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Holy Flying Circus: Making a drama of Monty Python

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Rufus Jones Rufus Jones | 10:45 UK time, Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Hello. My name's Rufus Jones. I play Terry Jones in BBC Four's Holy Flying Circus.

I also play Terry Jones playing Michael Palin's wife, because it's that kind of show, and I'm that kind of guy.

My first memory of Monty Python? I think I was eight years old, my Dad had bought our first VHS player and he had decided to commemorate this with a night of Python.

Unfortunately, he rented The Meaning of Life.

I think he was expecting the silly whimsy of the Fish Slapping Dance - instead he sat there with a panicked grin while his eight-year-old son watched Graham Chapman being chased off a cliff by topless female rollerskaters in G strings.

I spent my early years thinking Monty Python was basically porn. Parrots, Piranha Brothers and Prophets came later.

Terry Gilliam (Phil Nichol), Graham Chapman (Tom Fisher) , Michael Palin (Charles Edwards) , John Cleese (Darren Boyd) , Terry Jones (Rufus Jones), Eric Idle (Steve Punt)

The cast, left to right: Terry Gilliam (Phil Nichol), Graham Chapman (Tom Fisher), Michael Palin (Charles Edwards), John Cleese (Darren Boyd), Terry Jones (Rufus Jones), Eric Idle (Steve Punt)

Holy Flying Circus is hard to describe.

I think the phrase we've gone for is 'a re-imagining', which only really sounds right if you say it in a Californian accent.

The problem with most re-imaginings is that they frequently end up as de-imaginings, disappointing dilutions of the source material.

But I think Holy Flying Circus avoids this, and most of that is down to writer Tony Roche.

The script was really why we all signed up to do it. It had to be good.

If it wasn't, being asked to play some of the greatest comedians in history wouldn't be so much of a holy grail as a poisoned chalice.

But Tony had written something that was so funny you'd find yourself standing up and applauding as you read it alone in your bedroom.

As an actor, one constantly runs the risk of sounding like an enormous tool when saying things like that, but it really was completely exceptional.

Tony wasn't competing with Python or trying to ape their style - the laughs are more contemporary than Pythonesque.

There are some homages to famous Python sketches, but they're brief.

The script also tackles censorship and blasphemy with an intelligence that was quite thrilling to be a part of.

Steve Punt as Eric Idle is perfect casting in so many ways, not least because Brian was Monty Python's very own Mary Whitehouse Experience.

Basically, Holy Flying Circus is as slavishly faithful to the Python story as Life Of Brian was to 1st Century Galilee.

In other words, it's a mixture of outrageous liberties and surprising truths.

Eric Idle (Steve Punt), Terry Gilliam (Phil Nichol), Michael Palin (Charles Edwards) , Graham Chapman (Tom Fisher) , John Cleese (Darren Boyd) , Terry Jones (Rufus Jones)

The cast don wigs and moustaches and get into character for Holy Flying Circus

The way TV works means that the first time the six of us were all together in wigs, costumes and in character, it was the first day of filming.

You hit the ground running, and as a result the first couple of days' shooting hummed with a certain low-level terror.

There'd be a lot of staring into space, trying to focus, with the occasional supportive comment like:

- Nice moustache.

- Cheers. (Pause.) Good grip on the pipe. Very, you know, 'Graham'.

- Thanks.

Mistakes would occur. I'd try and summon up Terry's voice and something unpardonably Pakistani would come out.

But then you relax, the impressions begin to run themselves and you concentrate on the script.

I don't often corpse, but there were occasions.

Jason Thorpe - who plays BBC exec Alan Dick and Tourette sufferer Desmond Lovely - is a mesmerically gormless young man.

And there was a take where Darren Boyd (John Cleese) unleashed without warning a fierce burst of Gumby that just floored the room.

All the Pythons in Holy Flying Circus are somewhat heightened.

