even a scene inside an alien spaceship.

One further similarity is the way which both films have Jesus speaking at the start of the film and then not really again. Life of Brian famously shows Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount before the camera pans out to those at the back who can’t quite hear what’s being said. Holy Flying Circus, in contrast has Jesus explain in Aramaic that the story is largely fictional, and just to make the point it has the supposed Jesus figure fart.

I suspect that many people, were they to see the film, would find that pretty offensive and will also be unhappy with the language. Yet it’s also rather funny in places. Overall then, the programme is rather patchy; the odd laugh out loud moment interspersed with the rather mediocre. As Palin’s taxi driver said late in the programme - “very hit and miss”.

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