Monty Python never did soft and adorable but Terry Jones, who has died at age 77, was the closest the surreal and boundary-breaking troupe came to cuddly. As co-director with Terry Gilliam of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), he was the one who grounded the often zany humour in a mucky verisimilitude. The resulting film was both a lark and also a valentine to British history.
“It wasn’t that we were sending up medieval epics,” Jones would say. “We loved medieval epics.”
Jones had always been the odd man out in Monty Python to a degree. He was as sharp as any of his comrades. Yet he didn’t wear his intellect as a badge of pride or wield it like a duelling pistol. This would eventually lead to tensions with the more swaggeringly witty John Cleese. During one especially fraught writing session on the original Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974), Jones is said to have lost his temper and thrown a chair at Cleese.
It was a rare outburst from a writer, actor and director who seemed to always face the world with a sunny disposition. “The first thing that struck me was what a nice bloke he was,” recalled Michael Palin, who met Jones when they were performing in the Oxford Revue.
“He had no airs and graces. We had a similar idea of what humour could do and where it should go, mainly because we both liked characters; we both appreciated that comedy wasn’t just jokes.”
As Palin had correctly diagnosed, Jones, who was born in Wales and raised in Surrey, possessed a streak of indefatigable decency. It extended to going where the other Python cast members didn’t dare and dressing in drag: “Nobody else,” he said of Python’s female characters, “wanted to do them.”
Jones’s high-pitched creations became as synonymous with Monty Python as Terry Gilliam’s animations and John Cleese’s silly walks. Still, later in life Jones, always thoughtful and reflective, would express regrets over how the series had depicted women and minorities. “The camp jokes seem a bit crude,” he would say. “The portrayal of women is a bit dated. We didn’t give women a lot of insight.”
Without his generosity of spirit Monty Python may never have even come to pass. He and Palin had started writing as a duo before finding work on a kids TV show, Do Not Adjust Your Set.
There they became friends with Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam. One day, Cleese and Graham Chapman rang up and suggested joining forces with Jones and Palin. It would be an alliance between the funniest writers from Cambridge and Oxford. Jones agreed, on the proviso “that our friends Eric and Terry could come along”. Hey presto, Python was born.
Cleese, Idle and Palin in particular were blessed with naturally comic features. They were gangly and rubber-faced. You wanted to laugh at them before they’d even opened their mouths. Jones, however, could pass for an everyman. Perhaps that is why his greatest successes were behind camera. With the Holy Grail, he was able to combine his passion for directing with his burgeoning interest in medieval history (he would later publish a definitive book about Chaucer).
With that movie a success, Idle suggested they tackle the story of Jesus. Jones was agnostic at best but nonetheless resisted what must have been the obvious temptation to churn out a film that openly sneered at belief. Watch Life of Brian (1979) today and it’s his thoughtfulness that distinguishes the film. Life of Brian doesn’t jeer at faith or the idea of a son of god walking among us.
His target – and it’s hard to imagine the historic Jesus objecting – were the frauds cashing in on the public’s credulity. Hence his enduring bafflement that anyone could consider Life of Brian blasphemous.
“The definition of blasphemy has to do with belief,” he said. “[The film] accepts that Christ is the son of God and it accepts that miracles must happen. The film is supporting some of the beliefs which I personally find hard to justify. The mistake is to [consider] an attack on established religion as blasphemy.”
He made those points, in an early 1980s interview, tactfully and without irritation. His gentle touch would carry through to the wonderfully whimsical Erik the Viking (1989) and later to his writing on the medieval world and his second career as presenter of historical documentaries. Jones was as funny as any of the rest of the Pythons. But he was also kindly and profound, which is perhaps why his passing is so deeply felt.