Film & TV Muse

Terry Jones: A Monty Python comedy genius

Rohan Ashar explores an iconic moment in The Life of Brian and the work of Terry Jones, a member of the Monty Python comedy team.

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Image Credit: Cinema International Corporation

The shout of ‘He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!’ in The Life of Brian is one of Monty Python’s most iconic lines and possesses a place in British comedy history. Despite the controversy over the film’s arguably satirical and blasphemous approach to Christianity, which caused it to be banned in parts of the United Kingdom and Europe during the years after its release, from a comedy perspective its fame is esteemed. Terry Jones must take much of the credit for this moment, both on and off the screen. He directed both The Holy Grail (1975) and The Life of Brian (1979), two very successful films which elevated the group even further, the latter of which Jones directed solo and achieved more acclaim. The films are high on many lists of top comedy films, including on Netflix, and have been shown in cinemas again for a limited time after Jones’ recent passing. It is also worth noting that he introduced the trademark idea of emitting punchlines from the end of Python sketches, which is one of their most original elements and a prominent feature in The flying Circus. However, I would like to focus this article on a specific scene from The Life of Brian which I believe captures his brilliant comic skill in numerous ways.

The scene happens when the eponymous Brian has woken up in the morning and opened the shutters in his house, completely naked after spending the night with his partner. A massive crowd has flocked after following him for much of the film, having mistakenly identified him as the Messiah after a series of coincidental events. Analysing the image above without plot context would suggest it might be a sad moment. Dull grey imagery and desperation on the crowd’s faces dominates our view, looking like a poverty-stricken mob begging a higher authority for something, which in a ludicrous way it is, because the people believe they are following the Messiah. Python, as usual, form their own abstract world where the plot progression throughout the film is based on misunderstanding and spontaneity; the dramatic irony viewers possess while observing confused characters with daft misconceptions stimulates laughter. Terry Jones’s direction ensures that the crowd’s obsession with Brian is hyperbolic, shown particularly in the image by the exaggerated facial expressions of shouting and physical reaching out from many people. The range of cameras angles Jones chooses also allows us to grasp the extent to which Brian’s misguided cult following has built-up; the high angle shot especially depicts the climax with hundreds of people waiting for his presence outside of his private lodgings. The visual presentation of this scene epitomises the ridiculous nature of Monty Python’s plot, because the contrast between the seemingly emotional crowd’s stubbornness and then the actual storyline is amusing.

The unsuspecting Brian’s shock at facing the crowd when he innocently opens the shutters is comical, but even more hilarity ensues with the intervention of his mother (played by Jones), who is angered at her house being ‘swarmed’ and the sudden appearance of her son’s partner, Judith. Python notoriously flip things around and here there is a humorous use of private life, not designed to be appealing, but instead showing Brian as a vulnerable victim. Potential sexuality is stripped back even further by the presence of the disgruntled mother, whose simple dismissal of him being “a very naughty boy” and not “the Messiah” summarises the film by depicting Brian as the disorientated comic sufferer of unfortunate accidents. Upon viewing these images, many British comedy fans would be able to hear the mother shouting the famous quote. The character’s depiction is funny, mainly due to Jones being a man, playing a woman, who in turn tries to behave like a man often in the film. Therefore, the unique screeching voice and angry demeanour he adopts for the character are certainly what, above all, make this moment and quote so memorable and hilarious.

It is a common belief that people who were great at what they did will leave a legacy that continues way beyond them, whether it be records, books, music or other forms of expression. Terry Jones was a master at the art of creating humour in his writing, directing and acting; his irreplaceable work and individual stamp on a renowned group who heavily influenced British comedy is unlikely to be forgotten. He wasn’t the Messiah, but he was a very clever boy.

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