Wednesday, January 22, 2020

"Better Get A Bucket": The Very Naughty & Extremely Late Terry Jones

The extraordinary comic genius that was Terry Jones, founder-member of Monty Python's Flying Circus and director of three of group's celebrated movies, has died at the age of seventy seven, his family has announced. In a statement they said: 'Terry passed away on the evening of 21 January 2020 with his wife, Anna Söderström, by his side after a long, extremely brave but always good-humoured battle with a rare form of dementia, FTD. Over the past few days his wife, children, extended family and many close friends have been constantly with Terry as he gently slipped away at his home in North London. We have all lost a kind, funny, warm, creative and truly loving man whose uncompromising individuality, relentless intellect and extraordinary humour has given pleasure to countless millions across six decades.' Terry's writing partner of many years, Michael Palin, added: 'Terry was one of my closest, most valued friends. He was kind, generous, supportive and passionate about living life to the full. He was far more than one of the funniest writer-performers of his generation, he was the complete Renaissance comedian; writer, director, presenter, historian, brilliant children's author and the warmest, most wonderful company you could wish to have.' John Cleese added: 'It feels strange that a man of so many talents and such endless enthusiasm, should have faded so gently away. Two down, four to go. Of his many achievements, for me the greatest gift he gave us all was his direction of Life Of Brian. Perfection.' And, Eric Idle recalled the 'many laughs [and] moments of total hilarity' they had shared. 'It's too sad if you knew him, but if you didn't you will always smile at the many wonderfully funny moments he gave us.'
In 2016, Jones and his family revealed that Terry had been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia a year earlier and he became a public face of the illness - appearing at a BAFTA Cymru awards ceremony to highlight its effects and being interviewed in conjunction with Palin in 2017. With typical self-effacing humour, Terry merely noted that his frontal lobe 'has absconded.' Jeremy Hughes, the chief executive of Alzheimer's Society paid tribute, saying: 'We were lucky enough to work with Terry and his family when he joined us for our London Memory Walk in 2017 and his support really helped inspire others to unite against dementia. We are truly grateful for his aid in raising awareness and much-needed funds.' After huge success with Monty Python's Flying Circus in the 1970s and early 1980s - including the feature films Monty Python & The Holy Grail, Monty Python's Life Of Brian and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life - Terry went on to work on a variety of projects. With Palin, he created the successful series Ripping Yarns (1976 to 1979) and forged a post-Python directorial career with Personal Services, Erik The Viking and The Wind In The Willows (in which he also played the part of Mister Toad). He made a series of TV documentaries (specialising in medieval history), wrote nearly twenty children's books and contributed a string of comment pieces for the Gruniad Morning Star and Observer denouncing the 'war on terror.'
Terry Jones had a love of the absurd which contributed much to the anarchic humour of Monty Python's Flying Circus; influenced by Spike Millgan's recent Q5 series (1968) with its rejection of traditional comic cliches such as sketches actually having a proper ending, it was Jones's central clash with John Cleese's more circumspect attitude to experimentation that was at the heart of Python's immediate greatness. His style of visual comedy, marbled by a touch of the surreal, inspired many comedians who followed him.
Born in Colwyn Bay in 1942, Terry's grandparents ran the local amateur operatic society and staged Gilbert and Sullivan concerts on the town's pier each year. His family moved to Surrey when he was four but Terry always felt nostalgic about his native land. After leaving the Royal Grammar School in Guildford, where he captained the school at rugby, he went on to read English Literature at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. However, as he put it, he 'strayed into history,' the subject in which he graduated.
While at Oxford, he met fellow student Michael Palin whilst the pair were performing in an Oxford Revue. Jones also got to know Graeme Garden, who suggested that he and Palin join a team of writers and performers on Twice A Fortnight, a 1967 BBC sketch show which was something of a forerunner of not only The Goodies but also Monty Python itself. After university, along with Palin, Jones wrote and performed in a string of TV shows alongside other future stars of British comedy - including Cleese, Garden, Graham Chapman, Bill Oddie, Eric Idle, Peter Cook and David Jason - on The Frost Report, Do Not Adjust Your Set and - the rather less successful - The Complete & Utter History of Britain.
In 1969, Palin and Jones joined Cambridge graduates Cleese and Chapman - along with their Do No Adjust Your Set colleagues Idle and 'the American one,' the animator Terry Gilliam - on a new BBC comedy sketch show. After a remarkably short gestation-period and eventually broadcast under the title Monty Python's Flying Circus, it ran until 1974 (forty five episodes), with Jones largely writing his contributions with Palin. Seemingly chaotic, frequently surreal and formally daring, overcoming its initial audience of 'insomniacs, intellectuals and buglers,' Monty Python's Flying Circus would became one of the most influential comedies in TV history, revolutionising comedy formats, spawning scores of catchphrases and inspiring an entire future generation of comedians (or three). Jones's fondness for female impersonation was a key feature of the show, as was his erudite writing.
