I had originally intended to move through the solo Pythons in strict alphabetical order, just as they are listed in the credits of their TV episodes and movies (always reading “Monty Python’s [Insert Project Title] was conceived, written, and performed by…”), but I was bursting with so many things to say about TERRY JONES, I leap-frogged right to him.
A great ensemble means that no one member is more or less important than any other, but I really do feel that it’s Jones who makes Python Python. He was an early champion of the idea of moving the TV episodes along through a “stream of consciousness,” not allowing conventional sketch-show structure to dictate how the thirty minutes of TV comedy unfolded. This concept was greatly aided by the animations of Terry Gilliam (we’ll be getting to him next), and Jones and Gilliam can be credited with contributing the most to Monty Python’s Flying Circus’s unique look.
The look…that’s actually what first hooked me when I saw my first episode as a middle-schooler on “late night” PBS. Like absolutely nothing on American TV at the time…A surreal visual appeal that augmented and fed into all the absurdity. Much of it was due to how BBC programs shot things in those days — everything in the studio was done on videotape, and everything outside the studio was done on film.
And “outside the studio” could be anywhere. It was sometimes simply the residential west London streets just outside BBC Television Centre, but they frequently trotted off to the coolest-looking spots in the British Isles — windswept highlands and rugged coasts — to get their filmed segments. Jones more than anyone favored and pushed for this policy. (It became a running inside joke among the Pythons that all of the sketches Jones wrote opened with “Slow pan across Yorkshire moor…mist swirls, music plays…a lone figure emerges…”) Filming these parts of each episode outside the confines of the studio was where Jones first began making his mark. He admitted to constantly pestering the credited director, Ian MacNaughton. “I was always saying, ‘Shouldn’t we put the camera over there, Ian?’” He also cops to backseat driver-ing the editing process, succeeding in getting the editors to put in a full workday on an episode, rather than the couple of hours they were used to. Getting a clock-watching BBC technical crew to listen to his dictates proves his reputation for being willful and tenacious (he credits it to his Welsh blood) was well-earned, and it’s why Python’s TV show looked far better than anyone else’s at the time.
Jones wrote most of his Python material in collaboration with Michael Palin, and their stuff tended to be longer, more conceptual, and more visual than the Cleese/Chapman sketches, which were more traditional and verbal. (It was the blend, of course, that made Python great.) In many ways, the raw, earthy Jones existed at the opposite end of the comedy spectrum from the coolly cerebral Cleese, which led to many spirited “discussions” at Python writing meetings. “I only threw a chair at John once,” Jones has said.
From a performance standpoint, Jones was the utility player. He was a great straight man when the situation called for it (“Nudge, Nudge”), and was often the put-upon Everyman, the straight-laced “city gent,” or his true specialty — the screeching, middle-aged ratbag housewife the Pythons called a “Pepperpot.” All of the Pythons played Pepperpots at one point or another, but Jones perfected them.
When the Pythons branched into film, it was only natural that the two “visual” Pythons, Jones and Gilliam, co-direct Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Gilliam found that trying to direct five mouthy, prickly, opinionated teammates full of their own ideas was more than his patience could bear, and the two subsequent Python films, The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life were directed — quite happily — by Jones solo. And either through his own inclinations, or because the rest of the Pythons just thought it was funny, Jones managed to be nude on-camera a lot more than the others (including his iconic Nude Organist, which opened every third-season episode).
In all areas, Jones was absolutely essential to Monty Python as we know it. He was the glue, the heart. Yet he remains less well-known than all of the others, especially here in the U.S. (Sharing a name with a batshit-crazy fundamentalist preacher who made the news a few years back probably doesn’t help.) It all seemed so unfair that it caused me to create the very first Terry Jones fan website in 1996, on good ol’ GeoCities.
BEST PROJECT: Who Murdered Chaucer?: A Medieval Mystery
Published by Methuen Books, 2003.
