Wednesday, 26 October 2011


Holy Flying Circus covers the storm of protest in 1979 Britain at the release of Christian bating masterpiece Monty Python's Life of Brian, culminating in the confrontation between ranting John Cleese, nice guy Micheal Palin and the Bishop of Southwark and 1970s renta-grouch Malcom Muggeridge.

The first bad sign is when you realise this hugely anticipated drama comedy is being premièred midweek, on BBC4,  opposite the Champions League games. It looks like its being buried.

Holy Flying Circus is presented right out front as surreal fantasy and includes Stephen Fry (briefly) as God, but the most surreal concept prompted by Holy Flying Circus is that they could be trivialising Monty Python. That is  ridiculous, as is my generations deification of them; but the reaction against Life of Brian was no joke. It demonstrated the gulf between British Christianity and treatment of religion elsewhere. At the time it seemed like religion had been dealt a lingering death blow by a few comedians. Looking back now it was a sudden dip on the road toward 9/11. Life of Brian is silly, but it's not trivial.

Initial exposure to Holy Flying Circus is jarring. Post Goon situation surrealism of the 1960s sits uneasily with post 2000 Mighty Boosh character based surrealism. The seriously showy performances by the mostly unknown comics starts to really irritate after a while, with the most obvious example being Darren Boyd playing John Cleese as Basil Fawlty, quite a daring idea that ends up insulting to all concerned. 

For all it's many faults Python treated it's audience with some respect. (As a kid I loved that a comedy show assumed I knew the Philosophers in the song without making an issue of it. You didn't get that on Benny Hill). Darren Boyd > as Basil Fawlty > as John Cleese is like being treated like a soap fan who doesn't know the difference between William Roach and Ken Barlow.

That said.. Holy Flying Circus is often funny and worth watching. It looks like a good script that was undermined by a producer and performers trying to recreate the 'imaginations' of 24 Hour Party People. Although virtually everyone else involved is bad, the team playing the Pythons are great to watch, with particular stand out performances from Tom Fisher as Graham Chapman and Charles Edwards as Palin. Also worth noting Micheal Cochrane as the insufferable Muggeridge, who was every bit the pompous twit that he looks in this surreal version. I'm sure second time round I would enjoy it more.

Worth noting that though the anti-Life of Brian protest was itself big at the time, the Pythons vs Bishops confrontation incident was hardly Bill Grundy vs The Sex Pistols. Most of the world knows of it from the brilliant send up on the cutting edge satirical tv comedy of the late 1970s :  Not The Nine O'Clock News.

This week we were also treated to the one of return of The Comic Strip Presents.. in The Hunt For Tony Blair. While Not The Nine O'Clock News had political tv satire sewn up on the BBC, Comic Strip Presents.. was an atempt by the then brand new 'alternative' Channel 4 to artificially create its own 80s Python troupe by hoovering up all the new 'alternative' comics resident in London's then super hip Comic Strip comedy club. Rik Mayal, Aidrian Edmunson, Nigel Planer, French and Saunders, Robbie Coltrane and co were all launched on Channel 4's first night in Five Go Mad in Dorset, just a week before their sitcom debuts in the BBCs The Young Ones, without the Comic Strip writer and director Peter Richardson.

The apex of Comic Strip is probably 1987s slapstick gangster masterpiece Mr Jolly Lives Next Door (currently 8.8/10 on IMDB) but the troupe, even more so than Python, is famously hit and miss, particularly on the big screen. The Supergrass and Eat The Rich hardly rate against the Python films.

Comic Strip Presents tv one-offs have been an occasional treat ever since. For 2011's The Hunt For Tony Blair some new faces have been added, most notably Stephen Mangan (Guy Secretan in Green Wing) as ex Prime Minister Tony Blair caught in a 1950s styled fugitive drama. There are others in this, notably Jennifer Saunders as Mrs Thatcher and Nigel Planer as Peter Mandelson, but if you find Mangan's version of Blair funny you'll love it. A  simpering idiot parroting content from his gospel/autobiography while protected by a halo of good fortune, it's possible this version of Blair would go down with Thandie Newton's Condoleeza Rice, Will Ferrell's George W and even Tina Fey's Sara Palin as the definitive portrayal, at least for me. 

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