Comedic freedom is not a right
Funny how things turn out. Today's review was going to be about the freedom of comedians to make jokes about anything they like. It was going to be about celebrating the rights of funny people over the rights of religious people. It was going to be silly. Very, very silly. But then I sat down and watched BBC4's Monty Python programmes and something strange happened. It was as if a giant, animated foot had come down and hit me on the head and made me see things differently.
Here's what I used to think. I used to think there was a programme called Friday Night Saturday Morning and that after the release of Monty Python's Life of Brian, John Cleese and Michael Palin went on the show to debate the merits of the film with the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge. Thanks to a few clips that have been shown over the years, I've always thought Palin and Cleese were reasonable and witty and Muggeridge and the Bishop were rather nasty and cheap and intolerant. In other words: the comedians won.
And then I watched the repeat of Friday Night Saturday Morning (Wednesday, BBC4, 10.30pm) and started to realise these assumptions were wrong. Bit by bit, the Bishop who – thanks to those clips – had been a cartoon religious baddy, dribbling venom over his dog collar, turned out to be nothing of the sort. Yes, he made a few comments that, taken out of context, seem intemperate, but watching the entire debate, you can see that this was a man upset by the Python's lampooning of the crucifixion. “It was a shattering thing that happened, the crucifixion,” he said. “And this morning I broke the bread, this is my body, and I took the cup, this is my blood, and I didn't roar with laughter at the altar. I just fell down and worshipped.”
No-one ever shows that bit of the debate but it was moving to hear the Bishop speak in those terms. None of it gives Bishops the right to ban jokes about Jesus, but it does affect the right of the comedians to make those jokes. So profound is the conviction and faith of Christians that there should be an assumption against jokes about them. There should be a special responsibility. Total comedic freedom is not a right.
The fact that the selective editing of the Bishop's words has twisted this story over the years has made me a little angry I think; angry about editing but also how we used to have television debates that lasted 30 minutes but now we only have time for a 30-second soundbites that reduce people to cartoons.
This impression was only made worse by Holy Flying Circus (BBC4, Wednesday, 9pm) the docu-comedy about the build-up to the Friday Night Saturday Morning debate which sought to tell the story in the style of Python. There were some nice surreal giggles – especially the easily embarrassed BBC head of rude words – but by the time it got to the actors impersonating the Friday Night Saturday Morning debate, the point was squeaking alarmingly from too much stretching. Why not just watch the debate itself? And why lampoon lampoonery? Why satirise satire?
When the original is so groundbreaking and creative, you're always going to come off worst. You're always going to look just a little bit silly.
Docu-drama Holy Flying Circus goes too far in satirising satire.