Like Chapman spurning medicine for comedy after his university days, Jones also turned his back on his English literature degree from Oxford — temporarily. Spending his student days steeped to the eyeballs in medieval writings led to a lifelong fascination with Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, written in the 1380s. During the Python days and shortly thereafter, he spent many evenings “moonlighting” at the British Museum on a pet project: his theory that the Knight in Canterbury Tales was not, in fact, the paragon of chivalry and honor that he is generally taken to be. Jones feels that Chaucer was writing with deep irony, and was poking fun at the very idea of a chivalric code being upheld by what were essentially professional thugs. He approached the material not only as a scholar, but as a satirist and comedian, which was a perspective that had never been used before. The resulting book, Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary (1980), was, as Jones puts it, “just explaining a lot of 600-year-old jokes,” but it did cause a bit of a stir among Chaucer experts, most of whom disagreed with it, and put Jones on the map as a true historian and not just a rather silly comic actor. The book itself is now out of print, difficult to find, and not the most engaging read.
A much more accessible and available effort on Jones’ pet topic is Who Murdered Chaucer?. Geoffrey Chaucer, who was not just an author but a noteworthy political figure of his time, vanished from history around 1400. There is no record of what became of him. Jones examines scraps of evidence that ties his disappearance to the deposing of King Richard II in 1399. Rather than dealing with just a few lines of Chaucer’s writing as he did in his first history book, Jones takes a panoramic look at the entire social, economic, and government fabric of England at the turn of the 15th century. With little or no source material to work from, Jones theorizes, extrapolates, and speculates how Chaucer could have met an unfortunate end for political reasons. And he’s always clear that he is merely speculating, and does not try to pass off opinion or theories as historical fact (which he’s been accused of doing in his documentaries, see below.) Lavishly illustrated with art and tapestries from the era, Jones’ book lays out a case, courtroom prosecutor-style, in clear, precise, and witty prose that shows he’s come quite a ways as a historical writer since Chaucer’s Knight, and allows the reader to come to their own verdict. Who Murdered Chaucer? is a must-read for anyone with an interest in medieval history. (That’s most of you, right?)
WORST PROJECT: The Wind In The Willows
Released by Allied Filmmakers, 1996.
By no means a disaster, this was just a well-intentioned misfire. The Kenneth Grahame 1908 classic of children’s literature has been adapted numerous times, mostly via animation (the main characters are talking animals, after all.) There is also a lengthy stage history, from elaborate Broadway musicals to afternoon pantomimes put on in local community halls. Jones, as screenwriter/director, opts for a sort of filmed pantomime approach. (Which has nothing to do with silent “mime.” Pantomimes are an old English tradition — musical stage comedies usually based on well-known stories put on for family audiences.) There are no elaborate animal costumes, Henson-style puppet wizardry, or animation/CG assists. A bit of green greasepaint turns Jones into Mr. Toad. A set of whiskers and a long tail pinned to the seat of his trousers turns Eric Idle into Ratty. That’s it and that’s all. And with that, Jones has lost about 90% of his intended audience. The Wind In The Willows was so old-fashioned and so far out of step with most family movies of the modern era, audiences stayed away in droves. Not helping matters was the fact that the film’s U.S. theatrical distributor, Sony Columbia, got in a pissing match with its home video distributor, Walt Disney Pictures, and deliberately sabotaged its American release, putting it in a mere seven theaters and doing no promotion or marketing. Like most kid movies, the film was destined to do more business on home video anyway, so why help a competing studio? The film died a quiet death. A few good reviews in a handful of newspapers praising it as charming family entertainment were too little and too late. It couldn’t even be said to have bombed, because people notice bombs.
Looking at it now, how does it stand up on its own merits? As a children’s film, it may appeal to an audience of about age 9 or below if they’re accustomed to the pace of Playhouse Disney-type material. Anyone older than that, and the average Pixar-addled attention span would never hold up. And really, Pixar and its ilk have spoiled adult audiences, too, who now expect kids’ films to work on a second, pop-culture savvy level for adults. There’s none of that here. I suppose adults can enjoy the pleasure of a good cast performing gamely, and seeing a partial Python reunion (Jones and Idle have leading roles, Michael Palin cameos as the talking Sun, and John Cleese has the film’s highlight in a small part as Mr. Toad’s lawyer.) The film is well-shot with an autumnal glow, and it has a brief running time, despite being padded out by a number of unmemorable songs.
There’s not all that much wrong with The Wind In The Willows, and if it sounds like I’m turning a sweet-natured film’s old-fashioned virtues into flaws, I’m not. “Worst Project” is a very relative term, and process of elimination is what led me to discredit this harmless little film in such a resoundingly cruel way. This is simply a children’s film that most children would find off-putting, and is not really substantial enough nor funny enough to be re-discovered as a “lost classic” by adult audiences. I feel a little Ratty myself for saying so.
