TV Party

Categorised as GENERAL.

Holy Flying Circus – BBC4, Wednesday 19th October 10pm

Friday Night, Saturday Morning – BBC4, Wednesday 19th October 11.30pm

You know the routine by now. They are on at least two or three times a week. They are about popular TV stars of the Sixties or Seventies. The cast is made up entirely of comedy actors from current BBC2 sketch shows or ex-soapies. And they are bleak. Oh boy, are they bleak. The bleakness is key because we all love to see the life of a TV favourite crumbling behind the curtain. It’s usually suicide, alcoholism, secret gayness or a misery speedball of all three. And they go out on BBC4. It’s what BBC4 does. It’s why BBC4 exists.

“There’s a BBC4? The BBC must be doing well for itself.” So goes the final(ish) line of Holy Flying Circus in one of its many aren’t-we-self-aware moments. And thank God that the BBC is doing so phenomenally and destructively well. What would we do without BBC4’s one-off tears-of-a-clown depressionopics? No-one else is going to make them are they? ITV didn’t even bother to make the one about Corrie. #saveBBC4.

But Holy Flying Circus was eversoslightly different to the usual breed, the Hancocks, the Fannys, the Steptoes. Set in the Seventies – check. About a Sixties TV comedy show – kinda. Cast populated solely by comedy faves – of course. Bleak as Coventry? Nope. Not a bit of it.

Based around the controversy that arose surrounding the cinematic release of Monty Python’s Life of Brian in 1979; and the subsequent TV debate between Michael Palin, John Cleese, Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark, this was played for laughs throughout.

Tony Roche’s (The Thick of It, The Armando Iannucci Shows) script was littered with references and jokes: Gilliam-style animations, visual gags, dream sequences, cutaway gags, pieces to camera, and references to the film and old Python sketches. This gave it a scattershot energy that just about distracted from the fact that it wasn’t actually very funny. I shouldn’t be surprised though – and it shouldn’t be taken as a big criticism really. It was a big task to undertake – and a huge risk – to write a script about Brian in the style of the Pythons and suffering from the inevitable comparison.

But that’s not to say it wasn’t good – it was tremendous: engaging and exciting, touching and thoughtful. Spot on performances particularly from Charles Edwards in the central role as Michael “The Nicest Man in the World” Palin who gave the play its heart, and Rufus Jones as Terry Jones who stole every scene he was in. Jones, R. was born to play Jones, T. – so often with this sort of thing casting happens because of physical similarity alone, and yes Rufus (it’s easier than all this Joneses nonsense) looks the spit of Terry, but he had the voice, mannerisms, and loveably snarky smirk down to a tee. And he nailed the role of Palin’s wife too (a la Python, some of the female characters were played by the men – Jones as Mrs Palin, Edwards playing his own mum).

The references and in-jokes were overwhelming but not intrusive – it didn’t matter if you know that Eric Idle is a money grabber in real-life, or that Graham Chapman was a raging alky but the jokes were there as cheeky bonuses if you wanted them.

 

And the subject matter lent itself to drama perfectly in a way that most true-life stories don’t. It was full of comedic licence and elaborations, but the real-life characters made perfect heroes, villains, fools, and the real-life events made ideal dilemmas, arguments and a genuinely dramatic dénouement that didn’t have to be forced or fabricated. The debate on Friday Night, Saturday Morning has been well documented but its recreation was a revelation, wonderfully played by all involved – Michael Cochrane (Muggeridge) and Roy Marsden (Stockwood) were pitch perfect a-holes, smug and vain and intolerant and wrong, and Tom Price a nice touch as his almost namesake Tim Rice.

The screening of that entire episode of Friday Night, Saturday Morning that followed Holy Flying Circus served as a great companion piece and fine piece of scheduling. After the japes of the drama it was fascinating to see how faithful the fictitious account had been to the real events, and also to see how TV has changed in the last 30 years, for better or for worse. A full 50 minutes of debate, originally screened on BBC2 – a programme like this, simultaneously wonderful and dreadful, would never make it to air in 2011.

While the comedians Palin and Cleese famously took their argument very seriously, their supposedly highbrow counterparts made snide jibes to score low points. They no doubt came off feeling that they had easily won: they’d barely let Palin and Cleese speak, slammed every reasoned point with a lame personal dig, and yammered on at irrelevant tangents, willfully ignoring the point that the film was not about Jesus. But of course they would’ve known that if they’d not missed the first 15 minutes of the film (according to the play and Palin’s diaries at the time anyhow).

“Three hundred years ago, if we’d said what we are saying in this film, we would have been burnt at the stake. Now, I’m suggesting that we’ve made some kind of an advance” says Cleese in his defence of his right to free speech. In the last thirty years I don’t think much has improved.

At a time when autopilot public outrage has reached new levels of idiocy and regularity, a TV debate about blasphemy and censorship like this, as flawed as it was, would never be let near a mainstream channel, certainly not for an hour. Who would watch it? No-one in the 15-25 bracket wants to watch a Bishop and a 77-year-old journo bitching with a couple of comics about Jesus. Jazz it up a bit, get Reggie Yates to host it, and switch the Bish and the old guy with that one from off of the Inbetweeners and some bird out of TOWIE, snip it down to 8 mins and have Professor Green squeak around afterwards and now you’re talking my language.

And make it funny for Christ’s sake. Two successful comedians with a film to promote would not be allowed by their management to risk their public image by engaging in a potentially explosive debate at all – and make zero gags in the process. Put them on The Jonathan Ross Show. What use is 15% if all you’re getting is thirty pieces of silver?

Words:

Ian Heydon

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