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October 20th, 2011


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11:23 am - Holy Flying Circus
The latest BBC drama about the history of television was Holy Flying Circus, on BBC4 last night. This was about the controversy around the release of Monty Python's Life of Brian. I thought it was very clever and funny, and I loved the way it blurred the distinction between imagination and reality, and the way it managed to represent real people in a totally non-realistic but valid way.

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.

(18 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:altariel
Date:October 20th, 2011 10:42 am (UTC)
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I'm really looking forward to seeing this. My twitter feed was very divided about it last night.
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From:communicator
Date:October 20th, 2011 10:46 am (UTC)
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I have noticed that. I think the preponderance of the Guardian comments were pro, and in opposition to Wollaston. I am increasingly in favour of extreme and non-realistic telly.
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From:nineveh_uk
Date:October 20th, 2011 10:46 am (UTC)
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Watching the 'real' chat show afterwards, I found myself inventing a Malcolm Muggeridge drinking game: one drink for every mention of buffoonery, civilization, incarnation, lampoon, tenth-rate, or Mother Teresa*. Seeing Mervyn Stockwood, the incarnation of smug, treating an obviously very clever John Cleese (when media figures are lauded as clever I am often cynical, but I felt Cleese's genuine intelligence really came across in the "debate") like a stupid child really brought home to me that you don't have to like everything about the Pythons to see that they were a breath of much-needed fresh air against an enormously self-satisfied establisment.

*When the peak of your intellectual argument is "you'll upset Mother Teresa" it really is pathetic.
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From:communicator
Date:October 20th, 2011 10:48 am (UTC)
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I was too tired to watch that debate, but that's how I remember it. I also liked the way the less sophisticated Christians, led by Mark Heap, who seemed at first to be merely obects of fun, turned in the end to be sympathetic. Nicely done. Muggeridge and the Bishop were eviscerated though, and rightly so.
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From:matildabj
Date:October 20th, 2011 10:53 am (UTC)
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I also liked the way the less sophisticated Christians, led by Mark Heap, who seemed at first to be merely obects of fun, turned in the end to be sympathetic

I liked that too - and that at the end they had gone from being closed- to open-minded, which was more interesting (and realistic) than if they'd turned around and said 'we think the film's okay after all'.

Loved your description of the scene in the taxi at the end. The guy playing Palin really was phenomenal.
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From:nineveh_uk
Date:October 20th, 2011 11:00 am (UTC)
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Yes - it was a nice contrast between them, who had thought the film was wrong and might well continue to think that the film was wrong, but who realised that they wanted to listen rather than bully, with the proponents of the bully pulpit.

I did spend a lot of the film trying to work out where I'd seen Mark Heap before though.
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From:matildabj
Date:October 20th, 2011 11:50 am (UTC)
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I love Mark Heap, and that he's so versatile it takes a while to recognise him. When I finally watched Spaced I had to look him up and discovered he was also Dr Alan Statham in Green Wing. I think he's brilliant.
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From:communicator
Date:October 20th, 2011 12:10 pm (UTC)
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One of my icons is Alan Statham having a snog with Boyce
From:emmzzi
Date:October 20th, 2011 03:07 pm (UTC)
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And stressed Eric!
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From:happytune
Date:October 20th, 2011 06:17 pm (UTC)
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Oh yes - love Mark Heap.
From:emmzzi
Date:October 20th, 2011 07:28 pm (UTC)
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is on Iplayer for another week. watching it now. How young Tim Rice looks!
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From:communicator
Date:October 20th, 2011 08:13 pm (UTC)
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Oh thanks emmzzi, it seems strange but I never thought to look.
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From:ninebelow
Date:October 20th, 2011 11:06 am (UTC)
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Sam Wollaston's review in the Guardian this morning was ridiculous. He complains that it was 'too clever'.

Deal Or No Deal is too clever for Sam Wollaston. He is quite the worst thing about the Guardian, everything he writes is devoid of wit and reeks of "will this do?"
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From:communicator
Date:October 20th, 2011 11:09 am (UTC)
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Appeals to some idiot demographic I suppose
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From:fjm
Date:October 20th, 2011 03:24 pm (UTC)
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As I have no tv I had completely missed this. Thanks for the heads up. I've just fiinshed watching it. Great stuff.
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From:communicator
Date:October 20th, 2011 03:51 pm (UTC)
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I wish it was possible for me to say 'we need change at the BBC' without seeming to be playing into the hands of vultures who would strip it all away.
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From:storme
Date:October 21st, 2011 01:09 pm (UTC)
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Seconded - I'm very glad I watched this!
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From:tehomet
Date:November 1st, 2011 07:00 am (UTC)
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It was wonderfully done.

And tbh I had no idea there was so much controversy about The Life of Brian when it was first released (in England, at least. I knew it had been banned here in Ireland, but then it's not unusual for stuff to be banned here). I watched it when I was studying theology in college and thought it was very well-researched in terms of Jewish society at the time of Jesus, actually!

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