For example, John Cleese was portrayed by Darren Boyd pretending to be Basil Fawlty. Now in one way this choice is protective of the real person- viewers realise what they are seeing is not supposed to be the man, it is his persona, so 'John Cleese' in the drama can swear or threaten and nobody thinks the real John Cleese did that. There was a fantasy 'Party Political Broadcast on behalf of John Cleese' half way through where the Basil Fawlty character explained that he was a fictional representation. But let's be honest - we all have a sneaking feeling that Basil Fawlty represents a major part of John Cleese's personality, so it is not as simple as it pretends to be. In a way we are seeing the truth through the fantasy.
Another choice was to represent Michael Palin's wife using the Terry Jones actor got up in ghastly drag, as that oddly sexy-but-disgusting housewife that Jones acts out in some Pythion sketches. This allowed a key real-life character - Palin's wife - to be both present, and yet protected from being represented. Nobody thinks she in any way resembles this figure. In another way this performance illuminates the strange sexual tension that we feel between the Pythons, and I think in particular around Palin, who always seems a sort of magnetic figure (see video link at the end of this post).
The actor who played Palin - Charles Edwards - was phenomenal. Phenomenal. The crux of the show was the strange pivotal moment after Palin and Cleese were ridiculed and attacked by the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge, on a TV chat show.
Here is a Youtube Clip of that debate.
Palin was extremely angry during and after that debate. In this drama he is seen sitting quietly in a taxi. The single shot stays with his face. A long quiet shot, in an otherwise hyper-manic hour and a half. Gradually his face clears and softens, his anger melting away, and the underlying goodness coming through. I actually said to H as we watched - 'They've brought in the real Michael Palin to play this scene. Look it's turned into his real face'. Of course it hadn't. It was just an incredibly subtle and nuanced performance by Charles Edwards, who is a Shakespearean actor. Might be the best physical performance I have seen on British TV for years.
The show was written by Tony Roche, writer on The Thick of It, and I think it was a brilliant and innovative script. It was directed by Owen Harris from Misfits and I think it shows. The most senior TV folks are stupidly conservative about realism and fantasy. Even fantasy is done in a plodding way. They consistently underestimate the capacity of the audience to understand non-realism, to understand exaggeration and playfulness. But there are people in television with fresher and more creative views - and you know I think Misfits is a wonderful example.
Sam Wollaston's review in the Guardian this morning was ridiculous. He complains that it was 'too clever'. It makes a bleedin' change to have something clever on British television. More please BBC.
I also want to link to the fan video Filthy Gorgeous which is about Michael Palin's various Monty Python characters.