Comedic free­dom is not a right

The Herald - Arts - - TV & RADIO - Mark Smith

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.

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