Holy Flying Circus (Blu-ray)
Darren Boyd, Charles Edwards, Steve Punt, Rufus Jones, Tom Fisher, Phil Nichol
(US DVD: 4 Sep 2012)
On 12 November, 1980, two members of the Monty Python comedy troupe—John Cleese and Michael Palin, specifically—sat down with a man of the cloth (Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark) and a so-called journalist/scholar (Malcolm Muggeridge) to discuss the issue of blasphemy. The group had just released Life of Brian to critical acclaim, but in Britain (and elsewhere), it was met with a staunch backlash and calls for condemnation. Banned in almost every area of the country, the televised debate wasn’t necessarily supposed to answer the questions of right and wrong. Instead, it was dreamt up as a way of garnering sensationalized headlines for a fledgling BBC producer—or so the delightfully deranged docudrama Holy Flying Circus would have you believe. Using that seminal moment as the finale for a multilayered, meta look at the beloved British icons, it’s a fascinating fiction, as much a tribute as a trial by friendly fire.
When the story opens, the Pythons have just returned from Tunisia. Life of Brian is in the can and the sextet couldn’t be happier. They think it’s, perhaps, the best thing they’ve ever done. Of course, the subject matter gives their handlers pause. It’s a possible powderkeg. The suggestion—open it in America first. When the reaction is less than enthusiastic, they believe Britain will react more favorably. What they didn’t expect was a grass roots campaign to get the favorable rating granted by the government overturned on the local level. Before long, various councils have censured the film, limiting its financial possibilities. In the meantime, a UK chat show named Friday Night, Saturday Morning is looking to revamp its format and feels than a debate between the Pythons and some religious figures might stir some ratings. After initially declining, two members agree, creating one of the most notorious moments in English television.
Like a sketch gone wildly out of control, Holy Flying Circus is both a parody and a paradox. It delivers a strikingly accurate portrayal of the Python group while simultaneously mocking their perceived public image/reputation. It’s about perception vs. accuracy. As a result, Terry Gilliam (Phil Nichol) is viewed as the crass and crude American while Graham Chapman (Tom Fisher) is constantly referencing his homosexuality. Terry Jones (Rufus Jones) is seen as an egotistical auteur, while Eric Idle (Steve Punt) is presented as a mocking money grubber. Then there is Cleese (Darren Boyd) and Palin (Charles Edwards), polar opposites that represent the worst (former) and best (latter) of the troupe’s temperament. They eventually are chosen for the appearance because they believe they offer the best chance at both logic and lunatic misanthropy. It also helps that they represent Oxford and Cambridge, for scholarship’s sake.
With a script by In the Loop‘s Tony Roche and the entire history of Python to pull from, Holy Flying Circus is frequently as hilarious as it is hyper. References and homages fly, as when the group is seen, in an Gilliam inspired animated version, collaborating with the Devil on the Brian script. Then there is the moment when various individuals state their objection to the film, including two familiar looking extraterrestrials who consider the movie “quite racist”. In fact, the more you know about the superstar sketch comedy giants and their various squabbles and onscreen scandals, the more you will appreciate this film. When Rufus Jones exaggerates his namesake’s lisp for comic effect, the other actors call him out. When someone makes a stupefyingly dumb statement, the others turn to the camera with arched eyebrows.
Everything is up for grabs here. We even get Boyd breaking the fourth wall to explain that his portrayal of Cleese is based more on a certain hotel manager from Fawlty Towers than it is the actual man, while Punt plays Idle with full knowledge of everything the man would do post-breakup (there’s a great line about recycling material for a splashy Broadway musical). It all plays like performance art, the narrative and the characters commenting on reality without actually providing a factual recreation of same. In fact, this has been the biggest criticism against Holy Flying Circus, to wit, it’s more interested in being clever and satiric than actually explaining what happened during Brian‘s release. No one is arguing that this is a documentary, so such complaints seem pointless…and yet, one is a bit disturbed by the lack of legitimate drama. The Pythons had a major media issue on their hands. It’s hard to imagine that they spent most of their time trying to one-up each other, joke wise.
Still, the performances and presentation win us over. This is a Python spoof for Python lovers by Python students, a clever combination of reverence and rejection. Oddly enough, the anti-Brian contingency is never taken too seriously. They are represented, in the field, but a man with a miserable stammer, another battling some unbelievably random Tourettes, and a leader who doesn’t like confrontation. Once Muggeridge (who is resoundingly defamed in description) and Stockwood show up, the caricatures get even worse. Granted, it’s all in the name of making the Python’s case that much more powerful, but it plays like pandering. We want smarts on both sides, not intelligence challenged by morons. Still, Holy Flying Circus keeps us in stitches long enough that we really don’t mind the stacked deck.
In the end, the Bishop and his lackey don’t make their point as much as make the Python’s case for them. If we are to believe the finale, they hadn’t even really ‘seen’ the film. Even if fictionalized, such a statement is what Holy Flying Circus stands for. It’s a nudge-nudge, wink-wink to everyone who can’t take a joke, laced with a kind of critical complicity which argues against the troupe as well. They had to know their actions would cause controversy. What they didn’t understand—and fought hard against—was how wacko the reaction would be. In that regard, this film follows the uproar. It’s just as hysterical.