“Most of what you are about to see never actually happened. It’s largely made up. Like The Bible.”
You’d think a real-life tale about potential blasphemy and religious indignation would be dramatic enough without needing to make stuff up. But this is no ordinary biopic. This is the (somewhat) true story of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. With added bits.
BBC Four has something of a chequered history when it comes to making controversial biographies about comedy stars, which have tended to err on the first part of ‘tragi-comic’: from The Curse Of Steptoe (starring Jason Isaacs and Phil Davis), to Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me (with David Walliams in the lead role), and Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa! (featuring Michael Sheen, ticking off yet another real person to portray), to Hancock & Joan (The Lad Himself being played by Ken Stott).
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Each of these – and several others besides – went very much for the ‘tears of a clown’ angle, focusing upon the personal unhappiness and pain of the subject, instead of being what could have been somewhat more upbeat and celebratory affairs. It seems as though some lessons had been learnt from these earlier efforts, as Holy Flying Circus decided not only to aim firmly for laughs over introspection, but also head into outright escapist surrealism at times. Also, the subjects (well, five-sixths of them, anyway) are still alive, so they might have something to say about their depiction (which, in the case of John Cleese, he certainly did).
The script by Tony Roche (who’s written for The Thick Of It spin-off movie In The Loop, and American equivalent Veep) decided to take a larger-than-life, somewhat fantastical approach when depicting the events surrounding the controversy over Life Of Brian. This move had attracted the ire of some of the Pythons, Cleese in particular, who berated the film for its inaccuracies, as well as the portrayal of him by Darren Boyd. Terry Gilliam also joined the fray, saying the producers had originally indicated it would be more along the lines of Frost/Nixon in its tone and content.
It seems that Roche anticipated much of the backlash, as in a piece published just before transmission in October 2011, he said “The film isn’t an accurate re-telling of what happened. It doesn’t pay much attention to the facts. (Sorry.)”. In a blog post written at the time by Rufus Jones (who played Terry Jones), his view was that “Holy Flying Circus is as slavishly faithful to the Python story as Life Of Brian was to 1st Century Galilee”, being “a mixture of outrageous liberties and surprising truths”.
The thinking behind the film wasn’t to do a slavish re-enactment of events, but to instead use the true story as a framework, against which Holy Flying Circus would take a look at the nature of offence, using contemporary attitudes to study what it was that actually proved so contentious at the time, and whether things had moved on in the (what was then) 32 years since Life Of Brian was released to such a furore. In fact, at one point God (in the form of no less than Stephen Fry) explicitly references the far more recent controversies involving The Satanic Verses, Jerry Springer: The Opera, Danish cartoons, South Park, and Richard Dawkins.
All of the essential bits of the true story are there – for example, they mention that the Pythons had to take out wills as the controversy continued to grow, for fear that someone would try to take them out while doing publicity for Life Of Brian. There’s also a representation of the religious backlash which the film generated, and at the very end there’s a re-enactment of Palin and Cleese’s head-to-head debate on Friday Night, Saturday Morning with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark, which is – for the most part – played fairly straight.
However, it feels as though a by-the-numbers retelling of events wouldn’t have befitted the subjects, so we get wild flights of fantasy, and Gilliam-esque animations peppered throughout the film. The Pythons themselves are presented here as rather exaggerated yet also stripped-down, almost simplistic versions of how the troupe are in real life. For example, Terry Gilliam (Phil Nichol) is a manic, giggling, slightly twisted and avant-garde artist; Eric Idle (Steve Punt) is portrayed as what the rest of the Pythons openly proclaim as “a money-grabbing bastard”, always keen to find the next opportunity to exploit for financial gain.
Terry Jones (Rufus Jones) is reduced to little more than an amplified speech impediment, but he somehow managed to fare somewhat better than poor Graham Chapman (Tom Fisher), who not only gets little to do, but is also presented without any discernible personality, and is instead shown through his traits of smoking a pipe, wearing a loud jacket, and regularly reminding everybody that he’s the gay one. It’s a real shame Chapman is so poorly served, particularly as he’s no longer with us to remind everyone of what he was actually like.
Perhaps inevitably, the largest slice of the action is split between John Cleese (Darren Boyd) and Michael Palin (Charles Edwards), who operate as the yin and yang of the group, taking up opposite sides when it comes to arguing the issue over whether Life Of Brian is too controversial. Cleese’s portrayal is a caricature, and loosely based on his Basil Fawlty persona (as openly admitted in a fourth-wall break); at one stage, Boyd’s Cleese even inexplicably finds a loose branch in central London with which to thrash a news vendor, in a homage to Fawlty Towers’ ‘Gourmet Night’.
The fictional Cleese is a professional contrarian, always seeking to take an opposing stance, or be controversial for shock effect. Edwards’ Palin, however, is presented as being the nicest man alive, someone who even manages to be self-deprecating about being self-deprecating. Again, this is an exaggerated version of the real-life person, but to a very different effect; Edwards manages to truly inhabit Palin in a way none of the others quite do with the Pythons they’re depicting. Although not an exact likeness, he’s so remarkably close to Palin that you can even forget at times you’re not watching the genuine article.
There are lots of nods and homages to Python material, with the ‘Pythons’ in Holy Flying Circus also doing other characters, with Edwards appearing as Michael Palin’s mother, and Rufus Jones playing Terry Jones playing Michael Palin’s wife. In addition, there’s a discussion asking “What have the Christians ever given us?”, directly referencing the same question being directed at the Romans in Life Of Brian. At one point, Palin is seen speaking to a group of religious fanatics from his bedroom, perfectly mirroring the scene in Life Of Brian when Brian addresses the assembled multitudes from his window.
The slightly offbeat, surreal tone is amplified by some supporting actors also taking on more than one part, such as the stalwart Geoff McGivern (Ford Prefect in the radio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), who crops up as no less than four separate characters (as well as a fifth in a deleted scene on the DVD). As with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Holy Flying Circus isn’t afraid to bite the hand that feeds it, and has a dig at BBC Four itself, from the levels of bureaucracy at the BBC, to their content predominantly consisting of a three-part series about canals, a documentary about Scandinavian jazz, and some old footage of a barge.
The main thrust of Holy Flying Circus is to look at how attitudes have changed since 1979, and it actually manages to be even more potentially offensive than the subject matter, as – unlike Life Of Brian – it shows a parodic version of Jesus, veering from him being heavily flatulent in one scene, to turning God’s wine to water out of sheer spite in another. One secondary character also has an extreme case of Tourette’s Syndrome, which is played up for comic effect. Yet in a time of the seemingly perpetually outraged, it appears to have passed without serious complaint, unlike the now seemingly (in comparison) more innocuous Life Of Brian.
Appropriately, the final word in Holy Flying Circus goes to the real Terry Jones, in an excerpt from a Radio Five Live interview from March 2011, saying that the Pythons would probably think twice about making Life Of Brian if they had to do it now instead. Perhaps the main message to take away not only from Monty Python’s Life Of Brian but also Holy Flying Circus is best reflected in the words of one Brian of Nazareth himself: “There’s no pleasing some people”.