Woah Constrictor: Terry Jones in conversation at ID Fest 2013
A few weeks ago, I wrote that I wouldn’t be able to attend any of Derby’s superlative film festival, ID Fest. In the end, the Python gods smiled down on me and conspired to send a giant foot stamping down on my commitments to allow me to see my most-wanted of the weekend – an audience with Terry Jones.
Jones is a bit of an unsung hero. Eclipsed in popularity amongst the Monty Python team by the more prolific performers John Cleese and Michael Palin, Jones was the secret motor of the crew, who was instrumental in the stream-of-consciousness, punchline-less Flying Circus and later became their in-house director on Life Of Brian and The Meaning Of Life after co-helming The Holy Grail with the Pythons’ rival auteur Terry Gilliam.
Outside of Python, he co-created the hugely underrated Ripping Yarns with long-term writing partner Palin, directed non-Python films Personal Services and Erik The Viking, and more recently has been a TV historian with a keen interest in all things muddy and medieval.
His Q&A at ID Fest was, inevitably, a candid and insightful look into this versatile career, ably compered by Empire magazine’s Chris Hewitt who – as an Irishman – was visibly delighted to interview the man who directed three (not one less, nor one more) films which have been banned in his native land.
Allegedly, when he was seven years old, Jones wrote at school that he ‘hopped’ to be an actor. In the end, the acting became the means to creative freedom. Jones happily became the guy who took on roles nobody else would, only playing the nude organist because Gilliam (who had already played the part in the studio) never went on location during the Flying Circus days. Ditto, his uncanny ability to play women: inevitably, a member of the audience asked Jones for his tips on cross-dressing. Jones simply put on his finest ‘Spam’ voice and replied: “Just screech, dear, just screech!”
Instead, he specialised as the artistic lynchpin, helping producer Ian McNaughton to edit the shows (something I’d never realised) and being instrumental in persuading the rest of the team to hire Terry Gilliam, realising how useful he might be in developing the Pythons’ unorthodox show structure. It was for these reasons that Jones became de facto director of the Pythons’ films… at least after the experiment of The Holy Grail, when he and Gilliam would alternate day by day. Besides, Jones had already found his ideal leading man in the shape of Graham Chapman.
Jones talked at length about the late star’s alcohol addiction, something he only noticed on set when Chapman hadn’t been able to secure a bottle of gin before the day’s shoot began. When able to drink, he was a natural. Jones explained he was first drawn to Chapman’s ease as a performer when he saw him in revue with Cleese, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor. The others, Jones said, were visibly acting, whereas Chapman looked like he’d simply walked in off the street and was being himself. That quality lent itself to the lead roles of King Arthur and Brian Cohen, and Jones overruled Cleese, who initially fancied playing Brian.
As for Jones, he remained saddled with the extreme end of the Pythons’ character repertoire, most obviously Mr Creosote. Jones revealed that, at the sketch’s first read-through, the others hated it… until Cleese rang him the next night, having worked out that the French maître d’ had all the best lines. As for the gargantuan gourmand himself, Jones ended up in endless make-up en route to cinematic immortality.
Jones is better known nowadays for his gigs as a presenter on TV history shows, but he announced that he will soon be stepping back into the director’s chair for the first time since his 1996 adaptation of The Wind In The Willows. He has been working on-and off to complete a screenplay about a man whose magic powers enable him to do anything. The project was abandoned in 2003 after Bruce Almighty was released, but Jones has resurrected it and hopes to attract Simon Pegg to the lead role. Better still, he has already secured the commitment of Michael Palin and John Cleese to voice a pair of aliens. Not quite a Python reunion, but proof that Jones is still very much leader of the pack.
And, I’m chuffed to say, I got to ask the great man a question. I’m currently nearing the end of a marathon rewatch of the full Flying Circus, and it’s struck me how much factual information – on history, literature or philosophy – there is buried beneath the comedic chaos. So I asked Jones whether they did a lot of research. Not the case, it turns out: “it was just stuff we knew.” Ah, the benefits of an Oxbridge education!