Holy Flying Circus, BBC4, Wednesday
Mary Queen of Frocks, Channel 4, Tuesday
A dramatisation of the furore over 'Life of Brian' stayed true to the anarchic spirit of the Pythons
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Sunday 23 October 2011
What's more important than making fun of things?
That was Michael Palin's position throughout Holy Flying Circus, Tony Roche's patchy but hilarious dramatisation of the furore that greeted Monty Python's Life of Brian in 1979. Palin's question hung in the air, rhetorically demanding the answer "Nothing". But it was more likely, in 1979, to elicit the answer "Religion". The BBC4 drama showed that, when you're up against Christianity, you've got a fight on your hands.
Best remembered for the crucifix shuffle "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", Life of Brian was mired in controversy from its launch. Protests broke out in New York. In Britain, a group of Christians called the Festival of Light orchestrated a campaign to stifle it. Despite getting an AA certificate from the British Board of Film Classification, Brian was banned by 39 local councils. Disaster threatened the lovable scamps who had so energised the British comedy scene.
Roche, co-author of The Thick of It and Fresh Meat, could have played this material straight, as your basic Freedom of Speech versus Forces of Repression duel. Instead, he pimped it with madcap surrealism, cutaway sketches, nightmare sequences, fast-forwards to the present day and allusions to Python sketches.
John Cleese is asked, "So will you make a film that's rude to Muslims next?" by a newspaper seller, whom he whacks with a tree branch, à la Basil Fawlty. A scrolling script takes the mick out of the rolling-script convention. Spinning newspaper headlines reveal satirical swipes at spinning newspapers. Terry Gilliam, hearing the words "... the script meeting from Hell" instantly imagines its graphic equivalent. In a cloud-shrouded Heaven, God the Father (Stephen Fry) discovers his beer has been turned to water by God the Son and says: "Christ, I wish you'd grow up."
At first, this stuff was so effortfully hectic that it promised to be unbearable. But it improved, helped by impressive acting and a funny script ("How can I possibly not take it personally?" says Michael Palin to his wife. "They're burning an effigy of me in my garden"). Some of the Pythons were under-characterised – Graham Chapman pipe-smoking and inscrutable, Eric Idle a money-grabber, Terry Jones obsessed with camera angles – but Darren Boyd made a scarily unpredictable John Cleese, with his military bearing and Gromit eyeballs, and Charles Edwards was the dead spit of Michael Palin – a rational, emolliently-spoken nice guy with a deranged imagination.
The climax was the television confrontation between the Pythons and the Bishop of Southwark (magnificently played by Roy Marsden) and Malcolm Muggeridge (a marvellously sleazy Michael Cochrane,) in which the serious Palin and Cleese lost out to the crowd-pleasing Christians.
Roche hinted that there were important points to be made about the significance of this battle between religion and subversion; how it led to The Satanic Verses and the rage of Islam over Danish cartoons of Mohammed; but he and his director Owen Harris preferred to keep the action zinging along, drawing attention to its cleverness. Even that was subverted in turn: "All this sub-Python self-referential bullshit can suck my big hairy arse," grated a voice from 2011. Quite. Dead funny, though.
Tuesday night was make-or-break night for Mary Portas, the self-styled Queen of Shops who's now the self-styled "Queen of Frocks" after designing a range of women's clothes, "neither too fuddy-duddy or too young". It was easy to remember this slogan because it was repeated every few minutes by Ms Portas, her staff or her customers. Everyone was on-side at Planet Portas – you knew that, because they kept asking "What planet are you on?" to anyone yet to get with the programme.
Among the "handpicked staff" were some pleasingly barmy assistants. Lesley was a gaunt and put-upon spinster inside a ton of turquoise eyeshadow. The veteran sales manager, Spencer, resembled a Brilliantined 1930s matinee idol with a Ronald Colman moustache. Ten minutes into the programme, Mary announced they'd hit their first-day target and all was well – leaving us three-quarters of an hour to watch as she demanded that House of Fraser now let her stamp her individual style on their 61 stores.
Stamp is the word. The more feisty she wanted to seem ("I've got to be sure it's all Mary's shop") the more she sounded like a foot-stamping, tyrannical six-year-old.
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