Tea-time in north London with a contented, mild-mannered academic of 69 who enjoys writing esoteric essays, and being with his Swedish girlfriend of 28 and two-year-old daughter. He’s a bit otherworldly, with a tendency to hesitate [“er, um”] in case he might be critical of colleagues.
Nothing to indicate that in 1979 Terry Jones, a Welshman, directed and acted in what some call blasphemous and others the funniest British comedy ever made: Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
“I’m amazed we’re still discussing it, and I don’t know why – there’s lots of other good stuff around.”
We are discussing it because this week there’s a BBC4 comedy drama, Holy Flying Circus [cast pictured above], about the opposition to the film plus a reconstruction of BBC2’s memorable Friday Night… Saturday Morning debate, between John Cleese and Michael Palin and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, and Malcolm Muggeridge who thought it was blasphemous, undergraduate and unworthy of educated young men.
Life of Brian is one of those seminal films that define a generation, brilliantly satirising 1970s left-wing political absurdities, as well as polarising opinion between young and old, believers and non-believers. It also managed to be the top grossing British film in America that year.
Today it seems inevitably dated but with classic hilarious moments. “I suspect it’s overrated although it’s pretty good,” says Jones. “Our aim was to make a funny film, but there’s nothing wrong with giving a bit of offence as well. I’ve seen it a couple of times and probably enjoy it more now because of its celebrity. Personally, though, I prefer Buster Keaton.”
There were six members of the Monty Python team whose Flying Circus series ran from 1969 to 1974, even though it was hated by the BBC hierarchy. An internal memo describes it as being “in the most appalling taste”.
Know your audience
It debuted on BBC1 on 5 October 1969 after being recorded in front of an audience made up mostly of bewildered pensioners who thought they were seeing a real circus. Even during the second series John Cleese’s mother sent him job ads for supermarket managers. It survived, thinks Jones, partly because “it was one of the first comedy shows made in colour. If it had been scheduled a month or two earlier it would have been in black and white.”
They moved on to films, the first of which, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974), was a “terrible experience”, he told me. It was co-directed by Jones and another Python, Terry Gilliam. At the first showing no-one laughed.
“It was the worst evening I’ve ever spent,” recalls Jones. There were tensions among the group. “John Cleese was even more of a control freak than me,” but by the time they made Life of Brian there was a more mellow relationship, almost.
There were early skirmishes about who should play Brian – John Cleese or Graham Chapman. Chapman, an alcoholic, sobered up for the part. Jones became sole director, but there were disagreements with Gilliam. “During the editing Terry wasn’t speaking to me. I think I upset him on location so he wasn’t pleased, but it was, er, um.
“I can’t remember really, but we were looking at places to put the crosses and I overruled him about the look of the film. Unfortunately he owned a company with the guy I’d picked to edit [Julian Doyle], so they sat in the front row together as we watched the rushes, and Terry made it slightly more difficult for me and Julian to get on. But he played a wonderful part in the
film and we’re good friends now.
“Overall, though, everyone was functioning perfectly and it was fun to make. We were on the crest of a wave. My only regret is we didn’t use more Otto scenes.”
Otto the Nazarene, played by Eric Idle, a Zionist with a Hitler moustache and German accent, led a suicide squad of Jews bent on “racial purity”. He says, “I liked it, but it was totally irrelevant to the rest of the story.” Now the squad are only in the final scene, wiggling their toes, in death, to the song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.
“Unfortunately the film was sold on to various companies and then to the Royal Bank of Scotland who threw it away. Another black mark for them. We should sue.
“I never thought it would be as controversial as it turned out, although I remember saying when we were writing it that some religious nut case may take pot shots at us, and everyone replied, ‘no’. I took the view it wasn’t blasphemous.
“It was heretical because it criticised the structure of the church and the way it interpreted the Gospels. At the time religion seemed to be on the back burner and it felt like kicking a dead donkey. It’s come back with a vengeance and we’d think twice about making it now.”
A similarly satirical film about Muslims?
“Probably not – looking at Salman Rushdie. I suppose people would be frightened. I think it’s whipped up by the arms industry. I read an in-house magazine called Weapons Today before the Gulf War and the editorial was headlined, ‘Thank God for Saddam’ and went on to say that since perestroika we have an enemy no one can complain about. So in future we look for Islam to replace Communism. I thought they were joking – the Crusades were 1,000 years ago – but of course that’s what’s happening now.”
“I don’t know about that,” he chuckles.
Jones has watched the debate many times, and it will be screened again after the drama, a film he says, having read the script, that is not totally accurate, even though Stephen Fry is in his element, playing God. There’s an amusing discussion about which of the Pythons should participate in the debate – not Jones “because he’d only discuss camera angles”, nor Eric Idle whose main concern would be his fee, nor Graham Chapman because in those days they wouldn’t have gays on the BBC.
He laughs. “That’s all made up. The programme is very funny, but it’s a mix of fantasy and reality. The portrayal of BBC executives [over-the-top, dim-witted, gung-ho types who screech self-importantly, ‘Get me the Pope’] is probably the only realistic part.”
The Python trail
Life of Brian was effectively banned by 39 local authorities, including Aberystwyth, Wales, where it was shown for the first time in 2009. Jones and Palin attended because the mayor, Sue Jones-Davies, played Brian’s girlfriend, Judith Iscariot. “It was the first time the mayor of Aberystwyth had been seen naked on the screen,” says Jones with satisfaction.
He insists the Pythons didn’t set out deliberately to cause offence. “Inevitably, because of where we came from [mostly Oxbridge] we would make points, though we were mainly trying to be funny. But I do remember the Mr Creosote sketch [an obese diner, played by Jones, who stuffs himself with food and is sick in buckets, before exploding] in The Meaning of Life where I wrote on my first draft, ‘This sketch is in the worst possible taste.’
“Maybe I was trying to be offensive. It still gives me a chuckle. There are no taboo areas with humour – nothing you can’t make fun of. The only criterion is: is it funny? If people laugh, it is.”
He doesn’t think the Pythons influenced today’s comedians. “Eddie Izzard says we did, but his stuff seems like real magic and ours doesn’t. I’m sure one day people will say the Pythons weren’t funny. It happens with Shakespeare. Tragedy survives better than comedy, but I think we have a few more years.”
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale on October.