Should you want to check it out, Walt Disney put it on home video under the title Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to tie it in with their theme park ride (itself out-of-date and not terribly popular with the kids these days.) And for over four years now, it can also be found in its entirety on YouTube, which goes to show even Disney doesn’t give much of a shit about it.
SHOULD PROBABLY AVOID: Douglas Adams’ Starship Titanic (1998). As an interactive graphic sci-fi computer game designed by late techno-geek and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy creator Douglas Adams, Starship Titanic was (and remains) a lot of fun, through sometimes infuriating. As a novelization based on some of the situations in the game, typed out by Terry Jones in what I hope was a few short hours, not so much.
WORTH CHECKING OUT: Even if a quickie sci-fi game novelization didn’t exactly pan out, Jones can certainly be proud to call himself a very gifted children’s author. His adventure stories, fairy tales and poetry are pretty common in the children’s sections of most public libraries.
He borrowed the title character, but not the plot, of his 1983 book The Saga of Erik the Viking for his 1989 historical comedy film Erik the Viking, which finds comfortable ground between the hilarious high of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the desperate low of Yellowbeard. Erik, a peace-loving Viking (ably played by Tim Robbins, then hot off his scene-stealing in Bull Durham) assembles a crew (made up mostly of semi-familiar British character actors) to travel to the legendary Valhalla to awaken the slumbering gods and end the violent Age of Ragnarok. Pursued by the villainous Halfdan the Black (yet another audience-enticing supporting turn by John Cleese), the Viking crew get sidetracked to Hy Brasil (the Celtic version of Atlantis, where Jones appears as its clueless King Arnulf) and ultimately fall off the edge of the world. The jokes inspire smiles rather than guffaws, and take a backseat to the fantasy/adventure elements. The special effects strain the boundaries of the limited budget (the supposedly fearsome “Dragon of the North Sea,” despite being concealed in money-saving fog for most of its screen time, looks like nothing more than a papier-mache parade float), but Jones’ attention to period costume and set design, and a little location work among the Norwegian fjords, make this re-telling of Old Norse mythology visually interesting. Buyer beware, though. Its re-edit for DVD release (called the “Director’s Son’s Cut,” as it was supervised by offspring and now-adult editor Bill Jones, for whom the original book was written) supposedly tightens up the slack bits and sends the film galloping across the finish line in less than 80 minutes. The scene order is also shuffled slightly, for no apparent reason. I am a fan of the more leisurely-paced 100 minute version, which appears to be streaming on Amazon.
Foreshadowing the Wind In The Willows situation, the American distributor, Orion Pictures, thought it had a turkey on its hands, and dumped it unceremoniously into a handful of theaters with little promotion. (I remember seeing one lone commercial for it, but it never came close to playing in my town.)
If you’re bound and determined to investigate all of Jones’ directorial efforts, 1987’s Personal Services is based on the true story of Cynthia Payne, a waitress-turned-call girl-turned-madame who ran a brothel that specialized in the kinky fetishes of older gentlemen. Interesting as the subject matter is, the script by David Leland (later the showrunner behind the cable series The Borgias) is so steeped in British sensibilities, semantics, and cultural references it is often incomprehensible to American viewers, even extraordinarily Anglophilic ones like myself.
A TOSS-UP: Jones has written and hosted a variety of historical documentaries for the BBC, which were generally shown a year or two later in America on Discovery or the History Channel. He began with Crusades (1996), and his most recent project of this sort was Barbarians (2006). (Not counting 2008’s Great Map Mystery, which has thus far been shown only in Wales). They have terrific production values, and are no doubt as fun to watch as historical documentaries can be, but under scrutiny from other historians, much of the information in them has been shown to be based on discredited or outdated scholarship, and full of biased over-revisionism. So watch at your own risk. I have found his Medieval Lives series (2004) to be the most even-handed and accurate based on my own reading in that particular subject area.
ALSO: A lot of people have a lot of love for the 1986 Jim Henson fantasy film Labyrinth, starring Jennifer Connolly, a bunch of Muppets, and David Bowie as King of the Goblins. What a lot of people don’t know is the sole credited screenwriter is none other than Terry Jones, who got the job based on his children’s books. A lot of uncredited writing fingers got stuck into this particular cinematic pie, including those of Elaine May, George Lucas, and Henson himself, resulting in a film Jones felt no particular ownership of.