In 1979, they'd just returned from the US when the Brian controversy began, so we gave Terry a look that was part Saturday Night Fever, part Welsh scrum half Gareth Edwards.

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Michael Palin talks to Jones The Wife about his concerns about the release of Life Of Brian.

But half my time in Holy Flying Circus is spent playing Michael Palin's wife.

Looking over old Python, Terry had a lot of wonderful women in his back pocket, so to speak.

There were the Pepperpots and of course Brian's mum. But he also had a softer version - there's a Finishing Sentences sketch from Flying Circus series four that I took my cue from.

I suppose the challenge with Jones The Wife was to try and create something sweet, something truthful, then stick some fake boobs on it and see if the audience still bought it.

It's a bit of a high wire act.

Acting for days on end in women's clothing is strange - you forget you're wearing it and wonder why passers-by are pointing at you.

Only once did it become difficult: The day I had to wear high heels, and spent hours stumbling around like a transvestite baby giraffe.

Holy Flying Circus was a unique experience.

There was the job of not only playing legendary comedians, but the thrill of performing with a cast full of modern comic heroes - Stephen Fry, Mark Heap, Simon Greenall.

You'd look down the shooting schedule sometimes and it would read like a family tree of British comedy.

We all had a great time making it and hope you like it.

To be honest, I haven't even seen it yet. It may be balls.

In which case - and I think I've made this perfectly clear - the script was rubbish to begin with.

Rufus Jones plays Terry Jones in Holy Flying Circus.

Holy Flying Circus is on BBC Four and BBC HD on Wednesday, 19 October at 9pm.

Rufus will be voicing Nelson for the second series of Mongrels in November.

Find out more about the animation used in Holy Flying Circus on the BBC Comedy Blog.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    So another drama on the BBC about people who were once on the BBC?

    Well at least it means I get to look forward to a drama sometime time in the future where people on the BBC play people who themselves played people who were once on the BBC, playing people who were on the BBC before them. Or something similarly incestuous, boring and pointless.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Comment number 2.

    hemlockrogue: Thanks so much for your post. What would happen to the internet without people like you to clutter comments areas up with trite, inane, life-force sucking complaints about nothing?

    Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing it.

  • Comment number 3.


    biographies have been a part of entertainment and drama for decades - famous people can be interesting you know! We have dramas and comedies about presidents, Prime Ministers, sportsmen, artists and musicians. So we also have dramas and comedies about actors and comedians. Just because they spent some of their lives at the BBC doesn't make it odd.

  • Comment number 4.


    Sorry for the slow response, I was busy watching the live Champions League football on ITV.

    Well I'm glad someone is looking forward to watching this program. For a moment there I was beginning to think the BBC were slightly out of touch with the license fee payers. I'd hate to think of all that money being pissed up the wall producing instantly forgettable drama based on regurgitating the history of the Beeb and no one liking it at all.

  • Comment number 5.

    If the original comedians were any good, then they surely would have been on the BBC? And they were, so that's all right then. And let's face it, ITV were never going to make a programme about a famous BBC programme were they? So I see nothing wrong with people who were so good, and rightly now famous, having been showcased on the BBC, as they should rightly have been, now being rightly celebrated by the most appropriate channel to celebrate them, i.e. the BBC. Or something like that. I'm going to stop it now, because it's silly.

  • Comment number 6.

    Dear hemlockrogue,

    Please watch the programme and enjoy it - I am far better than watching over payed prima donna's kicking a ball about - long live Python humour

  • Comment number 7.

    That's the best thing about Python humour. Some people, hemlockrogue, simply just don't get it.

    As if I don't need to remind you that diligent taxpayers come from all sorts of backgrounds; personally, I'm rather glad that the BBC is pumping funds into an intelligent programme on the Pythons, rather than 'pissing it up the wall' with the football drama queens.

    And anyway, all this argument and abuse reminds me quite fondly of this (hemlockrogue, please take note!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=teMlv3ripSM

  • Comment number 8.

