Now for something completely different: Monty Python star Terry Jones turns opera director

MONTY Python star Terry Jones is the first to admit he has not always been an opera lover.

But the 69-year-old makes his Royal Opera House directorial debut next month with a short opera full of anarchic spirit and a suitably upside down take on life.

Jones has also written the words for The Doctor’s Tale, which is based on a short story he wrote four years ago about the fortunes of a devoted doctor whose patients love him and who has a wonderful cure rate but who is forced to stop practising by the General Medical Council because he’s a dog. All very surreal and Python-esque.

“It’s sort of about prejudice really and about if somebody is good at something you shouldn’t stop them doing it just because they’re a different species,” chuckles Jones, instantly warm and jocular.

He was approached about the project by composer Anne Dudley, who won an Oscar for her film soundtrack for The Full Monty and has written the score for The Doctor’s Tale. The work was commissioned by ROH2 to encourage artists established in their own fields to experiment with opera, but the production is not Jones’ first foray into the art-form.

In Portugal in 2008 he wrote and directed Evil Machines, an opera also based on one of his books, and he was working with TV satire show Kombat Opera before seeking treatment for bowel cancer in 2006.

“I think it’s time for opera not to be elitist,” reveals Jones, who lives in Highgate. “I don’t see why opera shouldn’t appeal to everybody, it’s just because it’s sung rather than spoken. I think it’s great, I love it. I’ve never been a fan of opera exactly, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t be popular, maybe the repertoire has been a bit fossilised or something. I haven’t seen much opera to be quite honest, I’ve always slightly avoided it, like a lot of people I’ve avoided it, and maybe there’s some reason for that. Maybe opera needs to bring people in.”

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Pinning Welsh-born Jones down to one profession is a tricky business. He has worked as a comedian, screenwriter, actor, film director, children’s author and TV documentary host, among other things in a distinguished career.

“Well, I’m very confused,” he admits. “I’m not really ever certain what to put down on my passport. I suppose I tend to put writer down first because everything starts with writing really.”

He first performed comedy with Michael Palin at Oxford University with The Oxford Revue and went on to become a Python, where he was famously known by the rest of the group as “the best rat-bag woman in the business”. Later he directed three of the Python films - The Holy Grail, The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life and despite being rocketed to the status of global rock stars he reveals the Pythons were never sure of the laughs.

“It was hard work actually and we were never really certain that anybody was going to laugh at anything,” says Jones. “It seems to have been canonised now but at the time, when we made The Holy Grail nobody laughed the first time we showed it to people and it was absolutely awful. We carried on editing it and re-editing and editing, so it was never certain that people were going to laugh.”

He also quashes hopes that the remaining Pythons may reunite saying simply “no, I don’t think we’ll ever do anything again”.

Since he moved to Highgate seven-years-ago Jones does however live very near to two other Pythons - Terry Gilliam’s house is five minutes away and Palin lives just across Hampstead Heath. Jones says he loves Highgate’s authentic village feel and the area has inspired some of his writing.

“I’ve just got a little novella coming out for a quick read and it’s called Trouble On The Heath,” he says. “It’s about basically what’s happening in our road. It’s about a planning application that escalates out of control and local residents end up in drive-by shootings and the hero flying to Russia to gun-down the person who made the planning application.”

The mundane can inspire the ridiculous it seems, if you are Terry Jones that is. It could yet be a good thing for opera and all its classical tradition to have this surrealist Python onboard as a convert.

* The Doctor’s Tale will be performed as part of OperaShots, a double bill of new short operas, at ROH2 from April 8-16. For tickets call the box office on 020 7304 4000.