It doesn’t matter how far off the wall you take your TV biopic, people will always instinctively compare it with what they know before they do anything else. Writer Tony Roche and director Owen Harris must have known this from the start when planning Holy Flying Circus, a worthwhile but mightily flawed anti-biography that had been all but crushed by the weight of expectation before it was out of the traps. Despite all this, it often got up to a fairly speedy lope.
The performances, as has been noted everywhere, ranged from uncanny to unworldly. Such a large lookalike cast was always going to be hell to gather up, so credit is due to the casting department for hitting the targets as often as they did. The gags varied wildly between straight rip-offs (a slightly dodgy rerun of the Life of Brian spaceship skit) and bits that seemed completely out of place (the interminable puppet battle, which seemed to have fallen off a Spike Jonze movie). In between though, there was a lot to enjoy: Alex McQueen’s cunt dictator, Geoffrey McGivern’s point-missing petitioner, and Michael Cochrane’s flawless try-out for what must surely become a Roche-penned biopic of Saint Mugg.
The visual style often proved a problem. It was, unsurprisingly considering the doubtless tiny budget, filmed like any other BBC4 drama. Stuffed with close-ups to avoid manufacturing too much period background, colours muddied in post-production to sherry advert proportions, pseudo-Gilliam cartoons too slick in some ways, not nearly slick enough in others. There was none of the brightly-lit, live cutaway rhythm of the TV series, nor the wide-angle surrealism of the films.
The decision to “go Python” meant that complaints about fact-fudging were, of course, headed off at the pass. Rather too often, as it happens. The TV series itself never had nearly such a high density of self-reflexive, self-heckling moments. The jibes at BBC4 were squarely in the programme planner-knocking spirit of the original, but the fan-flattering references weren’t. If Python often indulged itself, it rarely celebrated itself so conspicuously. It was the audience that disgraced themselves at live performances, not the Pythons.
Not everything that failed to work was unique to Holy Flying Circus. The zany band of Christian misfits invented to hound the Pythons was, tedious verbal tics aside, straight from the BBC4 light ent dramadoc “Plotify My Research” manual. This is the problem for those criticising the programme’s whole approach. The alternative wouldn’t be a rigorously researched, legally watertight recreation of every single memo, bicker and fart that took place. The alternative would be Hughie Green, Most Sincerely with the words “Hughie Green” crossed out and “Python” written in in crayon. Biopics are bullshit. BBC4 Light Ent biopics are bullshit squared. Ever since that Fanny Craddock one, the aim has never been to provide a rigorous history. Occasionally this results in legal action, mostly it just results in annoyed flicking to Challenge TV.
It’s a moribund sub-genre which nevertheless pulls in the punters in a way not even Brian Cox’s Authorised History of Brilliant Atoms can manage, so it’ll be a long time a-dying. Tony Roche and company deserve, at the very least, an A+ for effort in making something different from what’s left of it. In a time of extreme stylistic retrenchment in TV drama, any kind of experiment, even a failed one, has to be applauded. It could lead to something truly magnificent.
It could also lead to The Not the Nine O’Clock News Story narrated by a giant Oxbridge hedgehog or Absolutely Stoneybridge, but that’s the risk you take. At least it can still be taken.