"...the thing with this film is it is so removed from reality. It is
categorically not a biopic. Other than the debate, which is
obviously a fact and the fact of Life Of Brian itself, everything
else around that is exaggerated or imagined."
Charles Edwards (playing Michael Palin)
interviewed at the British Comedy Guide*
"You know, I think we'd think twice about it now..."
Terry Jones, BBC Five Live 31st March 2011
As well they might. I'm not Sacha Baron Cohen's biggest fan but given the imminent release of his The Dictator, I hope his personal bodyguards are up to snuff (an unfortunate phrase). Film-maker and art's most famous great, great grandson (of Vincent's brother), Theo van Gogh, was murdered in an Amsterdam street by a Muslim fundamentalist for making a short film against Islam's treatment of women, a film that hardly anyone saw... It's a little different imagining such a violent Christian response as long ago as 1979. Those who were offended and moved to boycott the film (often without having been contaminated by having seen it) were more Anorakian in nature, harmless to a point. They would not be threatening in the same way that a murderous Islamic fundamentalist might be after hearing about (or Allah/god forbid, seeing) a Python movie entitled Life Of Bahir... I mean, look what happened to that poor British teacher in Sudan who agreed to give a Teddy bear a simple name suggested by her 7-year-old pupils...
Monty Python's Life Of Brian is justly regarded as one of the best movie comedies of all time. The script has that strong sense of having been worked on for over the course of a few years by several very smart and funny men and therefore seems (but of course never was) effortless. When both the celestial and comedy stars aligned themselves to give the ensemble a physically pleasing experience (compared with Holy Grail's grim weather and low rent circumstances), the comedy sunshine shined all that greater on location in Tattooine (sorry) Tunisia. Well refreshed, well fed and well tanned, the six Pythons delivered a movie that was a gem of such relentless quality that even curmudgeonly (but not in real life!) John Cleese admitted that the boys might have actually produced something of worth. Remember this was five years after a full TV series of Python out of which Cleese had opted despite his overhanging writing credits.
If I had anything negative to say about Brian it was that it was almost too damn good. What had started with Eric Idle's rather wonderful suggested starting point, the title "Jesus Christ: Lust For Glory", had mutated into a fiendishly clever and smart punch (and punch line) into the soft nethers of organised religion's solar plexus. Life Of Brian was no cheap shot at Christianity. It was a multi-man-hour expensive and sophisticated shot at what dumb, easily led idiots human beings can be in the supposed service of a higher being or cause. To keep those easily offended at bay, the movie features Christ twice in the first five minutes (once in his crib and the other delivering the sermon on the mount). This is for the film-makers to be able to say with sincerity that Brian was never intended to be Christ. Nor was Christianity under attack as much as was surmised by the bloody thin-skins who willingly give their lives to the idea of an invisible 'fat controller'. If the movie has any subtext it is simply "Think for yourself..." Yes, I'm well aware of the irony of having someone tell you to think for yourself (but then you don't have to take their word for it...)
The jauntily entertaining and at times gleefully odd Holy Flying Circus is the immensely twisted version of the story of the Pythons' famous brush with the Church in defending their work. It covers the days leading up to the televised debate, the only time in the global collective memory when Michael Palin came close to losing it live on TV. From his collected diaries, you wouldn't think this was the case but have a look at the real show and judge for yourself (see link at the end of the review). Given the idea of dramatizing such a recent historical event, I would have laid odds that a cast could not be found to successfully channel the six specific characters that make up the UK's ex-leading comedy group. Boy, did I get that wrong. Holy Flying Circus is probably the canniest and most eerily accurate group casting I've ever seen in an historical drama featuring people still with us. Writer Tony Roche (known for his contribution as one of the eight writers on the superb Armando Iannuci show, The Thick Of It) has a whole munitions dump of material to draw upon as well as having the advantage of hindsight and therefore anachronisms abound sometimes so self-consciously, the director Owen Harris has his cast look to camera. This isn't tongue in cheek, it's fourth wall demolition. So you could say the spirit of Python's visual anarchy is alive and well, as well as it could be transplanted from the early 70s to 2012.
Apart from the faux-Passion of the Christ opener, I knew things were going to be presented as straight as a rubber maze in a hurricane when I saw who was playing Michael Palin's wife. I wondered what the subtext was (never having met the woman) but it's a safe bet it's not accurate. Rufus Jones (who plays Terry Jones with a perfectly pitched speech impediment and Welsh demeanour whatever that may be) plays Mrs. Palin as one of Jones' Mrs Pepperpot creations – all buxom, shrill and slightly and intermittently butch. The fact there is some sexual innuendo in this relationship (undoing dressing gown belts to a strain of Bernard Herrmann's Taxi Driver soundtrack) makes it almost uncomfortable to watch and I guess that's what they were going for. As for the rest of the Pythons (and they all deserve name checks)...
