A musical based on a children’s book written by a Python? Sarah Freeman goes inside the surreal world of Nicobobinus
Words have always been Terry Jones’ thing. With writing partner Michael Palin, he was responsible for some of Monty Python’s most surreal sketches from the Summarise Proust Competition to the Spanish Inquisition.
After the Flying Circus ended, Jones went on to write books on medieval history, screenplays, poetry, a number of newspaper articles condemning the war in Iraq and when he found Grimm fairy tales wanting he penned his own collection.
“I wanted something to read to my children at bedtime, but they were very dark. At the end of Snow White the wicked step mother is made to put on red hot iron slippers and dance for all eternity,” he says. “I didn’t want my daughter to go to sleep with that image in her head so I wrote my own.”
Fairy Tales was published back in 1981 and over the next 20 years Jones wrote more than a dozen children books, all of which channelled the same anarchic and absurd spirit which had made the Pythons so popular. Now 72, it’s a while since he last read to his two grown up children, but he has had cause to revisit one of his earlier books.
Nicobobinus has been adapted for the stage by Dumbwise and Leeds-based theatre company Red Ladder. The musical premiered in London at the end of last year and arrives in Yorkshire this week.
“I was glad to see it was still quite silly and a little bit bonkers. That’s what all good children’s stories should be,” says Jones, who along with the likes of Phill Jupitus, he has been among the high profile supporters of Red Ladder after the company was told last year that it would no longer be one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations and would lose its annual funding of £160,000.
“These are really tough times for the arts and it is often the smaller companies who end up missing out,” says Jones. “Making a living from the arts is not easy, but we should support those doing interesting work.”
Jones has had his own money worries of late. When the Monty Python team announced they were reuniting for a series of live shows towards the end of last year, Palin said that John Cleese needed to pay his alimony and Jones his mortgage. He was only half joking. Each reportedly received £800,000 for the 10 shows at London’s O2 Arena, but Jones admits he only ended up with about a quarter of it.
“I had to give my ex-wife half and then once you take into account the tax, well I was left with £200,000. I can’t moan, but if I am to pay off the mortgage I need another £200,000.”
When it came to financial matters, the Pythons operated on the democratic principle that everything they earned should be divided by six regardless of who had the writing credits. It’s a philosphy Jones clearly still believes in today.
“I remember sat in his London office with his agent and he was very clear that we had to draw up a contract which gave equal credit to him, me and the music director,” says the show’s director John Ward. “That was a surreal moment. This isn’t a production which is ever going to earn him a huge amount of money, but the fact is, he could have easily tipped the scales in his favour.”
While Ward is too young to have remembered Monty Python the first time around, Nicobobinus was one of his favourite books growing up.
“My dad was a big Monty Python fan and it was one of the first books he ever read to me,” he says. “A few years ago we were looking for a story to adapt into a family musical and I remembered Nicobobinus. As soon as I read it again I knew it would be perfect.”
With the scenes, plotted, the songs written and the rights secured, John approached Red Ladder about the possibility of a partnership. He had worked with them a number of times before and teaming up with a radical theatre company seemed like a good match.
“I approached Rod [Red Ladder’s artistic director Rod Dixon] about producing the show in collaboration, but I could tell he had reservations. However, when I told him it is was an anti-capitalist fairy tale it piqued his interest.
“It’s true, the hero of the story is a young boy whose arm is turned to gold and he spends the entire rest of the story trying to turn it back again. What could be more anti-capitalist than that?”
The show features 13 actor/musicians and while a few tweaks have been made here and there to the original story, it’s still very much a Jones view of the world where the adults are baddies, brought down by childlike innocence.
“It’s a real proper adventure story,” says John. “As well as being slightly anarchic and a little cheeky. We knew that with the mention of Terry Jones’ name parents and grandparents would probably be the ones pushing to take their children and grandchildren and hopefully they will find that old Python spirit has been brought to life in a contemporary production.”
As for Jones, well his latest feature film Absolutely Anything is out in the summer, he recently completed a documentary about the global economic crash and he’s currently working on a new musical version of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Much like Nicobobinus, for him the adventure continues.