The word ‘Pythonesque’ always sets my alarm bells ringing, being generally applied to writing which substitutes something-a-bit-self-referential for actual jokes. This would seem to be doubly true when it is applied to comedy about Monty Python, as the BBC drama Holy Flying Circus demonstrated last week.
This was ostensibly a dramatization of the controversy surrounding The Life of Brian culminating in the famously bitchy TV debate with Malcolm Muggeridge. But it was actually largely an excuse to indulge in a 90-minute series of sub-Python sketches in which actors playing the Pythons (or at least thin caricatures of them) were put into wince-inducingly self-referential situations and parodies of vaguely recognisable actual Python sketches. There were forays into animation (supposedly the-world-as-seen-through-the-eyes-of-Terry-Gilliam), smug references to the fact that this-was-a-modern-day-drama-with-actors-and-we-know-it! (Cleese telling a newspaper vendor ‘It’s 1979, no one in this country knows anything about Islam!’) and moments of crudity the likes of which Python never stooped to (presumably because it was felt that ‘that’s what they’d do if they were writing now’).
It was obviously an attempt to tell the story in a style that affectionately nodded (and winked) at the source material, the kind of thing that has been far more successfully explored elsewhere – the very fine The Life and Death of Peter Sellers springs to mind. But Peter Sellers’ career is perhaps easier to pastiche because the main stylistic consistency is Peter Sellers himself, and when you have an actor like Geoffrey Rush playing him you can go to town with the possibilities.
Not that there wasn’t a huge amount of talent on display in the Python thing – some of the characters got short shrift (Terry Jones was characterized by an inability to say the letter ‘r’, John Cleese was Basil Fawlty and Gilliam was a one-dimensional manically-staring American) but the cast gave their all to what they’d been given to work with, which in the case of Charles Edwards’ Michael Palin was substantially more.
And left alone to play the scenes, free from surreal interventions, the cast really brought to the drama to life – the debate itself being the key example. Here lay the biggest problem with the drama – the story itself was far more interesting than the script’s desperate attempts to make it interesting, as evidenced by the genuinely compelling TV debate itself which the Beeb kindly broadcast afterwards. And the script was trying really, really hard – something which certainly isn’t Pythonesque because however hard the Pythons worked at their material (and they didn’t always work that hard), it always looked – and looks – effortless.
This script was so willfully surreal and self-referential that at times it came across as a student Monty Python appreciation society revue – well-meaning but horribly heavy-handed. And no, the fact that it even described itself as heavy-handed in one of its sledgehammer moments of self-reference doesn’t make it any less of a flaw.
Here is my obligatory paragraph about why the incidental music didn’t help: the incidental music was the now-obligatory ‘comedy music’ that you will find in every Hollywood light comedy and every mainstream comedy drama. It’s the music that has pizzicato strings and high wind instruments quietly going ‘pom pom pom pom pom pom pootle pom’ in the background in such an unobtrusive manner that it’s actually quite intrusive. Always full of augmented fourths. Which is absolutely fine for Desperate Housewives, but for a drama about Monty Python? Come on!!! Surely you don’t have to be a musician to notice that a drama unsubtly aping a comic form that was never subtle to begin with isn’t served by music that gently pootles away in the background?
It’s not that I don’t admire the attempt, but the drama was ultimately a huge disappointment because of what it could have been. If it had one saving grace it’s that it wasn’t quite such a dreadful ‘affectionate tribute’ as the car crash drama about Graham Chapman that Radio 4 broadcast last year. Now, what was that called? (Lark pauses to google it.)
…oh, well that says it all: Pythonesque.