Britain’s funniest comedy troupe just lost one of its most reliable laughs.
Comic, director, mustache-wearer, cross-dresser, Medievalist, history buff and wicked wit Terry Jones has died.
Time to rewatch “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” which he decreed and directed and co-starred in with Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin,Terry Gilliam and the late Graham Chapman.
Lovely man. Got to interview him about “Life of Brian” when an anniversary edition DVD came out some years back. That interview is reprinted below.
A real polymath, curious about the world, remembered for his laugh, his lisp, his dresses and his many enthusiasms.
He died just days shy of his 78th birthday.
Mel Gibson chose 2004 to release The Passion of the Christ.
“Some might see it that way,” Brian director Terry Jones says with a conspiratorial chuckle.
“Life of Brian,” you say to yourself. “Wait a minute. Wasn’t that the movie Gibson set out to spoof with his Passion? About a martyred prophet in ancient Judea, a real mama’s boy unjustly crucified?”
Well, you could see it that way. Pythonists certainly do.
“Life of Brian” returns to theaters (including the Enzian in Maitland on Friday) in all its hilarious, once-controversial glory.
And its director, Jones, now 62, couldn’t be more thrilled. Any connection between Brian’s re-release and the most popular movie of the spring?
“None a’tall,” he sniffs. Besides, he says, “We got there first.”
We believe him because Jones isn’t naked. For once. And he isn’t wearing a dress. Or so he says.
But we have no way of knowing. He’s on the phone from London. And you know how those Monty Python lads can be. Especially Jones.
“I was quite shy as a boy,” he huffs. “And I’ve used my adult life to compensate for that.”
And how. The cross-dressingest, buck-nakedest Python also played the “non-virgin” mother — OK, “mum” — of the martyred non-prophet Brian in the 1979 film. It’s about a lusty but hapless young Jewish, or maybe Roman, revolutionary (Graham Chapman) who gets mixed up with the anti-Roman politics and the messiah circuit in B.P. (Before Python) Jerusalem.
“A religious satire that targeted the corruption of Christ’s message rather than Christ himself,” as critic Leonard Maltin remembers it. But he was pretty much alone in making that distinction. A movie that ends with a singalong on the crosses of Calvary is going to stir some folks up.
The Roman Catholic Church condemned Brian. Rabbi Abraham Hecht of the Rabbinical Alliance of America declared that it was “produced in Hell.”
Brian was banned in some countries and didn’t play in some districts of the United Kingdom for years.
And in the United States, Robert E.A. Lee of the Lutheran Council called Life of Brian “a disgraceful assault on religious sensitivity.”
Well, some people thought it was funny. But in any case, an awful big stink for a $4 million movie made by a bunch of TV comics rather too fond of dressing up like ladies.
Brian came to life when some members of Monty Python had the idea of sending up early Christian history.
Pythoner Eric Idle suggested Jesus Christ, Lust for Glory, playing off the British title of Patton: Lust For Glory, Jones recalls.
“The more we worked on it, the more interesting and outrageous it became. We reread the Gospels, changed the story to Brian, a contemporary of Jesus. We realized, very quickly, that the real humor lay not in what Christ said, but in the fact that 2,000 years after Christ, you’ve got everybody still killing each other because we can’t get together on how we should worship and accept his message of peace and love.”
In other words, people were misunderstanding the message of Jesus, right from the start. “Blessed are the cheesemakers,” one character thinks he hears Jesus say off in the distance during the Sermon on the Mount.
Python and future Brazil director Terry Gilliam did the exceptional biblical production design, “but we lucked out in shooting in Monastir, Tunisia, the same place Franco Zeffirelli made Jesus of Nazareth,” Jones says. “A lot of the same sets were still there. Just had to dress them up a bit.
“Of course, it also meant that you could be shooting your version of the Sermon on the Mount, and some elderly Tunisian extra would say, ‘Well, that’s not the way Zeffirelli did it.’ ”
Just as the film was about to start shooting, the production company, EMI, lost its nerve and withdrew funding. Idle called on his friend George Harrison to help. Harrison backed the movie and made a second, post-Beatle fortune doing it.
“George is actually in the film, just after Brian appears in the window, naked,” Jones says of a famous, much-censored moment in Brian. “You go to an interior scene in the kitchen, like the backstage of a rock concert, everybody wants a piece of Brian, a moment of his time. And John says, ‘This is Mr. Papadopolous. He’s renting us the Mount.’ He pushed George Harrison into the shot. He says ‘Hello.’ But it wasn’t even George’s voice. Mike Palin did his George Harrison impression in the [sound] looping session.”
As with the TV show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the six main members of the troupe played multiple roles. The tall, thin “Minister of Silly Walks” John Cleese plays a revolutionary, a centurion who corrects Brian’s bad Latin grammar as he paints anti-Roman graffiti, and a Pharisee.
“John as a Pharisee, a role he was born to play.”
As director, Jones plays fewer characters, though of course, one is naked. He’s the hermit in the hole.
“When I was playing the hermit in the hole, I’d do my shots first.
“I got there, stripped, did my stuff. Graham got there, and we did his stuff with me.
“Then, the crowd arrived and we were moving them around through the afternoon. I was directing them, and Michael came up to me and said, ‘Uh, Terry, you do realize you’re stark naked, don’t you?’ I’d completely forgotten!”
Eventually, every Python winds up in a dress.
“We kind of reached our zenith in drag, I think, in the stoning scene. We didn’t think it would work. You’ve got us men playing women renting beards so that we can be disguised as men, because only men are allowed at stonings.
“We’d tried it with just women in the scene, but several of the guys said, ‘Nah nah nah. We really want to do it.’ ”
And the rest, as they say, is history — $20 million at the U.S. box office alone, to say nothing of millions more in late-night showings, video and DVD sales, and overseas earnings.
And the Pythons? Graham Chapman died in 1989, but may return to life in the form of a bio-film, Gin and Tonic. Idle, Palin, Gilliam, Cleese (Q in the James Bond movies) and Jones have remained active. Jones does books and TV series about knights, chivalry and assorted other matters medieval.
Idle is writing a stage-musical version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail that premieres this coming winter.
“It’s so hard getting us all together anymore that we were only able to manage to get me, Mike, Eric and Terry Gilliam. We had to hire Tom Hanks to be John Cleese for the night!”