BBC4's made something of a name for itself with low-budget single drama's of famous British comedians (Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Bramble, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jaques), but it's never done anything quite as ambitious and experimental as Holy Flying Circus. This 90-minute special tackled the religious controversy that surrounded Monty Python's Life Of Brian back in 1979, culminating in a notorious televised debate where Michael Palin and John Cleese defended their movie from specious claims of blasphemy by Catholic author Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood the Bishop of Southwark. It did so in a manner that felt influenced by Python's own anarchic silliness, cheapo parody series Star Stories, and the work of Michel Gondry. It was quite something to behold, if sometimes too scattershot to land every punch, yet provided enough good humour and self-awareness to make the whole thing slip by very nicely.
The casting was obviously a concern with this project, but proved to be one of the show's biggest successes. Darren Boyd essentially played Basil Fawlty rather than John Cleese, which thus became part of a deeper joke; Charles Edwards was often uncanny as "the nicest man in the world" Michael Palin, especially in the climactic debate sequence; comedian Steve Punt's lifelong resemblance to Eric Idle was finally put to good use; Rufus Jones had Terry Jones' rhotacism down to a tea; the sadly underused Tom Fisher could, well, suck a pipe with a Graham Chapman expression; and Canadian comedian Phil Nichol found Terry Gilliam's impulsive vibe.
If there was one failing to Circus it's how the overall message could have been better communicated better with a shorter running time (perhaps an hour), as some of its key ideas started to drift apart in the middle, and the irrelevant diversions that were initially a joy started to feel like what they were: filler. I'm also unsure it was wise to have the voices of the ignorant objectors to Life Of Brian be portrayed as complete oddballs (one had Tourettes, one had a stammer, one's played by rent-a-weirdo Mark Heap). But writer Tony Roche (The Thick Of It, Fresh Meat) should be commended for finding a style and tone that suited the subject matter perfectly; a post-modern spoof that has fun scribbling in the margins of historical fact. Perhaps most importantly, he reminds us that Monty Python weren't just sic people who wrote about dead parrots, slapped people in the face with fish, and sang about Spam, they were once capable of causing a worldwide hullabaloo with a silly movie poking fun at organized religion.
- This drama is unfortunately without official backing from any of the surviving Python's—many of which thought the script had too many inaccuracies to give their blessing to. You can't argue with that, really—the script makes it clear a great deal is made up for entertainment-value—but it's a shame because it may give the impression Holy Flying Circus is something fans should therefore distance themselves from. And that would be awfully ironic, given the theme of the drama. Best to watch it and make up your own mind, right?