Sunday, January 13, 2013

"You'll get your thirty pieces of silver"


MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN director Terry Jones as Mandy Cohen, mother of Brian, in the comedy troupe's satire of organised religion. The film stands as one of the few that warrants book-length studies on each of its pre-production, making, and aftermath.

MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN caused religious outrage around the world. Against this backdrop, John Cleese and Michael Palin found themselves facing prominent society figures on a television debate in front of a live studio audience. HOLY FLYING CIRCUS - Tony Roche's one-shot BBC4 re-imagining of the controversy - uses at its core the discussion between Cleese/Palin and Mervyn Stockwood/Malcolm Muggeridge, which appeared on BBC2 chat show FRIDAY NIGHT, SATURDAY MORNING. While the build-up to this debate acts as the only real plot strand in the drama, the surrounding scenes are more playful, particularly Darren Boyd's portrayal of Cleese - "a fictional representation of me based loosely on my Basil Fawlty persona" - and an uncanny turn by Charles Edwards as Palin. Consequently there is little consistency to HOLY FLYING CIRCUS, but there are odd flashes of brilliance: after the BBC’s Head of Talks is shown taking cocaine, Cleese and Palin are suddenly turned into puppets manipulated by the other Pythons, sweeping the viewer into an alternate reality. But ultimately HOLY FLYING CIRCUS portrays the discussion with a misguided gravitas akin to David Frost's entanglement with Richard Nixon.

Hosted by Tim Rice, it was the 9th November 1979 FRIDAY NIGHT, SATURDAY MORNING were the actual barnstorming was played out. To argue in favour of blasphemy was broadcaster and Christian Muggeridge, and Stockwood - the then Bishop of Southwark - who appeared in a sweeping purple cassock while spending most of his time gesturing with a chunky cross. In an opening salvo, The Bishop - with notes carefully hidden in his lap - gives a meandering sermon addressed to his audience, before accusing the Pythons of being mentally unstable. Muggeridge begins by dismissing LIFE OF BRIAN as a "tenth-rate film,"and the Pythons seemed shocked by the severity of the attack, especially because all four had met before the show and there had been no hint of the aggression that was to come. As the debate becomes more heated, Muggeridge complains about the ease with which the Pythons "were able to extract humour from the most solemn of mysteries". He says he was upset that the film was, to him, denigrating the one man responsible for all art. What makes the crusader's stance more trite is that Stockwood and Muggeridge later seemed delighted with their flirtation with show business, viewing the exercise as a entertainment performance of their own.

Charles Edwards as Michael Palin and Darren Boyd as John Cleese in HOLY FLYING CIRCUS.

The overwhelming conclusion of the Pythons is that while Palin is agitated and uneasy, Cleese is in his element. Addressing Muggeridge that "four hundred years ago, we would have been burnt for this film. Now, I'm suggesting that we've made an advance," Cleese defends eloquently and with a calm assurance, explaining how LIFE OF BRIAN is consistently labelled as an attack on Christ rather than as a series of satirical observations on closed systems of thought. What is most unnerving is seeing the Pythons having to defend their right to openly question ideas; after this debate, a parody of the discussion appeared on NOT THE NINE O'CLOCK NEWS, involving a Bishop defending his new film - GENERAL SYNOD'S LIFE OF CHRIST - which was accused of being "a thinly disguised and blasphemous attack on the members of Monty Python, men who are, today, still revered throughout the western world."

It is ironic that LIFE OF BRIAN's success as a film is its tight narrative, which is in strong contrast to the normal Pythonesque sketch-driven chaos. Without an episodic structure, characters are allowed to breath, and when the story does deviate, it is only into people that directly affect Brian. It is Python's most rounded and satisfying work, with the People's Front of Judea central to the ongoing religious and political comment; the non-active activists are a consistent joke as they debate, argue, vote and re-debate even the simplest motions. As such they just get further embroiled in talking about - but not acting - on their beliefs. It’s this straightforward blend of satire, religion and politics that makes the misinterpretations and tirade of Muggeridge and Stockwood even more insulting.