In one fell swoop BBC4 has given a clear indication of its importance in the modern TV landscape by not only broadcasting an entertainingly innovative piece of drama such as Holy Flying Circus, based on the furore surrounding the release of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but in double-billing it with an archive repeat of the engrossing original debate which forms the centrepiece of the drama, the otherwise dreadfully forgettable chat show Friday Night , Saturday Morning. To be bold and inventive on one hand and, on the other, to have the courage to repeat, in full, fascinating pieces of archive which would otherwise be left unseen is all the evidence you need that BBC4 has already become something of a national treasure which needs to be protected in the face of the oncoming storms about to lash against BBC budgets and expenditure.
The subject of the drama, Life of Brian, has now become such an institution, with its highly quotable scenes passing into the collective British consciousness, that it stands remarkably close to overshadowing the Flying Circus TV series which spawned it. For newcomers to the Python legacy it’s period setting means that it has dated less so than the early 70s fashion blunders on the BBC episodes and it now seems that it is to be this movie with which the name Monty Python is to be synonymous. And to think that, back in 1979, upon its original release, there were quite a few towns across the UK where you couldn’t even get to see the movie as indignant local councils stuffed full of killjoys and religious fundamentalists moved to ban the movie and attempt to quash the idea of people having a laugh. Heaven forbid.
It is this very furore surrounding the movie’s release in the UK which has now become the subject of an interesting BBC4 production as we follow the Python group in their attempts to fight various bodies opposed to the movie and who want to see it banned, culminating in John Cleese and Michael Palin’s memorable face-off against Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark in a highly charged confrontation on a late-night weekend chat show. It’s an interesting way to approach making a drama about Python and there are obvious parallels with the success of Frost/Nixon where another famous piece of television chat was made the focus of a drama with the build-up to the event being fascinating and the finished broadcast leaving one side famously defeated.
Of course, the question with dramatising events relating to Python is how do you play it – straight or for laughs? In the past we’ve seen the BBC produce a series of dramas on the lives of well known comedians and they’ve all been played fairly straight, concentrating heavily on tragic aspects of the featured artist’s life. While some have been more successful than others it has seemed that they’ve been something of a one trick pony, focusing almost exclusively on the “tears of a clown” angle. For something which was as innovative and surreal as Python was in its day this serious approach seemed inappropriate and with the central pillar of the drama being the outcry over Life of Brian rather than the private lives of the Pythons there seemed the opportunity to do something radically different. And radically different is what we’ve got because the producers have bravely opted to produce a work of surrealist comedy in the style of Python itself.
Following a rather forgettably outrageous pre-titles fart joke involving Jesus, which made me fear for what I was about to watch, we’re treated to a gloriously Pythonesque opening credit sequence which you can imagine being created by Terry Gilliam himself. Some jokey text scrolls upwards to tell us the lay of the land in 1979 with a rather miserable state of affairs with strikes and failing politics in Britain while the Pythons have been out enjoying themselves in Tunisia creating what would go on to be known as their masterpiece.
The opening office scene with the Pythons gathered to discuss promotion of their movie introduces us to the lookalike actors immediately and a good job has been made of gathering together this cast. Steve Punt and Charles Edwards, as Eric Idle and Michael Palin respectively, are the standouts here and at times they capture their roles so perfectly both in looks and mannerisms that you almost forget you’re not looking at the real thing. John Cleese is the other main character of this production and Darren Boyd makes a reasonable stab at this most recognisable of the Python team. It’s part of the unusual presentation of this drama however that the actors aren’t playing the Pythons quite as they are but as deliberate caricatures for comedic effect. For instance, Cleese is basically portrayed as Basil Fawlty (complete with a branch-wielding moment when he attacks a newspaper vendor), Idle is shown to be greedy and money-driven at every turn while Palin is presented as “the nicest man in the world”, even stopping to take hankies out of his pocket to wipe dog poo from Terry Gilliam’s feet. It works, because we now have an easy handle for all the characters and traits in them which are guaranteed to get a laugh, rather than a lot of agonised meetings full of glum faces as trouble brewed, which is probably what really happened.