    Watching it now! Glued to my seat- otherwise I'd have got up and switched it over.

  • Comment number 9.

    Monty Python's contribution to comedy matched the Beatles contribution to music.
    Often imitated never equalled. The parrot is resting!!!

  • Comment number 10.

    Good to see that hemlockrogue had already made up his mind about the programme before he had seen it, just like Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark had about Life of Brian.

  • Comment number 11.

    short sentences

    no paragraphs

    suits my

    short attention sp


  • Comment number 12.

    Brilliant just brilliant, some suprises on the way but very funny, can we have more please.

  • Comment number 13.

    thought it was a great piece of BBC work.
    Not the biggest fan of the TV tax that we are forced to pay, but every so often & less frequently than it used to, the BBC makes something brilliant...


  • Comment number 14.

    A bit like the original Python series and The Curate's Egg - better in some parts than others. It did have me laughing out loud in places though. How did it slip by the BBC "comedy" commissioners, whose job these days seems to be to commission "comedy" which isn't funny at all .... ?

  • Comment number 15.

    This was good. What amazing casting!
    I always thought Steve Punt looked like a young Eric Idle. Slightly unfortunate that finally he gets the chance to play him when he's probably twice as old as Eric was in Python.

  • Comment number 16.

    Life of Brian is one of Python's most successful pieces IMHO. That is because it was one of the most incisive and effective satires ever. Well worth both celebrating and analysing - tasks which this piece did take on while retaining its humour. When I wached Python's original TV series I was challenged. This was not as challenging, and probably the better for it as a one off, but it had a little of that out-of-comfort-zone feeling.

    A new approach then and one that worked in my opinion. Well done writers - and performers for bringing it to life.

  • Comment number 17.

    Not exactly Wallander was it?
    Simply repeating old Flying Circus episodes would have excited fans more.

  • Comment number 18.

    Wow. To think we get stuff like this instead of another couple of seasons of full, high-quality F1 coverage....

    Aren't we lucky?

  • Comment number 19.

    Superb job, thank you. But nearly didn't see it - the title? And BBC4! What's that all about?

  • Comment number 20.

    Darn, sorry I missed it. With most of the 'terrestrial' channels either showing hour after hour of soul destroying 'talent' shows or tedious football, this would have been something to look forward to. Thank goodness for iplayer.

  • Comment number 21.

    Thanks for your thoughts, everyone. Quite a ding dong. As Arfa points out above, One of the many glorious quirks of the Life Of Brian controversy was that people were in uproar about it before it was actually released, and it's exciting to see this reflected here. Well, not quite an uproar. An upmeow, maybe.

    But as the sinisterly-named Hemlockrogue points out, Holy Flying Circus is another BBC show about a BBC show, and I can understand why he/she thought this might just be navelgazing, self-regarding nonsense. But I'd encourage you to have a look. I think it's fair to say the BBC are lampooned as gleefully as the Church. From idiot producer Brian Dick to the famously coke-snorting, dance music obsessive head of BBC4, Richard Klein. This wasn't so much back-slapping as arse-kicking. I'd go so far as to say that if you're angry at the BBC lazily programming shows such as Holy Flying circus, well, Holy Flying Circus may be for you.

    That said, the Chelsea match sounded like a cracker.

    InMyHO, I think that "out-of-comfort-zone" feeling is exactly what we were going for. It would be very hard now to recreate the levels of rank confusion, anger and hilarity that Monty Python did in 1969, but hopefully the show confounded a few expectations about what a biopic should look like.

    Thanks again for participating, one and all. Whether it made your evening or not, I like to think Holy Flying Circus reminds us that the BBC still retains that very British and Pythonesque characteristic of being able to laugh at itself.

  • Comment number 22.

