As the Flying Circus turns 50, the madcap troupe’s animator, Terry Gilliam, reveals the secrets of his surreal art to Tristram Fane Saunders.

It might be the most famous foot in art. When Bronzino painted An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, half a millennium ago, he couldn't have imagined an American cartoonist would one day steal his cherub's foot and turn it into a symbol for the best in British comedy.

It was 50 years ago today that Cupid's well-turned ankle appeared on our TV screens, descending from the sky to squash the words Monty Python's Flying Circus.

"That foot was so beautiful — so why not?" chuckles Terry Gilliam over the phone, having just nipped indoors after a morning marching through London on a climate protest, with "lots of nice, decent old people all having a wonderful time trying to save what's left of this planet".

Now 78, the man behind the Pythons' surreal animations has lost none of his sense of humour; he follows almost every sentence with a warm, rumbling laugh. "If I need a weapon to stomp on things I don't like, what better than Cupid's foot? Love is actually very dangerous."

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Coming from what he has called a "poor white trash" background, a hunting-shooting-fishing childhood in rural Minnesota, Gilliam first broke into comedy in the early Sixties by landing a job at Help!, the short-lived magazine edited by legendary Mad comic creator Harvey Kurtzman. It was, he says, "one of the great quantum leaps of my life. I was working with my hero".

Gilliam was hired as Kurtzman's assistant, a job he took over from a teenage Gloria Steinem. There he was responsible for the magazine's fumetti, or photo-comics. "They had to be written and produced like a movie," he explains. "You go out to locations with actors, you shoot the images. " Scouting for unusual locations, he developed the eye that made his later work as a film director so distinctive, from the dystopian landscapes of Brazil and 12 Monkeys to the seedy lounges of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. "It wasn't just because it looked better, it was saying things about the scene or the characters," he says. "Just look at the Fear and Loathing sets without sound — the pictures are telling the story."

One jobbing actor who appeared in Gilliam's fumetti was a tall Englishman called John Cleese. They stayed in touch. When Gilliam moved to London in his mid-20s, he fell in with Cleese's friends Eric Idle and Terry Jones and was hired for their television series Do Not Adjust Your Set.

When the group (along with Terry Jones and Graham Chapman) were commissioned to create a new show, Monty Python's Flying Circus, they asked Gilliam to come up with animations to link together their skits. "I was constantly running up against deadlines. I would turn up literally on the day of the show with my cans of film. Everything was based on the speed I could do things."

His cut-up style grew out of necessity; it's quicker to chop up a Bronzino than paint a new foot.

Gilliam found material everywhere, from newspapers to the margins of medieval manuscripts, but his favourite hunting ground was the National Gallery.

"Desperate for ideas, I'd walk into the museum and I'd look at paintings, etchings, everything — 15 minutes and I'd be out with a lot of ideas to play with." Many of the National's gems made an appearance in Python. "There's Albrecht Durer, there's some Bruegel in there. I can't remember specific ones any more because I was just a magpie, grabbing anything that sparkled ... The first time I did a cartoon for Do Not Adjust Your Set, I went over to Tate Britain and I went through all their old Victorian Christmas cards."

The Pythons, from left: John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Eric Idle.
The Pythons, from left: John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Eric Idle.

The photographs of mustachioed Victorians and po-faced policemen that Gilliam found gave the Flying Circus its quintessentially English look. "It was a completely different world to America — I was part of history suddenly. I was completely fascinated with this civilisation. These were faces that I didn't know from America, so they became the cast of a lot of my work."

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In one Python animation, the fig-leaf on Michelangelo's David is pulled away to reveal the face of BBFC censor John Trevelyan. Were any of Gilliam's jokes lost to the censor's scissors? "There was one of our religious cartoons that John [Cleese] actually insisted we cut," he tells me.

The skit involved Jesus's cross being put to use as a telegraph pole. "I look at it now and I think, what's the problem?

"Nobody else censored us, but anybody in the group had the right of veto, if they were so unnerved or disgusted by something in the show."

Was it lonely, working mostly by himself? "Yeah, I hated those b******s, leaving me alone night after night, day after day, week after week, doing all the good stuff while they were off having fun." A long chuckle.

"No, I didn't think much about it. I was always a slight outsider, being an immigrant American — they were proper English. I think all of them voted for Brexit. Definitely John did." (Gilliam, a British citizen since 1968, did not.)

There's an anarchic, postmodern edge to Gilliam's art, best captured in his 1978 book Animations of Mortality. It's a guide to making animated "products", narrated by a bureaucratic cartoon badger who is gunned down mid-book. "I had to kill him," cries his assailant. "Animation is an art, not a business. You do see that, don't you, officer?"

Animation may be an art, but "I'd rather be a craftsman than an artist," Gilliam insists.

"Craftsmanship is what it's all about — you're working with your hands, it's a tactile thing."

"Nobody else censored us, but anybody in the group had the right of veto, if they were so unnerved or disgusted by something in the show."

I ask if it's a perspective he inherited from his father, who worked in the carpentry business.

"It was a little bit more complicated, because my father was a carpenter and my mother was a virgin, so I had all sorts of messianic tendencies ... "

Gilliam doesn't watch much TV or film these days (aside from US cartoon Family Guy), but he feels that old-fashioned craftsmanship is missing from a lot of cinema. He says that Disney's computerised Lion King remake, for example, "strikes me as the most ridiculous art idea ever. Why would you want to have photorealistic lions singing?

Terry Gilliam at the London Film Festival. Photo / Getty Images
Terry Gilliam at the London Film Festival. Photo / Getty Images

"In my films, I'm always trying to make it clear to the audience that you're watching artifice.

"We're trying to be truthful about the real world by abstracting it a bit. And I think that's very important. People now are beginning to find it difficult to distinguish between reality and virtual reality."

I remind Gilliam he once called the Renaissance a "disaster" for art.

"Did I say that? That's really weird ... The Renaissance went for photorealism — I think that's what I was talking about.

"Suddenly we weren't dealing with flat images like Giotto. That's why I love Japanese art — I collect ukiyo-e prints — because they don't have perspective in them. With perspective, we became three-dimensional. That was the beginning of virtual reality."

Gilliam's wild surrealism is, perhaps, his way of waging war on realism.

Why put up with a lifeless replica of the real world, when you could wave a hand and say, "And now, for something completely different"?

— Telegraph Media Group