Holy Flying Circus explores the controversy surrounding the 1979 film The Life Of Brian. Explores not as some dry academic documentary but in the inspired spirit and fantastical imagination of its film’s creators, Monty Python.
That is not to say this ninety minute drama, from production companies Talkback Thames and Hillbilly Films and Television currently airing on BBC 4, is completely surreal and irreverent. There are moments when it veers – if briefly – on to the straight and narrow – and serious points get made. Freedom of speech is both no laughing matter and very much grist to the comedy mill.
And this is comically and tragically what Holy Flying Circus is about.
Holy Flying Circus follows the period following the release of Life of Brian – its critical and public reception – especially in the Python’s home country of Britain (well leaving aside Minnesotan Terry Gilliam).
And for those of you have not heard of let alone seen The Life Of Brian, BBC 4 were showing this too – so that we can discover or remind ourselves, as the case may be, what all the fuss was about.
Briefly Life of Brian is based on the Life of Jesus where Brian is mistaken for Jesus. And the film then pursues the mishaps following this mistaken supernatural identity. So a satire of the Christian Religion, not of its figurehead Jesus, and what could possibly go wrong? Who could possibly be offended?!
The film was classified by the British Board of Film Classification as AA (which meant those 14 years of age and older could view the film), and not the adult classification of the time X as many were expecting. However the last say on film distribution in the UK is with its Local Councils and thirty-nine of them re-classified it to the then adult (18 and over) X and in many cases imposed an outright ban.
Toward setting the record straight the Python stars of the film were reluctantly persuaded to appear on a discussion program on the BBC called ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’, though John Cleese himself initially was opposed arguing the film should be allowed to speak for itself.
It was then agreed that it would be the initially recalcitrant and combative John Cleese that would appear alongside the ever-reasonable and accommodating Michael Palin (who in the shows words ‘is even self-deprecating about being self-deprecating’!)- a sort of bad cop, good cop rationale – that would represent the half-dozen Pythons on the debate show.
Friday Night Saturday Morning scene
This debate would be hosted by Tim Rice (himself the subject of a similar if more minor controversy for writing and staging in 1971 the Broadway musical Jesus Christ Superstar). Representing those opposed to it would be writer and born again Catholic Malcolm Muggeridge and the then Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood.
The debate itself did not go as many might have anticipated – without giving it all away it was Palin who proved to be more combative than Cleese and the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge more pugilistic than the Python pair.
And The Life of Brian itself despite showing in British cinema, well in some of them at least, it was not until 1995 that British Television felt brave enough to air it.
Here we are in 2011 and would a film satirising the beliefs and practices of a major religion be met now with greater tolerance if not complete magnanimity?
It would certainly depend on what part of the world such a film was being shown in. A better question might be would a film satirising the belief’s and practices of the established religion of a particular country be shown without censure and rancour?
Paradoxically perhaps in the UK I think a film satirising Christianity would be tolerated whereas a film satirising Islam would not be.
Consider in Holy Flying Circus that God has a part and that this part is played by secular saint Stephen Fry. But would Mr Fry have been so comfortable playing Allah? Would the writer of the show Tony Roche have had Ben Crispin playing the prophet Mohammed as he had him playing Jesus? In both cases I doubt it.
With the controversy following The Life of Brian the writing Pythons were keen to state that it was the practices of the believers of Christianity that were being satirized not the beliefs itself. But can you really successfully satirize like this without also satirising the beliefs themselves?
Religion is privileging its beliefs? Any secular beliefs are open to full and frank debate and exploration – neither the beliefs or the author/s of those beliefs are off limits. But with religion we are saying that some aspects of the debate are off limit. Or rather those that have those beliefs are saying this. More specifically it is Established Religion that sets itself up as being beyond criticism. Less mainstream and orthodox religions are as liable to be lambasted and ridiculed as any secular belief.
The Pythons portrayed
The question is why do those who do not share the beliefs feel the need to be so circumspect? The fear of hearing the ultimate censuring word ‘blasphemy’?
We should respect each others rights to believe whatever the hell we want but that is not the same as saying we should respect whatever the hell it is each of us believes?!
Holy Flying Circus itself does not pull these philosophical punches – it opens with a figure on the desert plains suspiciously like Jesus advising that none of what follows actually happened, ‘that it is largely made up. Like The Bible’ and the show proceeds in this irreverent spirit till its conclusion ninety-minutes later with Michael Palin appearing in Heaven – or at least its ante-chamber – and saying to Stephen Fry that ‘he is not sure that he believes in him anymore’ God, that is!
The three main protagonists of the showing of The Life of Brian in Holy F$%ing Circus include a Andrew Thorogood, played by the ubiquitous Mark Heap, and one accomplice with Tourette’s Syndrome and another with a Stutter – the comedy here writes itself!
Some of the portrayals of the original cast are eerily reminiscent. John Cleese in particular played by Darren Boyd captures not just the physical demeanour of Cleese (if through a Basil Fawlty filter!) but also his very spirit. The portrayal of Michael Palin by Charles Edwards and Eric Idle by Steven Punt are similarly compelling.
Comedy like freedom of speech is a serious business but as you would hope Holy Flying Circus when not provoking and stimulating does not forget to divert us, entertain us, and well, makes us laugh out loud.
And we are warned when watching at the outset that Holy Flying Circus like The Life of Brian contains very strong language and adult humour, but that if we are okay with that then we can go ahead and watch, freely and untroubled, unlike until very recently we could with The Life Of Brian.
That I guess is some progress.