Terry Jones: Python and Renaissance man

He was a wit, a scholar and incredibly funny. RIP.

Tim Dawson

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‘And, finally, monsieur – a wafer-thin mint.’

‘Mr Creosote’ is probably my favourite Monty Python sketch. Nobody who has seen it will easily forget it: Terry Jones, the gigantically fat man, wedged into a chair in the middle of a restaurant. John Cleese, the supercilious waiter, with an outrageous Frrrrrench accent. And the final image, Mr Creosote, having exploded in a volcano of cartoon vomit and gore, sitting, glumly, his heart still beating in his cavernous chest cavity. It’s grotesque, disturbing, shocking – and hilarious. It was Terry Jones, who also directed it, at his best. Indeed, it was the Pythons at their best.

Jones died yesterday, aged 77.

Terence Graham Parry Jones was born on 1 February 1942. His early years were spent being doted on by his mother and grandmother. He didn’t meet his father, who had been based in India with the postal service, until he was four and a half. Close to his mother, his relationship with his strict father was a distant and strained one.

A lover of history since boyhood, Jones didn’t fully blossom, either academically or socially, until he went to Oxford. It was there he met Michael Palin. ‘Mike and I just wanted to be loved’, Jones later reflected. And loved they were.

Monty Python – the comedy group they formed along with John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman – went on to make Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74) for the BBC, and a string of films, many of them directed by Jones.

Much has been written about how these smart, anarchic, charismatic, eternal graduates changed comedy forever. But among Jones’ TV credits there is also Do Not Adjust Your TV Set (1967-69), the precursor to Python. And The Frost Report (1966-67). And, of course, Ripping Yarns (1976-79), a lavish, witty parody of Boys’ Own romps. All starring and / or featuring writing by Jones, and all are worth rediscovering.

While the other Pythons drifted in and out of each other’s orbits, Palin and Jones – the ‘gentle Pythons’ (though Jones’ private life was more unusual than his avuncular, donnish countenance implied) – remained firm friends. As Jones grappled with illness in the last decade of his life, including cancer and the cruel dementia which diminished him in his final years, Palin regularly visited him. Jones continued to laugh, Palin would note, even when the dementia had largely taken his power of speech – though, by the end, the laughs were mostly prompted by his own jokes.

Which seems fair enough. He gave us a lifetime of great jokes – visual and verbal, silly and satirical. But there was more to this multifaceted Renaissance man than that. Some of his writing, such as his works on Chaucer, was deadly serious. His Emmy-nominated series, Medieval Lives (2004), effortlessly blended wit and scholarship to enthuse a new generation of fans with his love of history. His forays into opera were skillful and fun.

But, first and foremost, Jones will be remembered as a Python, with his directorial tour de force, Life of Brian (1979), the pinnacle of his achievements. At the time, the film – which told the story of a man, born on the same day, and next door to, Jesus Christ, who finds himself mistaken for the Messiah – won plenty of plaudits, but also plenty of opprobrium, particularly from the Christian right. Thirty-nine local authorities refused to screen it. Those cinemas that did were picketed by evangelical groups.

The images of crucifixion, in particular, were considered exciting and groundbreaking, or sacrilegious and beyond the pale, depending on your viewpoint. The scandal came to a head in a TV debate – still worth watching – in which Palin and Cleese effortlessly deconstructed Catholic journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood.

‘There is a temptation when someone like Terry Jones dies to elevate them to Godlike status’, comedian and Jones admirer Simon Evans tells me. ‘In Terry’s case, this would be, to say the least, ironic. He directed a movie in the 1970s that explicitly cautioned against this kind of thing. It also turned out to be almost certainly the funniest film ever made, however, and on this occasion, it is tempting to give into one’s most generous impulses. He wasn’t the Messiah. He was a very naughty boy. But, by God, he was funny.’

Farewell, Terry Jones. He’s with Brian now.

Tim Dawson is a writer and journalist. Follow him on twitter @Tim_R_Dawson.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Comments

Manuel He’s from Barcelona

25th January 2020 at 12:15 pm

Without question the Python member flying under the radar to the general public yet perhaps the most brilliant. In re the YouTube accessible debate on the Life of Brian I would challenge your statement that Jones and Cleese deconstructed their opponents .. To be fair it was somewhat of a draw.
Requiescat In Pace good sir.

Willie Penwright

23rd January 2020 at 9:29 pm

“What did the English ever do for us?”
“Football?”
“Well of course there’s the football but what did the English ever do for us?”
“The English language.”
“Apart from the football and the English language, what did the English ever do for us”
“The sense of humour?”
Sorely missed Terry.