The idea to take the drama off on surreal tangents also works and there are many early successes. I enjoyed the cutaway to the reaction of a cinema audience in the US to the movie which included a hooded Klu Klux Klan member announcing that the film was “morally repugnant”, before adding, “Oh, and kill all the blacks”. The camera then moves to a black guy who says, “I agree with him. Except the stuff about black people. That’s not cool”, before a fight breaks out between the two. There are also nice little references to the movie itself when we see a fictionalised religious undercover group meeting to plot how they will combat the movie. The caption on screen outside their meeting place suggests that they are The Popular People’s Church of St Sophia, but that they were also formerly the People’s Church of St Sophia and the St Sophia Church of People. It’s a funny nod to the People’s Front of Judea/Judean People’s Front section of Life of Brian itself.
My favourite flight of fancy though in the proceedings is with Michael Palin’s homelife where they have Rufus Jones who plays Terry Jones playing Mrs Palin as Terry Jones playing Mrs Palin. The Pythons, of course, were never shy about dressing up as old washer-women (pepperpots as they called them) and Terry Jones was probably the best of them all at carrying off the shrill-voiced parts, so it makes perfect sense to have Rufus playing Terry playing Palin’s wife, including bed scenes. In later scenes we are also treated to Charles Edwards playing both Palin and Palin’s mother in the same scene.
The surreal attitude and complete disregard for factual truth is taken to extreme lengths when we are given a glimpse into the production meetings for the Friday Night, Saturday Morning chat show which staged the famous debate between the Pythons and the representatives of religion which forms the centrepiece of this drama. We are given an energetic and obnoxious producer in the shape of Alan Dick, played with OTT relish by Jason Thorpe, and the benchmark for the character is very clearly Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashheart from several episodes of Blackadder. This crazed lunatic’s attempts to create a chat show sensation form one thread of the narrative with the People’s Church of St Sophia and the Pythons themselves forming the others.
The People’s Church segments are probably the biggest misfire of the drama. While the decision to show this fictional bunch as a group of bungling quasi-terrorists has a certain comic appeal in keeping with Life of Brian itself, and while the always reliable Mark Heap puts in a decent performance, their sections never really work for me. Perhaps it’s the over reliance on cheap gags with one of their three prominent members having a stutter and another suffering from an unfortunate case of expletive-ridden Tourette’s Syndrome. While this in itself is very possibly a nod of the head to the Pontius Pilate scenes of speech impediments in Life of Brian they do seem rather lazy and are a million miles from the comic majesty of the movie’s Biggus Dickus scene featuring Pilate.
Pythonesque asides of animation, characters breaking the fourth wall and general silliness do, however, stand up well throughout the drama and the creators have put a lot of effort into making something which not only looks like a 21st Century Python show but in making it funny into the bargain. Two demons debating on sofas with two angels about “What have the Christians ever done for us?” is not only a direct lampooning of a Python scene but manages to be funny in its own right with an angel offering up, “Christian names“. “Alright, alright, I’ll grant you that!” comes the reply. My favourite though is an un-PC comment about Joey Deacon, that oft-used cruel shorthand for stupidity in every playground across the country for those of us of a certain age in the early 1980s. When he is referenced in the drama we cut to a shambolic nerd sitting at home who immediately picks up on the mistake of this being used in a drama set two years before Mr Deacon was introduced to the nation on Blue Peter. The email is printed out and an office junior rushes it to the head of BBC4 only to find him snorting coke while barking out orders for commissions for programmes about canals as he throws the complaint in the bin.
We do settle into something of a pattern though as the drama oscillates between the Pythons in a near endless loop will they/won’t they take part in the programme and the increasing fanaticism of those opposed to them. This possibly goes on a little too long and the proceedings do start to sag before we get to the actual debate itself with Cleese and Palin lining up for the Team Python and the ex-womanising, hard living (but now born again) Malcolm Muggeridge and the Archbishop of York stepping out for Team Religion. These latter two are splendidly played by Michael Cochrane and James Laurenson with the Archbishop, with all his whisky drinking imposing nastiness, being only a slight caricature of real-life whisky drinking rude and nasty piece of work that was presented in the debate in 1979.
