Like Goodnight, and Good Luck and Frost/Nixon, Holy Flying Circus is a film that gives us a behind-the-scenes look at a historic and poignant television moment, one that still resonates today. More than that, the film is laugh-out-loud funny and serves as a tribute in style and substance to the Pythons.
In 1979, Monty Python released their third film; Monty Python’s Life of Brian. It is the story of the misadventures of a man living in the Holy Land in the time of Jesus. When he impersonates a holy man to avoid capture by Roman guards, he inadvertently creates a following. Now mistaken for a Messiah, he cannot get a moment’s peace being continually pursued by his followers who consider every event a miracle and his every word and deed scriptural.
The film satirises organised religion; blind, unquestioned faith; the problems of misunderstanding or misinterpreting religious teaching; revolutionary groups and British left-wing politics of the 70’s amongst other things. The Pythons decided very early in the development stage of the film that they could not and should not make fun of Jesus or his teachings directly and were careful to avoid doing so. They were therefore completely unprepared for the fallout when the film was released.
In Holy Flying Circus we witness this fallout from three points of view; we see the Pythons struggling to respond to accusations of blasphemy and of causing deep offence; the efforts of a group of conservative Christians, from the ‘Popular Peoples Church of St Sophia’, to try to ban the film and the producers of television talk show Friday Night, Saturday Morning who are looking to take advantage of the controversy by holding a televised debate – not one of dry, rigorous, intellectual consideration of course, but a sensationalist ratings-grabber.
When the film opens in New York to mass protests, the Pythons are taken aback and must contemplate the reaction elsewhere which may only be worse. It certainly was, as the Pythons had to face vitriolic criticism, bans and ridiculous claims from people who had no idea what the film actually contained. Meanwhile religious groups were equally shocked that the film got a light rating from censors since it contained ‘no sex, no violence, no c-word’. However, local councils could choose to ban the film and many did, despite the fact that none of them could articulate why it should be banned since, again, they had no idea what was actually in the film.
For many the issue was not open to discussion, they had already made up their minds and would not allow themselves to be persuaded by anything.
Instead of quieting down, the issue and the protests only escalated. The Pythons began receiving death threats, had effigies of themselves burned, their homes picketed and were seeking legal advice and drafting their wills. Soon the Pythons had to reconsider their earlier decision not to appear on the talk show Friday Night, Saturday Morning and at least try and get their point of view across and hope against hope that reason might prevail.
The Pythons decided that Michael Palin and John Cleese were the ones who should best front for the whole group by process of elimination – Terry Gilliam was American born, Terry Jones would only talk about the camera angles, Eric Idle wouldn’t do it since he wouldn’t get paid and Graham Chapman was gay and thus the ‘natural enemy’ of their adversaries.
Palin and Cleese get to work on their response, but with difficulty. Palin prepares for the debate by trying to construct a meticulous argument to show that the film is not blasphemous, not offensive to Jesus or his teachings or his followers and to defend free speech. The difficult, confrontational and contrarian Cleese, however, wants to ask what is so terrible about causing offence?
“What is more important than making fun of things? If we are not allowed to make fun of things that take themselves too seriously what’s to stop them from taking over the world?”
Encouraged by the Python’s acquiescence, the producers of the talk show search for the other half of their debate. They settle on Malcolm Muggeridge – in his younger days a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, womanising satirist, but now born-again, unpredictable and controversial – and Mervyn Stockwood, the then Bishop of Southwark. The show was hosted by Tim Rice, who himself faced blasphemy accusations a decade earlier following the opening of Jesus Christ Superstar.
The debate was a surreal experience for Palin and Cleese and for those who witnessed it. The two young, supposedly trouble-making, comedians tried and failed to have a serious intellectual conversation with well-researched and reasoned arguments and were instead interrupted and bullied by the two older, supposedly wiser, men who were intent on cheap shots and point scoring while going off-topic on strange tangents. Palin left the debate angry, disillusioned and disheartened, not realising that, through no effort of their own, the show had exposed the ugliness of their opposition. It forced even those who were against the film to question their condemnation of something they had no conception of, and to ask if they believed in their position as articulated by Muggeridge and Stockwood.
That is the story, but as for the film Holy Flying Circus itself, you needn’t be too concerned that the powerful themes of freedom of expression, sensationalist media and the defence of religion’s position of privilege to be above criticism, ridicule and satire will overwhelm any ability to entertain – because this film is seriously funny! Non-stop funny. “Unless”, as they say in the film, “you are Christian, easily offended or expecting good jokes”.
I especially enjoyed the conservative Christian crusader suffering from tourettes syndrome, whose exclamations even his colleagues find a little too well-timed and convenient!
