‘Holy Flying Circus’

So there was a TV movie made in Britain about the controversies that swirled around Monty Python’s Life of Brian. It’s a dramatization and a re-imagining (read: the filmmakers made most of the dialogue up) of the fights with the BBC and the CofE.

Holy Flying Circus revolves around an annoying BBC 4 programmer attempting to get the Pythons to debate an Anglican bishop (Roy Marsden) and Malcolm Muggeridge (Michael Cochrane) on a British chat program, Friday Night, Saturday Morninga debate which actually took place, with John Cleese and Michael Palin representing the Pythons.

It’s all very amusing, with a generous serving of laugh-out-loud moments and dramatic scenes focused on relationships among the Pythons and their doubts about the wisdom of participating in the debate. Media figures are painted with broad strokes and come off nearly as buffoonish as Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark, who both appeared ignorant and foolish in the original debate.

Here’s a clip:

As for the actual “debate,” or chat-show encounter, which is what it really was, Malcolm Muggeridge, former journalist and editor of Punch, as well as eventual convert to Catholicism, was quite quick and could slice and dice when he wanted to, so while I’ve always heard that he fared poorly in his encounter with Cleese and Palin, I used to wonder if he was just unclear what the terms of this supposed “debate” actually were.

Well, guess what I found online? Judge for yourself.

The real point of conention is this: Did The Life of Brian set out to ridicule Jesus, as Muggeridge contends, or to ridicule mass movements and a credulity that depends on an authority external to the critical mind. The movie comes close to wedding the two, but if I’m not mistaken, a Jesus figure does appear in the background preaching something like the Sermon on the Mount, as if the troupe were saying, “Brian is not Jesus, so calm down.” (Or was that a scene that didn’t make the final cut? I have seen Life of Brian exactly once, when it first came out. I’ve actually spent more time reading about the legal wrangling and censorship battles than I have spent with the film itself.)

The film is definitely anti-church, anti-establishment. But this is Monty Python, for goodness’ sake. Would we expect a call to piety, chastity, obedience?

While The Life of Brian is by no means among my favorite films, I think to argue that it intended to call Christ out as a fake is going a critique too far. (And I think Palin is right, too, that their films are always contemporary critiques masquerading as loony historical revisionism.)

Muggeridge definitely comes across as a scold, and unwilling or unable to at least give Python the benefit of the doubt, or at the very very least, appreciate their talents. But he was hardly “ignorant” or “foolish.”

What most people tend to forget, and what Muggeridge refused to acknowledge, or even see, is that the Pythoners were actually pretty bright guys, well educated and thoughtful — certainly when compared to most of the clowns who are popular in American circles today.

As for the bishop of Southwark, well, he definitely is a parody of the kind of Anglican vicar Peter Sellers used to play. I much prefer my vicars like this:


3 thoughts on “‘Holy Flying Circus’

  1. “a Jesus figure does appear in the background preaching something like the Sermon on the Mount, as if the troupe were saying, “Brian is not Jesus, so calm down.” (Or was that a scene that didn’t make the final cut? . . .)” You are correct.


  2. I’ve always felt that the point of “Life of Brian” was not to lampoon Christ (though there’s an onlooker at the Sermon on the Mount, played by Cleese, as I recall, saying that “it’s the meek who are the problem,” an opinion Cleese actually held, at least at the time). The real point was to ridicule people who are stupid enough to believe in a Messiah. Which is why LoB was the beginning of my disaffection from Monty Python.


    1. That too is at work there. Their “Jesus” would be just a really empathetic bloke…


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