It was Jones who was the driving force behind abandoning punchlines at the end of sketches and developing what became the show's trademark stream of consciousness. This also took a lot of pressure off the writers, who no longer had to dream up a line to close a sketch. Chapman would often appear as The Colonel and declare a sketch over because it was 'silly.' Alternatively an armoured knight would sometimes wander on and hit someone over the head with a rubber chicken or a sixteen ton weight would drop out of nowhere, crushing someone (usually Palin) and providing a perfect deus ex machina closure. Jones also appeared naked, apart from a collar and tie, playing an organ as a form of punctuation between sketches. He made something of a speciality of playing middle-aged women, often one of the screeching harridans which populated the show. Along with many iconic characters including The Bishop, Ron Obvious, Harry Snapper Organs, The Spam Waitress, Arthur Two Sheds Jackson, Mrs Scum, Cardinal Biggles, Arthur Nudge's hapless victim, Ken Ewing (and his mouse organ), Simon Zinc-Trumpet-Harris, the 'two choc-ices please' man, Mister Dibley, Michael (not Bruce) Baldwin, the exploding Mrs Niggerbaiter, Mister Gulliver (who thinks he's Clodagh Rogers), Edward the frequently insulted Prince of Wales, the owner of the Whizzo Chocolate Company and Dino Vercotti.
However, Jones was becoming more interested in directing. He later told the Gruniad Morning Star: 'You not only act in the things - you've got to actually start directing the things as well. When we were doing the Python TV show, I was a real pain in the neck.' After the sketch-compilation feature And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), the troupe embarked on an original film, Monty Python & The Holy Grail and Jones got his chance to direct, in conjunction with Gilliam. He was very much signed up to Python's democratic instinct: 'If all six of us laughed at something, then we all felt, "That's okay, we can go ahead with that." And, for me, it was just a question of getting that on the screen, getting that moment of us sitting around the read-through, that moment where we all laughed.' Jones took over the next film, Life Of Brian, as solo director, with Gilliam opting to concentrate on the film's design. Backed by super-fan George Harrison's HandMade films (the celebrated 'most expensive cinema ticket in history') and released in 1979, the religious satire proved a major commercial hit as well as sparking global controversy amongst whinging planks. Jones made a memorable screen contribution as Brian's mother, The Virgin Mandy, squawking to the assembled worshippers: 'He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy!'
Terry remained bemused at the fierce opposition to Life Of Brian expressed by many religious nutters. 'It wasn't about what Christ was saying, but about the people who followed him,' he famously said. 'The ones who for the next two thousand years would torture and kill each other because they couldn't agree on what he was saying about peace and love.' Jones then directed 1983's Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life, on an even more elaborate scale, stitching together sketches, musical numbers and complex special effects scenes. The film also contains arguably Jones's most famous on-screen character: the obese and abusive Mister Creosote, who explodes after eating one final 'waffer-thin mint.' Thereafter, the surviving members reunited periodically following Chapman's death in 1989, most notably for a run of live shows at the O2 in London in 2014. With the Python team agreeing to make no more films together, Jones was free to branch out. He wrote the screenplay for - and appeared in - the cult 1986 film Labyrinth, starring David Bowie. Personal Services, a comedy based on the real-life story of suburban brothel-keeper Cynthia Payne was released in 1987. He followed this in 1989 with Erik The Viking, which starred Tim Robbins as a reluctant pillager and was based on Terry's own children's book, published in 1983. As well as Erik The Viking, Jones was able to indulge his own fervent interest in ancient and medieval history in a number of factual TV series, including Crusades (1995), Medieval Lives (2004) and Barbarians (2006), all of which he presented with genuine and infectious enthusiasm. 'My constant theme is that the medieval world is similar to ours in that the same people always take advantage of the same people,' Jones said. 'Humanity doesn't change all through the centuries.'
He also published two books on Geoffrey Chaucer - including Chaucer's Knight: The Portrait Of A Medieval Mercenary, which successfully debunked the notion that medieval knights were always paragons of Christian virtue and is a particular favourite of this blogger - and created the children's TV cartoon Blazing Dragons. That ran for two series between 1996 and 1998 and told the history of chivalry 'from the dragons' point of view.' Terry was also a prolific writer of children's books, including self-originated fairytales such as Nicobobinus. His screen CV also included his TV debut in 1966 as a writer on The Late Show, A Series Of Birds, Horne A'Plenty, Marty, Peter Cook & Co, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, LA Story, A Liar's Autobiography and a memorable appearance in The Young Ones (as the sozzled vicar who can't bury 'Arry The Barstard until he checks whether Rik has told 'the stiffy joke'). He also wrote sketches of The Two Ronnies, the teleplay Consuming Passions and the documentary series The Surprising History Of ...
'Comedy is a dangerous business,' Terry once noted. 'If people find something funny you're okay. But the moment you do something that's meant to be funny and someone doesn't find it funny, they become angry. It's almost as if they resent the fact that you tried to make them laugh and failed. Nobody comes out of a mediocre performance of Hamlet seething with rage because it didn't make them cry. But just listen to people coming out of a comedy that didn't make them laugh.' Jones became a vociferous opponent of the Iraq war and published a collection of his newspaper columns and other writings in the 2004 book Terry Jones's War On The War On Terror. His final directorial credit was the 2015 comedy Absolutely Anything, in which four of the five surviving Monty Python's Flying Circus members participated, but it received an unenthusiastic reception. During an interview at the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival in 2017, Palin revealed that Jones was no longer able to speak due to his illness. Jones was asked in a 2011 interview how, out of all his various achievements, he would best like to be remembered. 'Maybe a description of me as a writer of children's books or some of my academic stuff,' he replied. 'Or maybe as the man who restored Richard II's reputation. He was a terrible victim of Fourteenth Century political spin, you know!' Terry was married twice: between 1970 and 2012 to biochemist Alison Telfer, with whom he had two children, Sally and Bill and in 2012 to Anna Söderström, with whom he had a daughter.