But more than humour, the film is also a tribute to the style of Monty Python. It uses Pythonesque animation, is broken up with skit segments and uses men in drag to play the female roles, in particular and hilariously, Palin’s wife and mother.
I also enjoyed the dynamic between the Palin and Cleese characters. It’s very much like the relationship between House and Wilson from TV’s House. Palin, like Wilson, is ‘the world’s nicest man’ – generous, kind, sensitive, always believing in the inherent goodness of his fellow human being and has considerable faith in that there is always a way to deliver the best outcome with marrying good intentions and a morally sound method. Cleese, like House, is deliberately difficult and contrarian, sceptical, untrusting, offensive and would like nothing better than to prove to Palin that the real world is not as nice as he imagines, though he may feel profound remorse when he succeeds.
It is well acted and cast with Charles Edwards as Michael Palin (and Palin’s mother), Darren Boyd as John Cleese, Steve Punt as Eric Idle, the excellent Mark Heap (aka Jim from Friday Night Dinner) as the leading protester and… Stephen Fry as God.
But despite the jokes the conscience of the film is inescapable. And though I do not necessarily want to indulge a thorough discussion here, this being just a film review, one cannot help but tweak the lion’s tail…
Holy Flying Circus opens with a disclaimer, of sorts. A man, dressed in a white robe and sandals, is walking through the desert. Though long-haired and bearded, he does not look middle-eastern in features but rather like a friendly-to-European-eyes, post-Renaissance approximation. When he comes close to the camera he says “Hi, my name in Jesus. Most of what you are about to see never actually happened. It’s largely made up. Like the Bible”.
When a man kneeling before him, who looks and sounds very much like Eric Idle (Steve Punt), looks up and says “That’s a bit controversial isn’t it?”, ‘Jesus’ turns his back towards him, bends over and flatulates profusely.
I will admit this shocking, outrageous and provocative piece of disrespect made me laugh out loud, one of many such instances in the course of this film. But this is not mere blasphemy for the sake of blasphemy. Instead this tiny introduction illuminates the essence of the issues at the core of the story in all its many facets.
Because the film forces us to ask ourselves; what is so terrible about blasphemy? Most of Western civilisation has calmly and rationally come to certain conclusions about free speech, free association, secularism, personal choice and evidence-based decision-making, yet these noble ideals are so easily dismembered in the face of emotive, reactionary responses to the criticism of ancient superstitions and the people who practice them. The inherent contradiction is perhaps best illustrated, in our contemporary times and within our supposedly secular societies, by those who exercise their right to free speech by threatening to behead those who also exercised their right to free speech by satirising or criticising their spiritual founder.
But it is much easier for the offended to judge the source of the offense than to ask themselves what should be done to protect the Almighty from jokes He foresaw but took no action Himself to prevent? Any answer that protects the precious feelings of an all-powerful deity, as accurately described by His followers who presume to take offense on His behalf, inevitably destroys the personal freedoms of others or results in the subjective endorsement of some superstitions over others.
Another problem, as exposed in this film, is the difficulty of finding someone to speak on behalf of the offended. In the absence of controversy, religion assumes its default position of individual personal choice. But when something controversial occurs, personal views are set aside in place of collective outrage. Eventually someone is entrusted to speak on behalf of the offended. They are inevitably exposed as out-of-step, arrogant, their position indefensible, bigoted or worse. Which puts the offended on the defensive by saying that these people do not represent themselves or their faith, even though they are invariably highly qualified to do just that. This contradictory difficulty in finding one person who can embody the collective outrage of individual personal viewpoints without exposing the hypocrisy of the outrage, repeatedly undermines the position of the offended.
There is of course the antiquated argument that blasphemy will result in the blasphemer being punished beyond the grave. The punishment is usually considered to be unimaginably severe and to be continuous without respite or end as befits such a serious, serious, crime and as only a truly benevolent deity would decree as a sign of His boundless love. It is also usually suggested that those who are exposed to the blasphemy, whether by accident or not, are similarly tainted. Therefore, it is usually suggested that it is good practice to not wait for the afterlife but to punish, without evidence, in this one as well.
If we wonder what a return to more severe temporal punishment for blasphemy might look like we do not have to look far. In Pakistan last year, a Christian was accused of blasphemy and found guilty. In Pakistan, the accusation of blasphemy is enough for a guilty verdict – no trial or examination of evidence is possible since to do so would risk repeating the blasphemy. In this recent case, the accused was sentenced to death, given a considerable fine, while news of his actions provoked riots that resulted in the destruction of 200 Christian households. As draconian as this may seem to 21st century Westerners, it should be remembered that it is only relatively recently that we could offer a society with any point of difference on this measure. There is still much of this past that remains embodied in our actions and attitudes of the present and, while not always enforced and in direct contradiction of more recent freedoms, much of our past measures against blasphemy remain on statute.