Allister Burdett

23rd January 2020 at 7:43 pm

Jonesey eunt domus

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

30th January 2020 at 12:42 pm

Et qui non inventus est in libro vitae scriptus, missus est in stagnum ignis

Apocalypsis 20:15

Jane 70

23rd January 2020 at 7:32 pm

He was my favourite Python: Mr Creosote and the naked organist! What a very funny man he was.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

23rd January 2020 at 7:31 pm

Monty Python appealed to a certain nihilistic sensibility. They were occasionally funny but oozed Oxbridge smug.

Weyland Smith

24th January 2020 at 9:57 am

Whereas you gush spite

T Zazoo

27th January 2020 at 12:49 am

Sorry Zen, can’t quite follow your banter. Can you say it again slowly?

Eric Praline

23rd January 2020 at 5:18 pm

RIP Terry. I didn’t expect that.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

30th January 2020 at 12:43 pm

You think people don’t die?

Phil Ford

23rd January 2020 at 4:30 pm

Just thinking about ‘Life of Brian’ makes me smile. A glorious parade of perfectly written and performed sketches made somehow consistent by fantastic art direction and setting. Python’s best moment, for me.

Eric Praline

23rd January 2020 at 5:21 pm

I think in that film they managed to transcend the sketch format to produce a proper narrative.

Gus Powell

23rd January 2020 at 4:23 pm

They foresaw defending Reg’s right to have babies by 40 years.

Eric Praline

23rd January 2020 at 5:20 pm

Indeed they did, but imagine how many breakdowns they would have brought about in the woke set. Jones dressing up for starters.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

23rd January 2020 at 7:28 pm

‘The woke set’ lol. Do you really believe that crap?

Weyland Smith

24th January 2020 at 10:01 am

@Zenobia Palmyra
‘Shows like Monty Python that feature “six Oxbridge white blokes” would not be commissioned by the BBC today, the corporation’s head of comedy has admitted.’
https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/too-white-and-oxbridge-bbc-would-shun-monty-python-and-goodies-today-wwqtjh5rx

‘ … the national broadcaster is now looking for more diversity’
– instead of comedy.

Eric Praline

24th January 2020 at 4:12 pm

@ZENOBIA PALMYRA – do you honestly think that Python would get commissioned nowadays?

Michael Lynch

23rd January 2020 at 4:19 pm

A sad loss. I remember telling my Dad, an Irish Catholic, that I intended to go and see ‘Life of Brian’ at the cinema when it was first released. He never forbade me, but warned against it given that the Church was up in arms about it at the time. Of course, he was brimming with curiosity when I returned home and wanted to know what it was all about. I merely said it was brilliantly funny and that it was essentially all about a false prophet, that it never even mentioned Jesus, and that it took the piss out of all religion and that it also poked fun at the Romans, the Jewish rebels and the political situation of the time. Years later I got it out on video and we watched it together. He laughed as loud as I did and he couldn’t understand what all the fuss had been about. Mind you, he always had a pragmatic attitude toward his own faith. This was the essence of Python; that it was proper order to make fun of anyone who wanted to dress up in funny clothes or uniforms and tell people how to behave. Sadly, the current generation seem to have completely missed the point about freedom of expression and the need to laugh at oneself in addition to laughing at others. I for one, will be eternally grateful for growing up in the age of Python. RIP, Terry, and thank you.

Filbert Flange

23rd January 2020 at 3:28 pm

So much of my personality can aptly be described as the “house that Jones built”. As I am dragged kicking and screaming into my 6th decade I dread the procession of death to come, as all my heroes slip the surly bonds…

Farewell indeed Mr Jones. Farewell.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

23rd January 2020 at 7:27 pm

You fear death because you have no faith in Christ.

Jim Lawrie

24th January 2020 at 10:16 am

I’d fear death if I thought there was any chance of meeting you at the end of it.

Dodgy Geezer

23rd January 2020 at 3:23 pm

ANYONE who was educated during the 1950s-1960s is a Renaissance Man compared to someone who has received a ‘modern’ education….

Jim Lawrie

23rd January 2020 at 4:41 pm

Even in the State sector there were still outposts of decent education. All but 3 of my school years were under the auspices of priests, brother and nuns. Even the dunderheads picked up 6 or 7 C’s at “O” Grade and left with an education.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

30th January 2020 at 12:45 pm

If you were educated by ‘priests’ and nuns, you would have been subject to all kinds of false teaching regarding the Christian religion. We Protestants have been fighting Romanist distortions for centuries and will continue to fight. Roman Catholicism is a counterfeit form of Christianity. You weren’t educated, you were indoctrinated.

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