After directing the Python films and creating such characters as the Virgin Mandy and the monstrous Mr Creosote, he went on to make Personal Services and The Wind in the Willows
Gross out … Terry Jones as Mr Creosote with John Cleese in The Meaning of Life. Photograph: AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo
Terry Jones, who has died at the age of 77, was the Python with a sweetly open, guileless face and a rich voice that he often tortured into a high-pitched, strangulated warbling for his many “Hello, Mrs Smoker” drag roles. He was also the Python credited for inspiring the team’s consistent surrealist denial of conventional structure. It was Jones who took on the directing role for the Monty Python movies: sharing the credit with Terry Gilliam for Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1975, but taking the helm on his own for their masterpiece, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in 1979, and the rather more patchy Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life in 1983. His parallel and post-Python career was successful: with Michael Palin, he created the much-loved Ripping Yarns for BBC TV and wrote well-regarded popular books on medieval and classical history.
But Jones’s face is stamped indelibly on my mind for the creation of two movie characters – one good, one horribly evil.
In Life of Brian, he played Mandy, the woman who is at first mistaken by the three wise men for the Virgin Mary, and whose son Brian is, in adulthood, to be fatefully mistaken for the Son of God. Jones’s Mandy is one of his classic dressing-up-as-a-panto-dame roles, and yet he invests this tetchy, bewildered, cantankerous sketch character with a weird innocence, and her sayings live on in popular culture. As the mob of Brian’s deluded followers gather outside her humble dwelling, Mandy says, “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” and “There’s a mess here, but no Messiah!” These are lines that have been endlessly revived by headline writers and commentators, forever being used to puncture the hubris of politicians and sports stars. It is something in the lines’ simplicity. The mess/Messiah play on words is so simple, the sort of lame dad joke that a regular civilian might make, not an Oxbridge wit.
Jones’s other claim to movie fame is a horrifying monster: Mr Creosote, the grotesquely fat glutton in The Meaning of Life who shows up in a posh French restaurant, presided over by John Cleese’s oleaginous maitre d’. Mr Creosote clears his palate by vomiting convulsively everywhere and then proceeds to eat himself to an explosion, the trigger being a final, incautious “waffer-thin” mint, and is shockingly still alive at the end, his stomach and ribcage wrenched open. Mr Creosote was co-created by Jones and Palin, and rewritten by Cleese and Graham Chapman, and his aggressive greed has become legendary – a meme before there was any social media to fit it into. And people forget the final, horrible thing about Jones’s creation: amid the blood, intestines and sick that have washed all over the floor, Jones reappears as an antisemitic cleaning lady mopping it up, musing that, whatever else has happened, at least she doesn’t “work for Jews”.
What on earth does Mr Creosote mean? Is he a satire of greed? The arrogance of the rich? Maybe. The important thing is that his horrible aggression is indulged by the maitre d’, who is indifferent to the other, more polite but evidently less important diners who are upset, but know that they mustn’t make a fuss. Importantly, the restaurant is a traditional theatre of British embarrassment – like the Fawlty Towers dining room – a place where generations of postwar Britons were terrified that they would show themselves up as unsophisticated, or be humiliated by the waiters, or get served bad food and be too scared to complain. If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable in a restaurant, Mr Creosote is your worst nightmare and your greatest hero: the guy who spectacularly destroys all those painful little snob rules about fine dining. Or maybe Mr Creosote is just there to gross us out for the sake of it: a British La Grande Bouffe.
After Python, Jones undertook a number of projects for film and television, including writing and directing a well-received, all-star movie version of The Wind in the Willows, starring himself as Mr Toad, Steve Coogan as Mole, Eric Idle as Rat and Nicol Williamson as Badger.
But, for me, his most startling directorial outing outside Python was a bizarre film that only gets more bizarre in retrospect – Personal Services (1987), written by David Leland (who went on to write Wish You Were Here starring Emily Lloyd). It is the story of a brothel-keeper inspired by the case of Cynthia Payne, whose prosecution for her suburban BDSM establishment with its alleged top-drawer clientele caused much giggling in the press. The film stars Julie Walters as Christine and Danny Schiller plays her “maid” – weirdly, just the kind of drag role that Jones might have created for a Python sketch. The sheer tackiness and nastiness of Personal Services is what is striking now, not its alleged comedy-romp value. It’s like Britain’s last kitchen-sink movie, a film that focuses on pure domestic drear.
I last saw Jones on stage in the summer of 2014, in London’s O2 Arena, when he took part in Monty Python Live (Mostly), their hugely lucrative reunion show. I remember being awestruck and even slightly tearful to see the old gang together. Jones’s illness was said to be advanced at that stage, but to me he looked absolutely sharp. He radiated innocence and fun.