    This was simply brilliant from start to finish. The show struck a fine balance between enlightened comedy and sharp satire, without being patronising or smug. Excellent casting, a wonderful script. I loved it and so did my wife... To hell with the nay-sayers and the idiots who prefer football or F1. No one forced you to watch it! Following the show with the actual debate with Muggeridge and the Awful Southwark was another stroke of genius. Well done BBC and everyone involved.

  • Comment number 23.

    Excellent stuff, but I too had to rely on iPlayer. Apart from a few mentions of this a couple of weeks ago, I'd not seen any trailers for it on the beeb. Cost yourself some viewers there I think auntie!

    Can I end with a plea to reshow the original Friday Night Saturday Morning episode - pretty please. You can put it on BBC 3 at 4 in the morning if you like so as not to upset hemlockrogue, but just make sure you let us all know first.

  • Comment number 24.

    I'll retract that second paragraph - I've just found it iPlayer! Thanks.

  • Comment number 25.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 26.

    This show was absolutely brilliant. I loved watching Python as kid back when it was originally broadcast and this "re-imagining" was just perfect. Particularly liked the samurai/lightsabre duel. Well done to all involved.

  • Comment number 27.

    I find it beautifully ironic that the people moaning most about HFC are the ones who haven't actually seen it.

    To be completely honest, I almost wasn't going to watch it myself until I read this, because I'd heard John hadn't been involved although he'd offered to be and Michael hadn't wanted anything to do with it and it sort of gave me cold feet... but I'm glad I did. It was magnificent. My housemate walked in the door fifteen minutes in (and that isn't even a topical joke, she genuinely did) and I yelled at her to come in and sit down immediately because it had already completely captivated me and I desperately needed to share it.

    It was, as I explained to an American friend, like a cross between the most brilliant piece of fan fiction (which I think really is exactly what it was) and what I would imagine you'd get if you'd sat the Pythons down and made them affectionately scribble take-offs of each other on beermats. I've seen it criticised as "a caricature" but that's exactly what made it so great - quite aside from the exceptional portrayals from all of the cast - it was almost The Pythons as you'd explain them to someone who was unfamiliar with them. Or perhaps the perception of the Pythons the person you'd just tried to explain them to would get once they'd unpicked all the fanboying?

    For those of us without sticks in uncomfortable places, and it would seem most of us live happily on Twitter, HFC was worth every penny the BBC rips from our sweaty little palms. In fact, I've seen it four times, now (three of those in a little over twenty-four hours) so I should probably send in a few more quid.

    My only regret is that there's probably not much room for any kind of sequel in the same vein.

  • Comment number 28.

    really enjoyed it, with or without the parody of the Python characters its been the funniest thing I've seen since the first season of Mongrels.
    Sharp and well paced, at times I thought a little too reverential to Python in accuracy (spaceship aliens - that's racist), but when you have such a huge body of work to draw from, who could resist.
    Thank you for NOT including Rob Brydon and for typecasting Stephen Fry forever.

  • Comment number 29.

    I loved the show, greatly entertaining. Some really innovative pieces in there and great performances. It was enthralling, the animations were the best I've ever seen. The show managed to hit the right note between reverential and refreshing. Can't wait for the DVD release.

  • Comment number 30.

    Thank goodness I stayed up to rewatch Life of Brian last night or I would have totally miss this gem. Freaky casting, esp the fact that rufus jones look even more like Terry as a woman?! Surreal, hilarious and subject matter still relevant.Totally captured the flying circus feel in parts. Magic.

  • Comment number 31.

    Well I enjoyed the programme and Rufus - you were very good! Nudge, Nudge, know what I mean?

    Well done all involved.

  • Comment number 32.

    This was either the funniest program I have seen for a very long time , or I need to have my prostate checked.

  • Comment number 33.

    Holy Flying Circus has to be one of the funniest shows we have seen on tv. How they found the cast is astonishing, especially for the characters of John Cleese and Michael Palin. It was hilarious, thank you for making this and entertaining us. Definitely going to buy the DVD.


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