Each actor has caught the essence of their real-life Python with the help of what's commonly known about them and often at the expense of any form of reality. So Eric Idle is characterised solely by his love of money (these aspects may or may not be true but as they are all one-note, it's fascinating what the cast has done with them) and Steve Punt does a terrific job in sending up Idle's most obvious 'urban mythic' trait. While the slightly heavy Phil Nichol takes off the then scrawny Terry Gilliam getting by with enthusiastic wackiness and an American drawl (tick, VG), Tom Fisher grabs the gay by the scruff of the neck in fleshing out the then 'on the wagon' Graham Chapman. The two stars are the Pythons who took part in the debate and here's where the channelling of personality gets seriously and impressively freaky. Charles Edwards' Michael Palin is uncanny. It sometimes seems as if someone has computer generated Palin's real mouth and chin onto Edwards' own, so accurate is the performance. Of course the real Palin (and therefore his character) has to put up with being designated 'the nicest man in the world'. Whether this was true in 1979 or a sobriquet collected during his travels for the BBC is moot. The movie references the future as cavalierly as the past and revels in the knowing recognition the audience brings with it.
And then there's Darren Boyd... Ever since Hippies, I've had my eye on this amiable tall/fall guy. His dunderheaded Hugo Yemp stole every scene he was in with an innocence and clumsy stupidity that was a joy to watch. And you may have seen him recently in another one of BBC 4's dramatic output, Dirk Gently in which he plays the straight man to Steve Mangan's lunatic holistic detective. And then I saw his John Cleese in Holy Flying Circus and I was utterly blown away. Of course, it's not Cleese he's playing but a variant of Basil Fawlty (something Boyd as Cleese is at some pains to point out in one of the many surreal interludes sprinkled throughout the film). But the mannerisms and voice and attitude are so spot on, I sometimes have to remember I'm not watching Cleese with wonky make up that makes him look slimmer.
While those at the BBC planning the chat show are essentially straight men and women playing to the über-the-top new producer Alan Dick (!) played with relish by Jason Thorpe, the leader of the Christian group trying to get the film banned is played by a favourite in this household, Mark Heap. We first noticed him in Spaced, Green Wing, the movie Stardust and then in the BBC Chocolate Box Sunday evening series that makes a virtue of practically nothing happening (Lark Rise To Candleford), he plays a Christian, Bible-carrying postman. He stuffs all that gawkiness and social awkwardness in a sack and brings it with him to Holy Flying Circus. And he's a joy. Watching Mark Heap wrestle with a moral problem is like watching a man being stung in slow motion by three wasps at the same time in very different parts of his anatomy. The fact he is redeemed at the end of the film makes me smile. His Tourette spouting right hand man is played in a lovely turn by Jason Thorpe again in a role that could have been rendered gratuitous and frankly an easy laugh option but instead is performed so well, it just works gangbusters in context. Arse bandits! As a small but pertinent aside; a complaint is received about the show and taken to the Controller of BBC 4, Richard Klein. Now, as the character of Klein snorts up coke lines I was struck by his remarkable resemblance to a certain Steven Moffat, he of Doctor Who show runner fame. As a celebrated rag proclaims almost weekly... "I think we should be told..."
So the joy of Holy Flying Circus is mainly in the knowing Pythonic aura, the pretence of the abandonment of any serious ambition of dramatic truth, the revelling in the absurd and of course, the performances. The energy of the film and the constant surprises laying in wait reminded me of a live action Family Guy with something quite fundamentally important at its core... the earnest defence of freedom of speech and the 'permission' to speak out against opinions that you do not share (like in my case, 2,000 years of received wisdom about a deity).
Oh, and by the way, have a guess who plays that deity...
Shot (presumably) on HD video, the anamorphic 16:9 picture looks terrific with some inventive and tasteless lapses in production design and colour grading but when it's supposed to look normal, that normal is just fine. It cheekily begins in a faux letterboxed 2.35:1 to ape the biblical spectaculars Brian was also lampooning but then reverts to 16:9.
The mostly dialogue dependent stereo soundtrack is clearly and excellently reproduced in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. There are English subtitles available.
Michael Palin's Diary (1' 32")
An alternative opening with Palin at the keyboard asking himself if he believes in god – with some supernatural assistance.
The Two Yorkshiremen (1' 08")
Two august members of the British Board of Film Classification ply their trade. Like the 3rd clip, this features a script insert before some dodgy sound and then the featured clip.
Dick and Balls Get Worked Up (1' 19")
A small 'Three Stooges' inspired altercation outside Palin's house courtesy of the producers of the talk show.
Outtakes (12' 36")
An amusing collection but by no means side-splitting. More a standard but sweet reminder of the shoot for the cast and crew.
The Making of The Holy Flying Circus Phonotrope (4' 32")
The assumed CG opening credits (shame on me), a wonderfully designed rotating device showing off relevant Pythonic animation, is in fact a satisfyingly complex piece of real world model making with a nod to Gilliam's signature contribution. It's a wedding cake 'phonotrope' that spins its platters at such a rate to induce animation in the same way that car wheels sometimes appear to be moving backwards. It's really quite delightful and small proof that movie making ingenuity has not been lost and assigned solely to mice, cursors and NURBS.
28 stills doing what it says on the tin – advertising the movie. Fair enough.
This is a small but delicious joy and further proof that BBC 4 (despite the budgets being on the Corbet scale) is turning out some fine TV which really should be thrown open to a wider audience. So from my point of view – and for Python fans naturally – this DVD comes thoroughly recommended.
Also recommended is the actual TV show that serves as the film's climax... Check it out and marvel at certain people's self-restraint...