An Un’Holy’ Version of Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ Controversy

DVD cover of the .”Holy Flying Circus.” ©Acorn Media.


Front Row Features

In 1979, the members of the irreverent Monty Python comedy troupe released their most outrageous and controversial movie, “The Life of Brian.”

Loosely based on the life of Christ—it was ostensibly about another child born in Israel around the same time as Jesus whose name was Brian–the satire stirred outrage in the U.S. and Britain even before it hit theaters. The once-beloved comedians (Brits John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman and one American Terry Gilliam) were taken to task, especially in the British media and at the pulpit, where the comedy was labeled blasphemous.

The controversy reached a head when two of the Pythons, Michael Palin and John Cleese, agreed to discuss their film with an outraged CofE bishop and a staunchly Catholic broadcaster on a BBC talk show. Besides defending their film, the comedians found themselves serving as spokesmen for free speech rights.

“Holy Flying Circus” offers a modestly amusing recreation of events, with lookalike actors portraying the members of comedy troupe (who’d started out on BBC’s “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” a decade earlier).

Broadcast on the Ovation Network in April as part of its ”The Best You’ve Never Seen” premieres, the 99-minute docudrama is written by Oscar-nominated writer Tony Roche (“In the Loop”) and stars Darren Boyd (“Little Dorrit”), Charles Edwards (“The Shell Seekers”), Roy Marsden (“P.D. James” mysteries), Tom Fisher (“The Illusionist”) and Steve Punt, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Eric Idle.  Stephen Fry (“Jeeves & Wooster”) has a small role as God.

“Holy Flying Circus” is available now in a special Blu-ray and DVD package through Acorn Media ( for $34.99. The set contains the TV movie in the two formats. “Holy Flying Circus” is structured in a Python-like style, including Gilliam-inspired interstitials and a Mummenshanz interlude involving the search for the bishop, behind-the-scenes segment on the making of the elaborately constructed phonotrope (also done in the Gilliam style) that opens the film, nine minutes worth of deleted scenes, 19 minutes of outtakes and production stills.

The behind-the-scenes examination of the events leading up to the November 9, 1979 talk show debate includes John Cleese (Boyd) having initial reservations about doing it, while Palin (Edwards), ever the happy adventurer, ready from the get-go. Boyd depicts the tall, lanky actor with a hint of grumpy Basil Fawlty thrown in. He ultimately decides to join Palin in the debate to “exercise free speech in order to defend” it.

The film also shows how the Pythons briefly contemplated the idea of pulling the film after some of them received personal threats. But even with concerns about their safety, they managed to find some levity. As one of them says, “If they wanted to kill anyone, it would be John. He’s the angry one.”

The film culminates with the face off between the two Python members pitted against the angry Anglican bishop and the fervently Catholic talk show host. Using their classic charm and making compelling arguments explaining “Life of Brian” as a work of satire, Cleese and Palin emerge as the victors in the debate. (The George Harrison-produced film was a box office hit and has since become a cult classic.)

Nominated for a BAFTA for Best Single Drama, “Holy Flying Circus” offers an interesting, if not completely fully realized (it’s hard to beat the real Pythons for unpredictable wit and biting sarcasm), version of events from 33 years ago.