Standard biodramas tell the tale as faithfully as possible, albeit with dramatic moments carefully placed to reveal big emotional truths. Often, acolytes of the star under inspection blatantly announce to the audience what the famous person was really like. Holy Flying Circus rejected this, seeking not to describe the Pythons, but to emulate them.
It wasn’t the story of Monty Python, or even of the 1979 film Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which was already in the can as the action began. It was the story of how the Pythons found themselves ambushed on live TV by religious finger-waggers. There were no whole lives or careers to document, just a week-long kerfuffle. But Holy Flying Circus knew few limits. Thanks to a deliriously inventive, dementedly energetic, militantly unpredictable script by Tony Roche, this shabby episode became the fuel for one of the comedies of the year.
We had dream sequences within dream sequences. We had hokey rolling text to begin, which referenced itself as being hokey rolling text. We paused to be told by Darren Boyd that his Cleese would merely be a Basil Fawlty impersonation. We had blatant speechifying and looks to camera. At one point there was a lightsaber duel between puppets. Aliens visited.
As references and in-jokes twanged back and forth, Holy Flying Circus paid homage to Brian directly. Actors played multiple roles. Rufus Jones was cast as both Terry Jones, Michael Palin’s writing partner, and Palin’s wife. (Either that or Terry Jones, in drag, was Palin’s wife.) The Christian campaigners were plagued by speech impediments: like “welease Woger”, this was right on the edge of acceptable, although the man whose Tourette syndrome caused him to swear judiciously at all the right people relieved a lot of the guilt.
Bathos, anachronism and the demolition of the fourth wall normally undo fiction’s spell and take away satire’s focus. Roche didn’t presume to have cast a spell or focused on anything in the first place, presenting us with a pastiche so playful, it was untouchable. A straight bio would have been undermined by any inaccuracy – Holy Flying Circus skipped across this quicksand and buggered off into the sunset.
Random delights were everywhere: Palin’s encounter with a doorstepping petitioner, played by Geoff McGivern, was a pearl of a skit that captured the essence of blind, blithe complainers, while the imagining of BBC4 controller Richard Klein as a coke-snorting bozo underlined Holy Flying Circus’ refusal to play by any rules or make any friends.
It could afford cheap laughs because the cast had strength in depth. The BBC’s officious Head of Rude Words was seen gingerly reading out the Corporation’s list of the most egregious obscenities, an old gag made new by the always brilliant Alex MacQueen. Even better was the BBC Head of Talk played by Jason Thorpe, who was similar to Matt Berry’s bananas boss in The IT Crowd but taken five steps further by Roche’s Olympic-standard bad language (“P**s on me through a sieve!”). On hiring Malcolm Muggeridge to take on Cleese and Palin: “The guy’s totally unpredictable! He’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a s**t!”
Roche and his perfect cast created something that was funny on its own merits as well as a fanboy joy, not stuck in aspic but fresh and sharp – a thing to cherish on the same shelf as those Python box sets. But the real miracle was that this most flippant of comedies had freed itself so completely, it could suddenly be intelligent, heartfelt and dramatic.
The darker second half worked as well as the cosmic first. As the other Pythons faded away, Cleese and Palin’s uneasy alliance grew more fascinating. Was Cleese’s rigid contrarianism and coldness a defence mechanism? Darren Boyd somehow hinted at that more than Cleese ever does in real life, even while maintaining his impeccable Fawlty take-off.
As the Friday Night, Saturday Morning debate loomed, the rage and sadness caused by people who would ban a film they’ve not understood or even seen was powerfully felt. Roy Marsden’s almost unwatchably creepy Bishop of Southwark/Witchfinder General made you want to leap in and help Cleese and Palin with your own put-downs, even though we now know that the bish’s victory was short-lived – he and Muggeridge are remembered today for being wrong about Life of Brian and bumptious with it.
Just as Brian’s critique of organised religion shone through the movie’s silliness, so Holy Flying Circus made its own point about conservatism, dogma and freedom of expression. There was more: the ending saw God (Stephen Fry, obviously) observe that in 2011, the existence of BBC4 doesn’t mean the BBC is flourishing – at which point you remembered that this glorious example of original drama with the brakes off is exactly the kind of thing BBC4 will shortly be forced to stop making. You wondered if there isn’t another battle to be fought.