Terry Jones should be remembered for so much more than his work with Monty Python
As the comedy community bids farewell to Terry Jones, we should remember him for his many talents – from history documentaries and directing feature films to treatises on Chaucer
We knew that Terry Jones had been ill with dementia, but his death on Tuesday at the age of 77 still came as a shock to the entertainment world.
Floods of tributes swamped social media, reflecting the affection he inspired through his many and varied projects from the 1960s through to the noughties.
A driving force behind the Monty Python ensemble – in their ground-breaking Flying Circus TV series (1969–74), their envelope-pushing films and their adored stage shows – Jones nevertheless developed other successful careers, in the fields of history and children's literature.
Born in Colwyn Bay in 1942, Terry Jones studied at Oxford, where he met Michael Palin, and pre-Python he wrote for The Frost Report, Twice a Fortnight (a sketch show with Palin, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie) and ITV children's show Do Not Adjust Your Set.
But it was Monty Python's Flying Circus that first endeared Jones to me and to many – with his fearless capacity to inhabit any role that he was given, often by himself. Jones was a leading light in a story John Cleese told me last year about the Pythons first getting together – Oxford University's Jones and Palin with Cambridge alumni Cleese, Chapman and Idle (Carol Cleveland and animator Terry Gilliam were soon added to the mix)...
"It was nerve-racking at the start because after we’d had this extraordinary meeting with [BBC comedy head] Michael Mills in which he gave us 13 programmes, we were anxious for a bit because we had one or two meetings that got absolutely nowhere – until dear old Terry Jones said, 'Well let’s just go home and write.' And then after a few days we had a read-through at Terry’s flat in Camberwell, and we started laughing at what the others had written, what we each had written. And that was a marvellous moment."
An early sketch that was a favourite of mine, and one that would get played to death on my vinyl record of Monty Python, was Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson, in which Jones's eponymous classical composer kept being sidetracked by Eric Idle's interviewer into revealing the reason for his unusual nickname.
Jones stood out for taking on many of Python's more extreme creations (see Mr Creosote in the 1983 film The Meaning of Life), and by general consensus was the funniest Python at playing women.
As Sir Michael Palin told Radio Times last year, "There were certain sort of caricature women that we had to play ourselves. Then there were women-women that Carol played very well. But a lot of people would say, “Well why didn’t you have women playing Terry’s mother?” Well, because Terry could play his mother better than anybody! And that’s what a lot of Terry’s characters were based upon."
Terry's "Pepperpot" female character was a comedy staple of the 1970s, and his shrill voice would ring out in playgrounds up and down the land, where Pythons were like comedy gods and their characters were mimicked by young fans – many of whom were probably too young to watch the post-watershed TV series.
The later episodes of Flying Circus became more experimental, with longer-form sketches that Palin says were a basis for Ripping Yarns, a comedy anthology series that he wrote with Jones – a pilot programme called Tomkinson's Schooldays aired in early 1976 and two series followed in 1977 and '79. Jones and Palin paired up to write many Python sketches, so it was no surprise when they teamed up again.
The mini-comedy films of Ripping Yarns were an absolute joy, spoofing the Boy's Own style of adventure stories in episodes that were set in a First World War prison, India in 1914, 1930s Huddersfield and even 1920s Maidenhead (my home town!).
Jones showed his gift for direction in the Monty Python films The Holy Grail (with Gilliam), Life of Brian (in which the courageous Jones also appeared as a naked hermit with only a long beard protecting his modesty) and The Meaning of Life.
He went on to direct non-Python projects, too, from the Cynthia Payne-inspired comedy Personal Services to The Wind in the Willows, in which he starred in full green-face makeup as Toad.
Another string to his bow was to prove hugely successful for Jones. He wrote many stories on ancient and medieval history (Chaucer’s Knight, Medieval Lives, Barbarians) and many for children (Fairy Tales, Nicobobinus, The Beast with a Thousand Teeth and Fantastic Stories).
The last book was adapted for Jackanory in 1993, when he told Radio Times, “They’re all set very much in the world of the traditional fairy story, with ogres and castles and talking beasts,” says Jones. “Whenever I write a new story I try it out on my neighbours’ son, Tom, to see if it works. My own kids are both grown up now, but I find Tom a very reliable critic.”
At the time Jones revealed: “I loved reading as a kid. I was a great fan of Rupert the Bear, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Then, at 14, I went straight on to Ray Bradbury, which probably explains a lot.”
Another domain that Jones dominated was history, and I loved the documentaries that he fronted in the late 90s and early noughties. But where Michael Wood, for example, would play it with a straight bat, Jones was always looking for a comedy treatment, endearingly.
Previewing his 2000 BBC Two documentary of ancient Rome, however, Jones told RT that truth was stranger than fiction. “The history of gladiators has been blatantly lifted from the scripts of Monty Python. For example, in Life of Brian we staged a gladiatorial contest in which a feeble retiarius (or "net-man") is faced by a formidable gladiator. We thought it would be fun if the net-man simply took to his heels and ran round and round the amphitheatre until the gladiator, weighed down by his armour, ended up having a heart attack. Bit of theatre of the absurd, or so we thought.
“However, while filming Gladiators: the Brutal Truth, we discovered that almost nothing we could dream up was too far from the truth. Occasionally Christians were thrown to the lions only to find that the poor animals were in such a pathetic state of health they didn’t have the strength to finish anyone off. They might give the humans a terrible mauling, but they wouldn’t kill them. Christians intent on martyrdom would grab the lions by their manes and stick their heads in their mouths in order to force the creatures to do their duty.
“And that would be just the day’s warm-up. No, really! Throwing convicts to unpleasant deaths was strictly down-market entertainment – restricted to the warm-up sessions. In Life of Brian we called it ‘the Children’s Matinee’. We thought we were joking…”
But there were so many facets to Jones. Before he was diagnosed with dementia in 2015, he was still stretching himself, with a musical fantasy, more children's books, poetry, and literary essays. As he told Radio Times, “I’m proud and relieved the Pythons have lasted so long. It enabled me to do a lot of academic stuff because I didn’t need to earn money.”
Carol Cleveland was among the Pythons to pay tribute, telling RT, “I’m always being asked who my favourite Python was and I’ve always declined to say. But I’ll tell you now that Terry J was always one of my two favourites. Working with him in a sketch was such a joy. He always had me in stitches.
"He was very generous, too. He admitted that he’d made a mistake by cutting my scene in The Meaning of Life and then put it back in when the DVD came out.”
The breadth of Jones's work is astonishing, and there was always something genial, friendly and lovable about his TV persona, but comedy fans love the fact that he made them laugh. "There are no taboo areas with humour, nothing you can't make fun of," he once told RT. "The only criterion is: is it funny? If people laugh, it is."