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Monty Python's battle brought to life

THE two central performances in Holy Flying Circus, writer Tony Roche's surreal comedy-drama fantasia about the furore that greeted release of Monty Python's Life of Brian in 1979, were superb. Holy Flying Circus (BBC4)

Charles Edwards as Michael Palin was more Palin than Palin himself, and perfectly captured the quiet charm, self-deprecating humility and all-round nice guy-ness that caused the other Pythons to sarcastically, but always affectionately, label him The Nicest Man in the World.

Darren Boyd was uncanny as John Cleese -- or rather John Cleese playing a version of himself loosely based on his Basil Fawlty persona, a distinction that was helpfully explained by Boyd/Cleese/Fawlty himself.

The casting for the rest of the Pythons was just as good, even if the script accorded them less depth and time.

Rufus Jones as Terry Jones (pictured) got the high-pitched voice and pronounced speech impediment spot on.

Tom Fisher looked every inch the pipe-smoking Graham Chapman, chipping in with sardonic remarks every now and then. Phil Nichol's Terry Gilliam was suitably manic in a pudding-bowl haircut, while Steve Punt has always looked remarkably like Eric Idle's younger brother anyway. In a nod to the Python tradition of the performers playing several different characters, "Terry Jones" doubled up as Palin's wife.

As for the film itself, it was spectacularly well done. Ingeniously done. Taking its cue from the anarchic Python style and then turning it all the way up to 111, Holy Flying Circus told the story of the group's battle with the religious establishment and its footsoldiers, the small-minded objectors of Middle England, into a wildly irreverent mix that was tremendously inventive.

There were surreal interludes, Gilliam-style cut-up animations, dream sequences and fantasy sequences, including a fight between puppets of Cleese and Palin wielding light sabres. Stephen Fry turned up playing God in a Palin dream to tell him how dangerously censorious, and just plain dangerous, religious extremism would be in the 21st century.

Life of Brian -- outlawed by 30-odd British councils, which had the power to stop a film being shown in cinemas, and banned in a number of countries including, needless to say, Ireland -- was a landmark film that cracked open all sorts of cans of worms about censorship and freedom of speech, about the dangers of religious intolerance, and especially about perceived blasphemy and the difference between lampooning Jesus (which it never did) and lampooning the followers of religion (which it did).

Holy Flying Circus explored all of this, as well as the question of whether a film like Life of Brian (especially if it were about Islam) could even be made today, and had tons of fun doing it. It pushed the kind of boundaries even the Pythons couldn't have got away with pushing back in 1979.

Jesus turned up at the start to tell most of what we were about to see was made-up, "just like the Bible." The B-words, the F-word and the C-word abounded. There were self-referential nods to scenes in Life of Brian, as well as ones to the old Python shows and the battles they faced with the BBC to get their stuff on air.

It was all very clever and yet . . . there was something wrong. I liked Holy Flying Circus a lot, but I didn't love it in the way I loved the real Python. I chuckled and giggled and nodded in recognition, yet I never roared with laughter the way I did at Life of Brian, Holy Grail or the old sketches.

Crucially, it fudged the climax by misrepresenting the famous clash between Cleese and Palin and Malcolm Muggeridge and the ultra-patronising Bishop of Southwark on the chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning (which was screened in its entirety immediately after this).

The firestorm the Pythons walked into with Brian was serious. There were death threats. Holy Flying Circus acknowledged all of this, yet the serious message tended to get buried under all the irreverence, which grew a little wearying.

For all that, it was worth making Holy Flying Circus.

You won't see anything else quite like it.

Holy Flying Circus 3/5