Saturday, October 22, 2011

Critic Proof

Holy Flying Circus is a confused and confusing programme. Parts of it are good, but other parts are embarrassingly bad. Judged as a comedy, it is not really funny enough, and, judged as a drama, it is not serious enough, skirting around issues it propounds to address. Ostensibly a film about the controversy that surrounded the release of the Monty Python film Life of Brian in the UK in 1979, detailing the Python's battles against religious groups such as Mary Whitehouse and The Festival of Light, and culminating in a television debate between John Cleese and Michael Palin on one side, and the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge on the other, the programme struggles to find the right tone.

One of the best jokes is when the television producer putting the debate together imagines the Pythons, dressed as devils, facing off against a couple of Christian bishops, asking, 'What have the Christians ever done for us?', to which the reply comes, 'A moral code, sympathy for others and a way of thinking about the world that counterbalances some of the evils of capitalism'. The Pythons reply, 'Of course, a strong moral code and sympathy for others. But, apart from that, what have the Christians ever done for us?' That is a good set-up, and all Python fans know what is coming next - except, it doesn't. The sketch peters out at this point, one of the bishops pathetically suggesting, 'Hot cross buns?' It is that odd mixture of bold ideas and lukewarm execution that is probably the most frustrating thing about the film.

Moreover, the actors all portray persona rather than characters, making empathy almost impossible and robbing the film of the pathos it seems to aim for at its finale. These are not people, but comedic cyphers, so, why should I care? Michael Palin is the Nicest Man in the World and John Cleese is the Most Angry and Obstreperous Man in the World - both have their moments - Eric Idle is obsessed with money, Graham Chapman is a gay who smokes a pipe, Terry Jones is a speech impediment and Terry Gilliam is a haircut. There are moments when the film, playfully and cleverly transcends the diminished world it portrays, using cheapo, drama school ‘special effects’ – when Cleese and Palin transmogrify into Thuderbirds/Team America style puppets in order to fight, propelled through the air by actors wearing black leotards – but such moments are fleeting.

Another nice touch is when a newspaper seller chastises John Cleese for his hypocrisy, saying that Life of Brian would have never been made about the Muslim prophet Mohammed, to which the anachronistic response is, ‘This is 1979! Britain is a country with a Judeo-Christian heritage and culture and Life of Brian stands as an allegory for the stupidities of all organised religion. If say in 32 years time,’ he continues, ‘there are two million Muslims living in Britain, representing four percent of the population (‘ACTUAL STATISTICS’, the film flags up helpfully), the situation might be different, but it isn't, okay?’ Too often though, the filmmakers confuse controversy for crudity. One sketch about the 'BBC Head of Rude Words' is seemingly there as an excuse to wrench in as many swears as possible. 'This is a list of the words the sample group found most offensive,' begins an uptight grey man, speaking in a cut-glass English accent, 'C***', 'Mother******', and so on and so forth. Given the lack of censorship of these words on television today, a scene satirising the stupidity of the upper-class twits who want to censor them seems oddly redundant. The scene might have been funnier if, instead of simply reciting the usual suspects as if they were actually shocking - which they are not because, as the film is so keen to remind us, time and time again, this is 2011 and not 1979 - the actors had read out a less obvious list of ‘rude words’.

The biggest problem with the piece, in fact, is that, for all of its supposed satire, it is really quite conventional. Viewing Life of Brian today, it is hard to see what all the fuss was about, it is just a very funny film, not to mention the fact that it is widely adorned by the establishment - the BBC and BAFTA, as well as Mums and Dads up and down the country - all the sorts of people who were once so ‘offended’ by it and the last people you want on your side if you are aiming to be subversive. Indeed, Holy Flying Circus, is oddly conservative in places, the film's moment of catharsis coming when Michael Palin (the most sympathetic and rounded character in the piece) wins his mother's approval - 'I do understand why you made it son,' says the same actor playing Palin, dressed in drag. Palin, who has been having weird anxiety dreams - 'better lay off the cheese' - can rest easy in his bed once again, safe in the knowledge that everything is okay with the world because his Mummy does understand him.

The film is also too reverential of the Python's themselves. The actor portraying John Cleese explains to camera that his portrayal of Cleese as a self-important and obnoxious contrarian who squabbles with the rest of the troupe simply because he can, is not intended to denigrate Cleese in any way; he is simply playing a comedy version of Cleese’s Basil Faulty persona and he is sure the real Cleese is a very nice man indeed. Yes, I understand that, I thought, I understand perfectly well that what I am watching is drama, not documentary. This is like the Penguin guide to post-modern irony and precisely the kind of concession the Pythons never made themselves; theirs was an unapologetically intellectual brand of humour – and, if you didn’t know who John Kant, Martin Heidegger or Arthur Schopenhauer were, sometimes, you weren't going to get the joke.

However, no self-referential, post-modern comedy-drama would be complete without national treasure Stephen Fry as a smug, all-seeing, all-knowing God, who makes allusions to everything from contemporary BBC cuts to Frankie Boyle jokes about Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington. The levels of irony are layed on so thick the film sometimes seems to be attempting to make itself critic proof – as Fry remarks, consolingly, at the film’s conclusion, 'This will probably form the end of some heavy-handed BBC Four drama.' - Critic Proof - Keyword description


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holy Flying Circus IS racked with controversy. There's a question about it that I haven't seen answered or even addressed:

Is that Michael Palin as Palin's mum in the movie? Or is that Charles Edwards in drag?

The character of Michael's mum isn't given a credit in the film and I've looked all over the Googleverse and can't seem to find anything on it.


10:10 AM


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