Terry Jones, without peer among the fearless
I remember, as a young man in 1970’s America, when I first discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It was, all at once, hilarious, brain-busting and, frankly, scary. Anarchic, cerebral and existentially unmoored from both punchlines and linearity, the show was so different from anything I had experienced that I was simultaneously entranced and terrified. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was the Book of Revelations set to muzak, with a smarmy emcee in a cheap suit and with puns.
I was too young to see The Holy Grail in theatres and when The Life of Brian was released I was not allowed to see it, having been told it was blasphemous. I grew up Roman Catholic at a time when the adults were grappling with The Church; between warning the boys not to be found alone with Father McPedo and warning the girls (and wives) not to be alone with Father Handsy; and dealing with the three steps forward, two steps sideways, and a days march backwards of Vatican II; we were taught to fear ahead of time. That’s why I wasn’t allowed to see a movie that the adults hadn’t seen either.
But being a latchkey kid and, indeed, encouraged to watch PBS, I soaked up Flying Circus. With its subversive shards of jumbled up reality, quick-witted u-turn plotting, whiplash scene changes, and rat-a-tat dialogue, watching it I would surf a rising delight alongside a mounting frisson of anxiety as I tried to figure out what it was that scared me.
Of all the Pythons none scared me more than Terry Jones. To the extent that any of the Pythons had a consistent persona it was Jones’ persona that felt most alien to me.
Michael Palin had a diffidence and a wary eye, seemingly meeting this craziness with the same sort of unsteadiness I felt. Graham Chapman had a querulous and warbling insecurity that informed his bombast and who most often mirrored the unexpected turns, ellipses and plotlines of both the show and the later movies. (Which is probably why he was the ‘lead’ — such as they were — in both Holy Grail and Life of Brian.) Eric Idle often played the cynical man-child not sure if he should feel guilty enjoying a world he didn’t understand. And John Cleese, often the ‘straight man’, marched heedless and brash, headlong into whatever was in front of him with a stern, sometimes even malevolent…