Essential Viewing – Holy Flying Circus
There is one week left in which to catch BBC4’s remarkable comedy-doc Holy Flying Circus on BBC iPlayer, and we think it should be compulsory viewing for all Monty Python fans. In fact, we think it should be compulsory viewing for all fans of any comedy, such is the ongoing length and breadth of the Pythons’ influence, from Eddie Izzard to South Park.
With yet another outstanding script, The Thick of It writer Tony Roche has concocted a playful re-imagining of the public furore that greeted Cleese, Palin, Gilliam and co as they prepared for the cinematic release of their immortal movie The Life of Brian in 1979. All of the Pythons are played with impressive accuracy by current TV actors, and director Owen Harris spins his tale in true Python tradition, going off on random tangents and into spontaneous surreal animation.
As cultural icons, you would probably have to look towards The Beatles if you were to search for a more widely cherished phenomenon than the Monty Python, and so this is a brave undertaking for all involved. Anything contrived or lightweight could have proved to be monumentally embarrassing and professionally toxic. You get the clear impression though, that Holy Flying Circus has been conceived and executed only by professionals who are true Python aficionados, from the screenwriter all the way through to the tea boy. The balance of silliness and substance was key, and they’ve nailed it with aplomb.
Roche and Harris do a masterful job in creating their own humour in the Python style, as opposed to just making the easy references to dead parrots and naughty boys that many will have feared. The banter between the ragtag sextet is good fun from the outset, anchored by Darren Boyd and Charles Edwards, who capture even the most minuscule of mannerisms as John Cleese and Michael Palin respectively. The trajectory of the story focuses mostly on these two, culminating in their legendary appearance on Friday Night, Saturday Morning to debate and defend their purportedly blasphemous movie, and also the future of comic freedom. When this scene arrives, it’s not so much Knights of the Round Table as it is Frost/Nixon, and is remarkably faithful to the actual event.
The final debate cements what most viewers will have been thinking all the way through; Charles Edwards’ portrayal of a young Michael Palin is absolutely sublime. As he is being shouted down by his accusers on live TV, the stifled anger on his face looks every bit as sincere as Palin’s actual demeanour at that moment in history. Edwards then breaks seamlessly back into comedy mode for a wonderfully gory fantasy sequence. The chemistry between Edwards and Boyd is key throughout, as much of the drama is devoted to the loving conflict between Cleese and Palin. It seems clear that Boyd is living his childhood dream as he absolutely revels in his role as John Cleese; uptight and haughty, but always with a scathingly dry wit. The focus on Cleese and Palin though, does sadly mean that the other four are a little marginalised at times. Tom Fisher is the dead-spit of Graham Chapman (surely one of the greatest gay men of all time), but he is mostly just sat in the background smoking a pipe while Boyd and Edwards rattle off the good lines.
There is also laughs to be had in scenes that focus elsewhere. Mark Heap does (as usual) a stellar job in his designated role, struggling to lead a group of Christian activists that includes a serial stutterer and a tourettes sufferer. The story also delves into events at the BBC, as the debate is organised by gung-ho producer Alan Dick. Jason Thorpe tackles the role by channelling his best embodiment of Lord Flasheart, which is good for plenty of laughs. We sense that the BBC have actually been really good sports about this, as one gloriously random cutaway follows a written complaint all the way to the head of BBC4, who sits there snorting coke and then orders his male subordinate to dance for his amusement. It’s original and outrageous comedy with a Python nuance, and it’s truly a pleasure to watch.
It’s not fully unremitting genius though, as there are a few misses spattered among the hits. Some of the cutaways and tangents seem just a little self-indulgent and there is still the occasional tendency to chuck in a lazy reference to classic Python lines with no original spin. These rare lapses are in keeping with Python tradition though, as even the die-hard fans will admit that the legendary moments of Monty’s Python’s Flying Circus were always intercut with the odd misfiring sketch that turns out to be utter drivel. The Python style was always well suited to future cherry-picking.
And so, kudos to all involved. A loving tribute to the phenomenon of Monty Python, made by lifelong fans, for lifelong fans. And if you’re not a lifelong fan, then you have a few days worth of classic comedy to get through before Holy Flying Circus disappears from BBC iPlayer on October 29th.