Just like Frost/Nixon the actual debate is a difficult thing to pull off in a drama recreation of it. While they capture the lines spoken and the delivery of the real-life debaters quite well the actual debate and the conclusions which can be drawn from it are all quite subtle and don’t lend themselves easily to being “dramatic” in the normal sense of the word. In Frost/Nixon the real drama is all away from the interviews and about the insecurity of Frost who is seen as out of his depth and desperately looking for a killer blow as Nixon easily toys with him. With this debate, sure, the archbishop and Muggeridge are plain rude throughout and attack the Pythons from the word go with incredibly weak and closed-minded arguments and we can see, looking back, that the Pythons come out of the debate very much better in terms of both clear points well made and basic human good manners, but it’s not something that is a rousing finale to ninety minutes of drama, despite some ill-judged attempts to add dramatic stings of music from time to time. However, they do something wonderful to address this very issue by having a Palin fantasy sequence in which the normally terribly nice Python (who was nevertheless clearly simmering with anger on the actual night faced with the pig-headedness of his rivals) suddenly grabs an ashtray and smashes it against Muggeridge’s head to leave him squirting blood. For anyone, who has ever seen the real debate it’s exactly what you wanted to see in real life. (Not that violence is big or clever, of course!)
In the end it all sort of peters out though. There’s a very unlikely scene where the People’s Church of St Sophia change sides to join the Pythons after the debate, horrified by the pomposity of the old fool that is the Archbishop of York, and Palin is very downbeat about it all, as he was in his real-life diaries, before being persuaded that the archbishop and Muggeridge had come across so badly that the Pythons had actually won the argument after all. It’s all wrapped up with a final meeting between Palin and God with the big man being played in a wonderfully genial way by Stephen Fry. In fact, you really can’t imagine anyone other than Stephen Fry ever playing God again. All in all then this is a drama which is quite lovingly crafted and while it misfires from time to time that’s ok. It’s hardly as if every single Python sketch ever performed worked. There was good and bad even from the Pythons themselves and so this tribute to them meets the mark often enough for me to give it a deserved thumbs up, even if it could easily have had at least ten minutes snipped from it to stop it plodding two thirds of the way through.
Brilliantly though, it’s not over quite yet as BBC4 decided to serve us up the original debate from Friday Night, Saturday Morning. Thank goodness for BBC4, a channel who have the remit to present curios from the archive like this because, although the actual series of FNSM was deemed a colossal failure at the time and was originally critically lambasted (with a bizarre turn from ex-Prime Minister Harold Wilson sleepwalking his way through the presenting duties before being pulled from the show and replaced by the equally sombulant Tim Rice), it’s important to have the context of all the events we’ve just seen dramatised and it’s refreshing to have a channel like BBC4 who are prepared to treat their audience as intelligent beings who won’t switch off just because the people being interviewed are sporting old hairstyles and fashions.
The first astonishing thing you notice about this broadcast is that the opening credits for it are actually real and not just some spoof created for the relevant section of Holy Flying Circus. These are credits in which a lady dutifully lies naked in bed as her husband returns home from the pub/match/work and jumps in beside her as the logo for the show appears on a TV in the corner of their bedroom. It’s remarkable that even as late as 1979 something so casually sexist could be broadcast each week as an opening title sequence. But, then again, the opening titles for Holiday ’86, seven years after this, featured a naked pair of breasts splashing out of the sea in slow motion at prime time so perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised!
The other remarkable thing to notice from this debate is that everything you may have heard about Muggeridge and the archbishop is true and that, if anything, Holy Flying Circus actually presents them in a better light than they came across in real life. Sniping with insultingly barbed comments from the off they come across as plain rude – men with no manners at all behind their facade of respectability. Cleese and Plain, by comparison, emerge much better, people who could launch cheap broadsides at their opponents’ outdated views, and do it with wit and humour to bring down the house, but who choose instead to debate and not get dragged into petty insults. Cleese said in an interview just a few years back that he was sitting with a piece of paper in his pocket filled with quotations from Muggeridge that he could have produced at any stage and utterly demolished him with, but he chose not to do so out of pity for him.
I’m sure the original producers of this forgettable chat show series would be bewildered to think that just one edition of their show could be the basis of a ninety minute drama all these years later but I’m glad BBC4 bravely commissioned this and I’m glad we’ve been given the opportunity to watch the actual warts and all programme to see for ourselves the grossly impolite and unmannerly performance of Muggeridge and the archbishop with their dusty, centuries-old views.