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, such as the Roman Guards or his followers. LIFE OF BRIAN is Monty 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 intelligent - yet straightforward - blend of satire, religion and politics that makes the misinterpretations and tirade of Muggeridge and Stockwood even more insulting.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Man-Hungry Women


The Collinson Twins and Esme Johns frolic in GROUPIE GIRL, which was released in America as I AM A GROUPIE, in France firstly as THE PIMPS OF PERVERSION, then in 1974 under the title MAN-HUNGRY WOMEN, with hardcore inserts.

BRITISH cinema's prolific sex comedy output of the 1970s existed in a juvenile fantasy world light years away from these downbeat and sordid sexploitation entries, which both centre around groupies' fascination with hairy musicians in grubby settings. Co-written by director Derek Ford with former groupie Suzanne Mercer, GROUPIE GIRL is certainly the livelier of two. Sally (stripper Esme Johns in her only picture), a star-struck provincial girl, becomes involved with Orange Butterfly lead singer Steve (Marc Bolan lookalike Donald Sumpter), before being literally off-loaded to permanently stoned group Sweaty Betty. In the film's outstanding sequence, Sally is passed out the window of Orange Butterfly's speeding van into their rival's vehicle, a scene filmed at Hendon Airfield made even more impressive by the fact that there was only minimal dummy work.

Ford had one of the most colourful backgrounds of any filmmaker involved in the smut-peddling seventies, before succumbing to a heart attack in W H Smith's in 1995. A former accountant, Ford wrote radio plays for Children's Hour and - with novelist brother Donald - scripted a number of popular television shows which included Z-CARS and THE SAINT. Remembered as "generally miserable" and a "male nymphomaniac," Ford regularly directed hardcore versions of his early movies, and departed to Italy to make low-budget shockers such as 1978's EROTIC FANTASIES, a perverse sex odyssey set to classical music. On his return to Britain, he wrote stroke paperbacks as well as continuing his film career, which involved writing then being fired from directing DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS after two days, and making THE URGE TO KILL about a murderous computer called S.E.X.Y.

Taglines such as "The Minstrels and their Mistresses ... fast living, free loving, putting out savage driving rhythmic music to the pulse of the new generation ... See it from the inside screaming out!" hide the fact that PERMISSIVE is a dank and unsympathetic affair.

GROUPIE GIRL features two brief appearances of an uncredited Mary and Madeleine Collinson, who are used even more sparsely in Canadian Lindsay Shonteff's PERMISSIVE. Made under the glorious title SUZY SUPERSCREW, this release is even more squalid than Ford's film, and tells of duffle-coated runaway Suzy (Maggie Stride) in search of her school friend Fiona (Gay Singleton). Fiona initiates Suzy into the heady environment of London groupie life with Forever More (a genuine group described by Simon Sheridan in Keeping the British End Up: Four Decades of Saucy Cinema as "a turgid mix of all the worst elements of Jethro Tull combined with Slade," of which two of their members went on to form The Average White Band). Effectively chronicling Suzy's personal journey from naive waif to hard-faced bitch, she eventually steals Forever More's lead singer from under Carol's grip, leaving her friend to die after a suicide attempt in a bath of blood.