Last Night's Viewing: Holy Flying Circus, BBC4

 

On paper, Holy Flying Circus looked as if it might be a perfect storm of embarrassment. For one thing, it had young comic performers playing some now legendary predecessors and for another the seniors were all members of Monty Python's Flying Circus, a rightly honoured element of British comedy history, but also a programme that generates the sort of cult-like following that would drain the joy from any joke. Is there anything less funny than someone "doing" the Spanish Inquisition sketch, with a liturgical attention to every detail and inflection? What's more, the narrow focus of the drama was The Life of Brian, a film that many Python fans regard as a creative high point for the group. With that example looming over their shoulders, how could they produce something that did any kind of justice to the original?

One of their tactics was to dispense with good taste immediately. Tony Roche's drama (directed by Owen Harris) ended with a significant remark from the real Terry Jones: "You know, I think we'd think twice about it now." The point being, I take it, that the freedom to be irreverent may actually have diminished since the row over Life of Brian's release. As if to reclaim lost ground, this drama began with Jesus emerging from the desert to explain to us that, "Most of what you are about to see never actually happened... it's largely made up... just like the Bible." When an Eric Idle-type figure pops up to protest, Jesus turns round and breaks wind in his face. I'd love to see the compliance paperwork for that moment.

Then the roller titles began: "The year is 1979," they read, "and big chunks of scrolling text are still all the rage." The film has just been completed, we learn, and the team are thinking about its release, initially in America, where they can make a First Amendment argument for free speech. But religious protests there make a British release far more complicated. And as the Pythons gather in their manager's office to discuss the problem it becomes clear that Holy Flying Circus isn't going to be thuddingly literal about the story it is telling. A chance remark sparked a sudden flurry of Gilliam-style animation; there were Monty Python-style interruptions (the best of them being a droning geek's letter of complaint about an anachronism in the script, which provokes a panicked cascade of references through ascending tiers of BBC bureaucracy); and there was a lot of thoughtfully applied silliness.

Some of it was knowingly offensive. Religious objections were represented by the Popular People's Church of St Sophia, a body whose representatives include one man with Tourette's and another with a terrible stammer, both of them shamelessly exploited for laughs. But most of it just relished the absurdities thrown up by any attempt to police laughter. There was a very funny scene in which the BBC's Head of Rude Words dictated a revised register of obscenities to his secretary, writhing in embarrassment at each word ("'Shit'. We are now over the worst") and only belatedly realising that he could have just handed her the list. What was best about the drama, though, was that you simply couldn't predict at any moment what was going to happen next, and very often what did was funny.

The performances were all good, but the honours went to Darren Boyd as John Cleese, Charles Edwards as a positively uncanny Michael Palin and Rufus Jones as both Terry Jones and Michael Palin's anxious wife, constantly wandering into his study in a housecoat and giving him come-hither looks. It wasn't perfect – the final resolution, with protesters and Pythons reconciling in a BBC green room after Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood's chat-show performance was a little too pat – but by then I liked it too much to really care. I don't suppose it will stir up anything like the fuss caused by its subject, but there ought to be a bit of a ruckus about how good it was.

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