As John Cleese said during the televised debate “four hundred years ago, we would have been burned for this film. Now I’m suggesting we’ve made an advance”.
Another, more general, question is; why is religion still granted the unique privilege of being above criticism? In most other respects, Western civilisation has reached a point where we can have reasonable, considered, respectful conversations and debates on a range of emotive topics such as politics, economics, sexuality, racism, sexism and xenophobia. Open forums that allow contrary views to be voiced for comparison and critique and force all positions to find ways to defend themselves from criticism are essential for a functioning society. It is a process that is helpful to all, including those positions that appear to struggle as it forces them to find a response to a social context in continuous flux.
Religious belief is still not considered to be equally open to criticism and is viciously defended. A recent trend is the use of the terms like ‘Islamaphobia’ to label those who criticise religion and to put such criticism on the same level as racism, homophobia and xenophobia, which it is not. It is certainly an effective strategy as many support the silencing of critics on the misguided assumption that they are defending civil rights and religious freedom by doing so. The recent controversy of Brandeis University’s decision to cowardly fold under pressure rather than match the bravery of Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a case in point. Religion’s implied and enforced immunity from criticism is a position that is unsustainable for both the religious and the non-religious and is to the detriment of our society and all who inhabit it.
Many social commentators have noted the battering the first amendment has been getting in the US over the last thirty years or so. Recently the Chief Justice of Alabama said that the first amendment applies to Christians only. However, the real frontline in these issues resides in Europe. A Europe that for some time has been proudly secular, respectful of both free expression and religious rights and, due to being very conscious of its past, very fearful of any path that may lead to a repetition of historic failings. Such ideals were much easier to uphold when most of Europe were small deviations of the same faith and race. But the influx of peoples from Europe’s former colonial holdings, bringing with them other faiths and no historical memory of the difficult lessons Europe has learned, are testing the areas where Europe’s ideals conflict.
Just last week, Saudi Arabia (which observes no religious freedom and practices so many human rights abuses I cannot list them all here) called on Norway, which had banned Life of Brian for a year, to make all criticism of Islam and Mohammed illegal, as a matter of human rights.
My suspicion is that Europe will face a difficult choice. Either it will be the end of free expression for fear of upsetting the religious beliefs of those who threaten to defend He, who needs no one to defend him, with violence. Or Europe will be forced to make a distinction between respecting everyone’s right to believe what they want, while not necessarily respecting their right to practice what they believe when it affects the rights of others. Either way it will be a painful process.
On a lesser note, and for those of us not easily offended, this film also force us to ask ourselves; why is blasphemy so funny? Is it because poking fun at figures and symbols of authority is always funny, and therefore in blasphemy we are making fun of the ultimate authority figures and symbols? Is it because it espouses a mischievous, subversive, rebellious joy?
Satirist Tony Hendra said that ‘satire functions on the gap between reality and fantasy; its dynamic is to reduce pretension and presumption to the tangible and recognisable’. Every society at every time is beset by fantasies of the way the life should be. Sometimes we are told a fantasy about our society being a utopia in the recent past that we have wandered away from, or that the status quo is the best way to live and any problems are imaginary or ignorable. By traversing the gap between reality and fantasy, satire exposes the lie of the fantasy.
Being satirical is not the same thing as being funny but they are related as humour also exists in a gap between two perspectives. Humour creates an expectation and then quashes it. The funniness is in the realisation that the quashed expectation still makes some sort of sense.
“I went to the doctor for shingles. He gave me aluminium siding”.
Satire can not only be humorous and entertaining, but serves a useful social function when it exposes the lies and inequities in our daily life. Again, this is not something religion need worry about. Unless, of course, religion has been lying to us.
Despite the difficulties and bans, some of which are still in place, Life of Brian went on to become a commercial success and is today repeatedly acknowledged as one of the greatest film comedies of all time. The controversy surrounding the release of Life of Brian was certainly not the first instance of a collision between free speech and blasphemy and it certainly was not the last. In years to follow, novelist Salman Rushdie and cartoonist Kurt Westergaard would similarly incur the wrath after tweaking the lion’s tail. The televised debate the Pythons participated in was a historical landmark in this conflict and this film, Holy Flying Circus, pays homage to that event and pokes fun at all sides involved. Perhaps one day, not conceivably in the near future, we can enjoy life without subjection to the superstitious beliefs of others. Only then will we best be able to answer the question: What has Monty Python ever done for us?