With Monty Python fans still mourning the loss of Neil Innes, they now have to bid adieu to founder member Terry Jones, who has died at the age of 77. To some extent, Jones was the closest the troupe got to a traditional straight man, as he stooged for Eric Idle in ‘Nudge Nudge’, John Cleese in ‘Crunchy Frog’ and Michael Palin in ‘The Spanish Inquisition’. But he was also the funniest of the cross-dressing Pepperpots and beamingly appeared as the naked organist who popped up between sketches in lieu of a punchline.
When the Pythons moved into cinema, Jones was content to let Ian MacNaughton direct And Now for Something Completely Different (1971). But he and American animator Terry Gilliam agreed to share the megaphone on Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), which was rooted in Jones’s love of medieval literature – the same passion that later inspired Erik the Viking (1989) and a number of books and TV programmes.
Despite once throwing a chair at Cleese, Jones was able to hold the egos in check during the making of Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983) and even managed to coax the surviving members into guesting in The Wind in the Willows (1996) and Absolutely Anything (2015). Despite concerns about his fading memory, Jones also rallied to the call when Idle suggested a Python reunion to pay the costs of the Spamalot royalties case, and his genial presence added poignant charm to Monty Python Live (Mostly) (2014).
Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
Having agreed that sharing the directorial chores with Terry Gilliam on Monty Python and the Holy Grail had proved overly problematic, Terry Jones took sole control of a follow-up that Eric Idle had pitched with the title Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory. Shooting in Monastir, Tunisia on sets left by Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977), Jones limited his on-screen presence to focus on his direction. Nevertheless, he still landed the standout line as Brian Cohen’s mother, Mandy: “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy!” Proudly declaring the film heretical, Jones defended it against accusations of blasphemy when it incurred a furious Christian backlash.
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)
Reverting to the sketch format of And Now for Something Completely Different, the last film to feature the six original Pythons once again saw Jones take the helm, while Gilliam worked on the accompanying short, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. Demonstrating his unheralded versatility, Jones handled skits set in an operating theatre, ‘third world’ Yorkshire, the trenches, a public school, colonial Africa, the galaxy and Heaven with equal aplomb. He also stole the show as Mr Creosote, whose gargantuan eating feats culminated in a gut-busting explosion that required gallons of fake vomit to be cleared up in time for the Porchester Hall venue to host a wedding.
Personal Services (1987)
Preceded by a trailer in which Jones apologised for the fact the censor had refused to let him say anything about the scurrilous content of his film, this reworking of the sexploits of Cynthia Payne sent mild ripples through a chattering class inveterately capable of taking offence at the harmless, while turning a blind eye to the genuinely scandalous. Julie Walters was impeccably cast as the waitress who accidentally becomes a Luncheon Voucher Madame. Yet, while there’s plenty of Carry On-style risquéness, Jones and screenwriter David Leland were more interested in following Michael Palin’s lead in A Private Function (1984) by exploring the enduring British genius for embarrassment.
The Wind in the Willows (1996)
Having written such children’s books as The Curse of the Vampire’s Socks (1988) and The Beast with a Thousand Teeth (1993), Jones revisited a personal favourite in this rollicking adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 novel. Tapping into its timeless absurdism and anthropomorphic satire and casting himself as Toad, alongside Eric Idle’s Rat and Steve Coogan’s Mole, Jones takes potshots at fadism, the class system and capitalist recklessness in having the denizen of Toad Hall risk losing his ancestral pile to the scheming weasels from the Wild Woods. Blunderingly released in matinee slots, the picture made little box-office impact. But it looks magnificent and is well worth another look.
Absolutely Anything (2015)
Released as Jones was diagnosed with dementia, his final feature was unfairly mauled by critics mourning the passing of Robin Williams, who voiced Dennis the Dog. The script was inspired by ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’, the H.G. Wells story that Lothar Mendes had filmed in 1936, but it took two decades to reach the screen. Jones and the other surviving Pythons voice the members of the Intergalactic Council that gives unprecedented powers to downtrodden teacher Simon Pegg in the hope he will use them for the greater good. But comic chaos ensues and, while it can rarely be described as subtle, this still brims with surreal irreverence.