Monty Python’s The Life of Brian is considered these days to be one of the greatest comedies of all time and yet at the time of its release it was also one of the most controversial. Accused by many (some of whom who hadn’t actually seen it) of being blasphemous, it was actually banned in many UK towns and cities.
And so Holy Flying Circus, originally broadcast on BBC4, seeks to address the issues surrounding the release of Life of Brian in terms of religion, cultural acceptability and censorship from a comic, surreal, multicultural and multi-character perspective. It features all the main people involved with the creation of the film as well as those who sought to oppose it. Except the people involved are not the real ones. Obviously. This, then, is a drama about real people defending a real film… with a bit of re-imagining along the way.
The plot centres around the Monty Python team who have just finished filming the Life of Brian in Tunisia, blissfully unaware of the media storm of controversy that is about to hit them. When it does hit there’s an outcry and accusations of blasphemy abound. In an attempt to defend themselves ‘the perfect team’ of Michael Palin (‘the nicest man in the world’) and John Cleese (‘you’re good at shouting at people and being enormously sarcastic’) agree to take part in a televised debate. Palin spends hours preparing, Cleese is blasé. Their challengers are none other than Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark with Tim Rice in the chair to keep some semblance of control over the discussion. Can the Pythons possibly argue their case?
The script has some nice touches and is clearly well thought through in terms of keeping to Pythonesque sensibilities. Michael Palin, for example, is married to a typically Terry Jones style cross-dressing pepperpot wife, played by Rufus Jones who also plays Terry Jones – indeed many of the cast members have multiple roles. The performances are generally good, particularly Charles Edwards’ Michael Palin and Steve Punt’s Eric Idle, even if Darren Boyd’s John Cleese is just a bit too Basil Fawlty for the running time. Still, at least he let us know that that would be the case. There are some great moments – dreams within dreams, warped realities – but these are countered by occasional scenes of clumsiness, most notably in the plotline with the irritating TV producer and his team, which feels clichéd. Perhaps it was a case of trying to be madcap and zany and clever and surreal, just like the real Flying Circus, but throwing far too many different ideas and styles into the mixing pot.
That said, it remains interesting viewing, particularly for Monty Python fans. Perhaps more fascinating is the real debate from November 1979, which is available on Youtube (in several parts) should you wish to view.