Cliché dictates that this review begin with an overused reference to a quote or iconic character of Python lore, a joke about Graham Chapman still being dead and a lament that there will be no more reunions of the surviving members (till the next one happens). This however would create assumptions that Holy Flying Circus is a recreation of the iconic sketch troupe’s style, however in reality it is actually a biographical comedy drama set outside of actual reality, retelling the events of Life of Brian’s launch, up to the historic debate on Friday Night, Saturday Morning. Is it a loving tribute to the intolerance of shouty comedy, or is it just beating a dead parrot?
Following the sextet of funny men, with particular emphasis on Michal Palin (Charles Edwards) and John Cleese (Darren Boyd), the 90-minute BBC film chronicles their attempt to release the film that mildly proclaimed “um maybe religion can be a bit silly?” and the outcry that followed. Whilst its view on history is clearly on the side of its namesake, it strives not to be factual but to be an impassioned send up both for the The Pythons and the place of offensiveness in comedy.
Standing high in the production are ferociously committed performances; rather than mere impersonations, the actors mould themselves around every facet of the real life figures. Rufus Jones gives the strongest and yet most subtle bit of pathos upon the group’s receiving of the first death threat, yet he also supplies the finest moments of silliness by keeping the boisterous Python’s tradition of being the worst choice (not from a comedic viewpoint mind you) to play women, doubling as Palin’s wife. Outside of the six, though, Michael Cochrane and Roy Marsden do brilliantly as Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark, respectively, by capturing the dishonesty that helped turn the public onto the side of the men they’d been posting shit to, and Spaced actor Mark Heap is also quite the show stealer as the head of The Popular People’s Church of St. Sophia (formerly the The People’s Church of St. Sophia).
Second to the acting, the writing is what will be most scrutinized, and on the whole Tony Roche has successfully created a story and script that emulates the surreal style of a Flying Circus episode or Python film, but not its tone. Strong characters, a well integrated historical framework and complex arguments in the struggle for free speech are things the Pythons would keep far away from in their usual surreal comedy, constantly wavering fourth wall and the barking mad animations of Terry Gilliam; all of which are emulated well and with their own levels of independence. Admittedly a lot of the jokes either feel at best obvious and at worst forced, and at times it feels like the script is having a bit too much fun with itself.
Of course no one should criticise Holy Flying Circus for not being accurate (it outright claims not to be), though it’s take on what really happened feels like it’s based on a nostalgic view of the history, with the angle behind the debate’s before and after and Palin’s unbreakable nice guy persona feeling derived from one or two lines in an interview, yet because of its attempt to be, if only slightly, pythonesque it gets too sidetracked from examining its ideas further, leaving it a bit directionless. It is however, overall, enjoyable; there are innumerable successful jokes and send ups, the drama is gripping and the pacing well tuned, and the amount of references to the hallowed canon are not as numerous as you’d expect.
This DVD edition of Holy Flying Circus doesn’t boast much over its BBC 4 premiere (the out take is more like a behind the scenes, which is good in and of itself I suppose), but no matter: the main feature is just the slice of original entertainment it always was, and is an easy repeat viewing. Every Python fan will have his or her take on it, yet it at least deserves their attention. Also Stephen Fry plays God.
Words > Graham Ashton