Holy Flying Circus is an offensive TV movie about the offence caused by Monty Python’s 1979 comedy The Life Of Brian. Written by Tony Roche (The Thick Of It, Fresh Meat, and many more), it deliberately sacrifices historical accuracy to pursue a discourse about the nature of offensive comedy. In doing so it makes clear its possession and ingestion of cake. In case you aren’t sure what the show’s going to be like, it opens with Jesus telling Eric Idle that what follows is largely fictional, before farting on Idle until he falls over.
It is said that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, and that swearing isn’t funny, but Holy Flying Circus shows that both of these can be far from true. It delights in broad, crude jokes, but has intelligent things to say with them. It is truly discursive. While discussing freedom of speech, a list of recent bad taste jokes is reeled off to underline that with the freedom the programme advocates comes the possibility of offensive comedy. In keeping with the main message, the script doesn’t flat out state its opinion on its examples (although it does heavily imply it) but leaves you with an argument to think about.
If you think, for example, that Frankie Boyle’s jokes are going too far, or attacking easy targets, do you still defend his right to make them? With the right of freedom of speech, are people abusing it and limiting it for others who might actually have something worthwhile to say? In other words, Holy Flying Circus is thought-provoking enough to get away with incredibly bad taste jokes.
The story culminates with Michael Palin and John Cleese’s appearance on the talk show Friday Night, Saturday Morning opposite the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge. Until then, we see caricatures of the Pythons bicker their way through the controversy that ensues after The Life Of Brian is released. Rufus Jones (whose voice you may recognise from various computer games) plays both Terry Jones and Michael Palin’s wife, who looks exactly like Terry Jones in drag.
Graham Chapman (Tom Fisher) doesn’t do much apart from smoke a pipe and look amused by everything. Terry Gilliam (Phil Nichol) takes small ideas and runs with them until he’s made an expensive looking animation. Eric Idle (Steve Punt) makes sarcastic comments and is motivated solely by money.
They are, however, secondary characters to Charles Edwards’ Michael Palin and Darren Boyd’s John Cleese. Palin provides the moral compass of the film, veering between annoyance at protesters burning effigies of himself in his garden to resignation that his opposition are so entrenched in their views that any reasoned debate is pointless. It’s only when he realises that his own viewpoint is largely unknown that he agrees to appear on telly discussing it, convincing Cleese to abandon his contrariness because he will enjoy being incredibly sarcastic.
Darren Boyd is fortunate enough to be given much of the best material involving the Pythons, especially in the scene where he goes to Palin’s house to discuss tactics before the show, is both bloody-minded and weaselling, then leaves singing a song consisting entirely of conjunctions and swear words.
There are a lot of meta-references, including present day interludes involving the Head of BBC 4, Stephen Fry as God, and anachronisms being highlighted and then ignored. The time elapsed since 1979 makes for plenty of room to reference the Pythons’ later careers. There are visual nods to Brazil, Time Bandits, and Terry Gilliam’s tendency to make things difficult for himself (“Why didn’t you storyboard it?” “I did. I left the window open and it blew away.” “Why did you leave the window open?” “It had an interesting visual texture”).
Palin is constantly referred to as The Nicest Man in the World and Cleese is just a variation on Basil Fawlty. At one point, he appears holding a kitten, stating that, in real life, John Cleese is actually a “really nice chap”. It both celebrates the Pythons’ work and ribs them for their foibles and flaws.
It should be noted that, as a comedy, Holy Flying Circus has a very high hit rate with its jokes. If one falls flat there will be another one soon, and if the gags feel close to the bone, the more reflective material at least generates a more considered reaction to them. Even on a second viewing there are plenty of laugh out loud moments, many of them from Jason Thorpe’s Head of BBC Chat, Alan Dick, and his obsession with winning a BAFTA. Ultimately, however, all the hilarity has been leading to a Lament Out Loud scenario.
When it comes to the actual TV interview, it is re-enacted almost verbatim. It is edited down, but this section is presented as a straight drama with comic interjections (within hours, T-shirts bearing the caption STAY ON PALIN! were circulating on the Internet). The conclusion, that the Bishop and Muggeridge’s comments are not representative of Christianity, and that blindly obeying dogma is no way to live irrespective of your beliefs, is strangely joyful, before an epilogue featuring Michael Palin talking to God and a recent sound clip of Terry Jones makes it clear that, if anything, society has almost moved backwards, let alone progressed.
Hilarious, stimulating, and not above taking the piss out of itself, Holy Flying Circus is a triumph. It also gets bonus points for featuring Geoffrey McGivern.
There’s not a huge selection of extras here. There are three deleted scenes – two are amusing, if not as funny as the rest of the show, and one looks like it was dropped for pacing. The out-takes are worth seeing for a scene in which Darren Boyd has to wait to both remember his lines and not have a modern day London bus appear in the background. Also, we have the glorious sight of Michael Cochrane swearing.
There’s a small film detailing the making of the Holy Flying Circus phonotrope, which involves computer simulations, giant wooden turntables, endless cardboard cut outs, endless fiddly model work, and a variety of special cameras. All this for something that is only seen for the duration of the title sequence. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what goes into making television.