Holy Flying Circus is a fantastical re-imagining of the events leading up to Michael Palin and John Cleese appearing on the BBC’s Friday Night Saturday Morning to defend the film against charges of blasphemy. Written by Tony Roche (In the Loop, The Thick of It) directed by Owen Harris (Misfits, Skins) and edited by Billy Sneddon (Four Lions, In the Loop) this is a bold and entertaining homage to one of the world’s greatest comedy teams.
Holy Flying Circus 7.75
eyelights: its many inside jokes. its Pythonesque zaniness. the story. some of the casting.
eyesores: its biased, lop-sided perspective. some of the casting.
“Yes, I know you started with an open mind; I realize that.”
‘Holy Flying Circus’ is a 2011 telefilm based on the controversy surrounding Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian‘. It’s set right after the filming of the picture, when the Python were looking at distributing it but finding a growing number of roadblocks in North America and the UK, as word got out that the picture was a satire of the life of Jesus Christ.
Even though it isn’t.
The picture is based on factual events and shows the personal impact that it had on its members, focusing particularly on John Cleese and Michael Palin, who would eventually make an appearance on BBC talk show ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’ to defend their film in a live debate with then-Bishop Mervyn Stockwood and noted Christian Malcolm Muggeridge.
That debate is a classic moment of television and is constantly referred to in Python lore because it was a turning point for the film, which was having a difficult time finding an audience, having been banned by numerous councils in the UK. After the unsavoury performances by the Stockwood and Muggeridge, people were far more sympathetic to the Pythons.
The rest, as they say, is history.
What makes ‘Holy Flying Circus’ a terrific watch is that the filmmakers tried to be true not just to the events, but also to the style and humour of the Pythons. In fact, the programme takes on a veritable Pythonesque, stream-of-consciousness, quality to it that is both admirable and successful; they actually managed to give the allure of a Python production.
It helps that they made plenty of inside jokes, referring to classic Python skits and exchanges – not just in ‘Life of Brian’ (which is to be expected given the subject matter) but also in their other works. They even inserted abstract sequences and animation just as the Pythons would have done. It’s not quite Python, but it’s reminiscent enough to pass.
The cast was a bit of a mixed bag, sadly: most of them somewhat resembled the originals, with Charles Edwards looking his part of Michael Palin the most and Phil Nichol butchering Terry Gilliam with his wavering accent, dissimilar looks and horrible wig. Darren Boyd based his John Cleese on Basil Fawlty, but he had Cleese’s manner of speaking right.
I really enjoyed the humour, and I also loved the dialogues between the Pythons, as they try to figure out what they should do, if they should even go on the talk show. It was nice to see their democratic process at work, and how the others tried to convince Cleese. I also found the exchanges between Cleese and Palin (while they prepped up) a lot of fun.
What I didn’t like was that the show was extremely biased against Christians. I’m agnostic, but I think that it lowers the argument if you mock your opponent – as Stockwood and Muggeridge proved, in fact. ‘Holy Flying Circus’ makes them look like fools, with a stammerer and a Tourette’s sufferer amongst them. And it’s heavy on the anti-Church message.
This is basically preaching to the converted: fans of Python.
Apart for a weak ending, ‘Holy Flying Circus’ was a terrific 90 minutes of reality-based entertainment. I watched it with some friends and we all laughed heartily from start to finish. What’s even better, though, is that it also fueled some interesting conversations afterwards. So it’s great for Python fans, but it’s also a good time and thought-provoking as well.
I have no doubt that it will become a go-to picture for me when I feel like watching Monty Python-related material. It’s the closest thing to new stuff in years, and it’s actually better than the Pythons’ most recent efforts (as a group, I mean). This was lovingly cobbled together and it pays them tribute adequately well. No self-respecting fan should miss it.
Date of viewing: April 4, 2015