It's no doubt because of this strength of feeling that BBC4 commissioned Holy Flying Circus about the events leading up to the release of the film. The programme is the latest in a long series of fictional recreations of the off screen lives of 60s and 70s entertainers and focuses on the, now infamous, TV debate between Michael Palin and John Cleese on the one hand, and the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge on the other. The story is told from three sides, that of the Pythons, that of the programme's production team, and a group of Christians (distinct from Muggeridge and the bishop) who object to the film.
All of which makes it sound rather dull, except for the fact that the story is told in a surreal and Pythonesque way. In addition to the general atmosphere of silliness we also have over-the-top characters, men playing women, animated sequences, John Cleese played as Basil Fawlty, obscure interludes and even a scene inside an alien spaceship. In short Holy Flying Circus tries to make the medium the message.
One further similarity is the way which both films have Jesus speaking at the start of the film and then not really again. Life of Brian famously shows Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount before the camera pans out to those at the back who can't quite hear what's being said. But Holy Flying Circus has Jesus explain in Aramaic - a clear nod to The Passion of the Christ, another controversial religious film - that the story is largely fictional, and just to make the point it has the supposed Jesus-figure fart.
I suspect that many people, were they to see the film, would find that pretty offensive and will also be unhappy with the language and the nudity. I suspect the programme-makers would defend it on the grounds that doing so re-ignites the same battle now that the Pythons were fighting then. Sadly I don't think that's true. Is using the C word, doing Tourette's jokes and showing a penis for the sake of it really edgy, or just a bit like the kind of jokes Cambridge students might do "on a damp Tuesday afternoon"?
That's not to say it isn't funny. Parts of it are very funny, particularly Mark Heap's turn as the head of the Christian protesters. But overall it's rather hit and miss; the odd laugh out loud moment interspersed with mediocre jokes and self-indulgent rubbish.
But in the final quarter of an hour, the film changes gear and actually gives a reasonable and extensive portrayal of the talk show debate. This was particularly interesting to me as there are still parts of the debate that I have ever seen (indeed I was reflecting earlier that if Holy Flying Circus ever gets released as a DVD this would be an excellent special feature.
This last part of the film, interspersed with the occasional deviation into Michael Palin's mind, is clearly the strongest part as the gags are refined a little and the drama takes over a little. Much of this is also due to a stronger focus on the better portrayed characters. Charles Edwards's take on Palin is outstanding. Complex and nuanced Edwards manages to play the domestic scenes touchingly despite the fact he is playing opposite Rufus Jones in drag. Darren Boyd also does a great job playing Basil Fawlty even if the concept he was given is a bit odd, but the others are rather weak. Punt is hopeless as Eric Idle and he and the three of the other Pythons are all rather two-dimensional. Lastly Stephen Fry's turn as God demonstrated precisely why his status as national treasure is beginning to drift.
So whilst the concept of telling a story about Python in the style of Python is good, and whilst some of the performances are very impressive indeed, the overall effect is rather like the sketch shows described by Palin's taxi driver home - "very hit and miss".
Labels: Life of Brian