Holy Flying Circus

Why have some of the ex-Pythons come down so hard on this very loose retelling of the Life of Brian debacle? The Fan Can looks at BBC Four's Holy Flying Circus.


4 stars



Holy Flying Circus - From Left to RIght Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Jones.


Air date: UK 19 October, BBC Four, 9pm


There's a scene in Holy Flying Circus - which is set in 1979, by the way - where the Pythons' lawyer launches into a impersonation of Blue Peter's resident spastic (terminology of the time, okay?) Joey Deacon.


Cue jump cut to 2011 and a frothing viewer taps furiously on his keyboard that Joey Deacon wasn't famous until 1981, a whole two years later.


From some of the former Pythons' wearyingly conservative reactions to Holy Flying Circus's fanciful retelling ("disappointing"; "full of inaccuracies"; "not a fair reflection of the facts" said Cleese), that viewer could well be them. "Why bother to put in made-up material?" asked Terry Gilliam, rather pointlessly. "They could've researched it properly and it would've been just as funny."


Holy Flying Circus - Terry Jones and Michael Palin in bed.

Maybe now the gang, as they ease themselves into old age, are the Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood to the next generation's Pythons. Just like Cleese and co never intended their film to be a biography of Christ, so writer Tony Roche (The Thick of It, Cast Offs) and director Owen Harris (Misfits) aren't doing a historical documentary here. This isn't Frost/Nixon or Hillsborough, but it is a very Monty Python take on recent history, and shame on those ageing Pythons for not getting that.


There are echoes in Holy Flying Circus of Michael Winterbottom's similarly florid 24-Hour Party People as well as Guy Jenkins' Jeffrey Archer: The Truth. This is conscious legend-building, putting the Pythons, as the spiky young punks (yes, even Cleese, who's given an extra dollop of establishment-baiting mischievousness here) against a rag-tag collection of scholarly loons and trainspottery foot soldiers.


It does suppose that its audience knows exactly what kind of film The Life of Brian was, though. Because the screening rights for the Pythons' third film are currently with Channel Four, BBC Four aren't able to remind viewers what the fight was all about.* And Holy Flying Circus doesn't exactly seem keen on articulating a good defence of the movie and its creators' motives.


Muggeridge and Stockwood lost the TV debate battle for being so unabashedly patronising and rude, not because Cleese and Palin wielded their arguments better. They were just more polite.


But like Python, which often seemed less interested in satire than silliness for silliness's sake, Holy Flying Circus revels in not being shackled to convention. Roche's script veers off course at unexpected moments, such as when Cleese and Palin start a duel - with lightsabers - after disagreeing on a strategy against the Christians. And having most of the main cast double-up as other characters, such as Rufus Jones, who plays Terry Jones as well as Palin's missus, and Charles Edwards, who plays Palin's mother as well as Michael, gives the film a nicely Pythonesque cross-dressing hue.


Holy Flying Circus - Terry Jones and Eric Idle in the office.

Each of the Pythons are written according to their headline images, but the focus of the film is on Palin (a supernaturally lifelike Charles Edwards) and Cleese (Darren Boyd, channelling his Python through Basil Fawlty). But by centring the film around the Friday Night, Saturday Morning scrap between Palin and Cleese on the Python side and Muggeridge and Stockwood in the Jesus camp, it means that the other Pythons are pushed a little too dismissively to the sidelines.


Jones, whose brittle relationship with Cleese could be the focus of a different kind of Python biopic, is caricatured as only thinking in terms of camera angles, while Idle is characterised as shallow and money-grabbing. Chapman and Gilliam hardly get a camera glance.


As a tribute to the spirit of the Pythons, it's spot-on, even if John Cleese can't see that. And as history, it's as joyously unreliable as any film the Monty Python team ever made. When John Cleese said the film was full of inaccuracies maybe he was just pissed off he didn't win that lightsaber fight.



*Ah, it turns out BBC Four are showing Life of Brian after all. You can see it on Saturday the 22nd at 9pm. It would make more sense to show it BEFORE Holy Flying Circus, but who's to query the great minds at BBC Scheduling?


Steve O'Brien



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Holy Flying Circus
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