Holy Flying Circus (BBC 4)

A smug and cloying homage to Monty Python.

Holy Flying Circus

The Daily Mail believes that you can tell a person's age - even if they've been botoxed to within an inch of their life - by looking at their knees. But there is another way: find out which British comedies they find funny. I'm 42, which means that I think The Goon Show and Monty Python are seriously unfunny and The Two Ronnies (in memory, at least) is hilarious.

A person slightly older than me will adore both the Goons and the Pythons, while someone slightly younger will think that The Two Ronnies is fearful rubbish, especially compared to The Fast Show. A person slightly younger than him, on the other hand, will find Dave Angel and Competitive Dad unfathomable but will adore Peep Show until the day he dies. And so on. Only on the matter of The Young Ones is everyone likely to agree. No one thinks that The Young Ones is funny. Or no one I've ever met.

At least I've seen Monty Python's Flying Circus, even if its punchline-free gags and stream-of-consciousness animations do bore me to sobs. What, I wonder, would someone who has not seen it have made of Holy Flying Circus (19 October, 9pm), Tony Roche's film about the furore surrounding Monty Python's Life of Brian? Would they have been bewildered? Bored? Would they have turned over to Channel 4 in search of Kevin McCloud? Yes, yes and yes. If I was baffled, and yawning, and wondering if I wouldn't rather watch some nutter from Matlock try to build a sedum roof with their bare hands and a budget of £15, then the Lord alone knows how someone ten years younger and without the benefit of their dad's Python DVDs would have felt.

That the whole thing - all 90 minutes of it - was about as amusing as syphilis was just the icing on the cake.

Anyway, to recap: in 1979, the six Pythons (John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman) made a rather controversial film. It was set in Roman-occupied Judaea and told the story of a man, Brian Cohen, who had the misfortune to be born a few stable doors down from Jesus. The most daring part of the film - or the part that most upset Mary Whitehouse - was a crucifixion scene, in which Brian, by now a Judaean freedom fighter, sang the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".

Holy Flying Circus was about the weeks following this film's release and culminated in
a reconstruction of a not-very-exciting debate on the BBC chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning, in which Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark tried to cut Cleese and Palin down to size.

Not an awful lot of plot, then, but this film wasn't about plot. It was about smart-alec nods and winks in the direction of adoring Python fans. So, there were dream sequences, and animated bits and bobs, and some cross-dressing (Rufus Jones, who played Terry Jones, also played Palin's wife, who was Jones in drag). John Cleese was not really John Cleese but Basil Fawlty mostly, I suspect, because the actor playing him (Darren Boyd) was able to do such a marvellous Fawlty impression.

The characters also said things that nodded (hee!) to the future. "I wish I could write a musical comedy," said Idle, the future creator of Spamalot. And Cleese told Palin that he knew a good therapist (Cleese's third wife, Alyce Faye Eichelberger, was a shrink).

On and on it went, the television equivalent of the I-Spy book of Monty Python: it was smug, self-referential, cloying. It ended with Stephen Fry, who played God, telling Palin (Charles
Edwards, an actor who, when his hair is parted the right way, is Palin's doppelgänger) that his taboo-breaking efforts would not stop future generations from freakishly taking offence (and He mentioned The Satanic Verses and Jerry Springer: the Opera). This was when I really took against the film: Fry as God, surrounded by clouds, patronising us, as if we couldn't work out for ourselves that The Life of Brian wouldn't get made today.

As the crazed director of Friday Night, Saturday Morning put it (and what a hostage to fortune to put this line in the script): "Piss on
me through a sieve. Another fantasy sequence. This is lame!

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying