‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!’ said Terry Jones as Mandy Cohen in ‘Life of Brian’ Monty Python’s best film. It combined two of the late stars fondness for playing female characters as well as historical revisionism. It’s probably that and his grotesque Mr Creoste in The Meaning of Life that are the two characters he’ll best be remembered for. They were also films that he directed.
Born February 1st 1942 in Colwyn Bay, North Wales he was bought up by his mother and grandmother as his father was stationed in India with the RAF. That was until he was four and the family moved to Surrey where he spent his schooldays before gaining entrance to Oxford where he studied English but developed an interest in medieval history that would last his whole life. It was at Oxford that he became involved in a small theatre company where he performed and met what would become his writing partner Michael Palin and would perform at the 1964 Edinburgh festival where coincidentally Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and John Cleese were also performing. Having graduated he worked as a copywriter for Anglia TV before getting a job as a script editor for the BBC and as a writer he worked on a variety of shows that included The Frost Report and the ITV show ‘Do Not Adjust Your set’ and he established a reputation for sharp satire. By 1967 he and Palin were writing for a BBC sketch shown before writing ‘The Complete and utter history of the World’ in 1969 for ITV. It was a year that would change everything for him when, along with Cleese, Idle, Chapman, Palin and Gilliam they would write Monty Python’s Flying Circus a series of surreal sketches of which he was the one who structured the show so that sketches fluidly ran into the next without any need for a punchline , something they had learnt from Spike Milligan’s seminal Q series. None of them expected it to take off and be the influence it was and remains. It was only by the second series that they understood it to be a hit.
In 1970 with the show a success, Terry Jones decided to get married in 1970 to Alison Telfer where they would later have two children before separating in 2005. Cleese left Python after the third series but the team went on to make four feature films. The first, 1971’s ‘And now for something completely different ‘, was ironically titled as it was just sketches from the series re-filmed. But their next, ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ was far better and Jones co-directed with Terry Gilliam and both found it a frustrating experience.
1976 saw Terry Jones with Palin writing the TV series ‘Ripping Yarns’, a set of standalone Boys Own mock adventure films with Palin as the lead. It paled in comparison with Cleese’s ‘Fawlty Towers’ but was still a good if underrated show. By the end of that series Jones and the rest of the Pythons came together to make ‘Life Of Brian’ controversial in its subject matter of a nobody mistaken for the Messiah it ended up getting banned in dozens of city’s as well as in some countries. It was however Pythons finest moment in one of the best film comedies ever made with Terry Jones as Brian’s appalling harridan of a mother.
Life of Brian was a huge critical and commercial hit and, flushed with success, the Python’s set about writing their fourth film ‘The Meaning of Life’. It wasn’t a patch on Brian and Cleese was the first to admit that they hadn’t spent anywhere near enough time fine tuning the script. It did however feature Jones as the film’s most memorable and grotesque character the glutinous Mr Creosote a sickeningly obese diner vomiting after every course and finally encouraged to eat one last, ‘ wafer thin mint’ by Cleese’ obsequious waiter resulting in Creosote exploding over everyone.
By now Jones had already been branching out having published a book in 1980 about Chaucer’s Knight an insightful dissection that the Knight rather than being a paragon of virtue was actually a mercenary. So whilst Terry Jones wrote well informed scholarly books he also wrote children’s stories books that began with ‘The saga of Erik the Viking’ which he had written for his son and he would also film in 1989 with a young Tim Robbins. He moved on to more controversial topics again with 1987’s ‘Personal Services’, a true story about the notorious Cynthia Payne’s suburban brothel. Like Brian and also Meaning of Life the film was banned in Ireland much to his delight. After that he moved back to more genteel subject matter with his version of ‘Wind in the Willows’ in 1996 where he also played Mr Toad and Eric Idle as Ratty. Unfortunately though well reviewed it was barely shown in the UK due to studio politics. Its lack of success was followed by his script for ‘Absolutely Anything’ which had its funding pulled when 2003’s ‘Bruce Almighty’ was released which was deemed similar to Jones script. However by 2015 he finally got it made with Simon Pegg starring and featured the voices of all the Pythons as well as Robin Williams in what would be one of his last roles. He continued to explore his interest in history with documentaries and he wrote increasingly political pieces for The Guardian newspaper.
Having married his second wife in 2012 and having a daughter he was shortly to find his life affected irrevocably when in 2016 he was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia a debilitating form of dementia that for Jones was made worse as it impaired his ability to communicate. It had already been suspected that something was not right when in 2014 during the Python reunion he kept forgetting his lines.
Though for everyone he was an integral member of Monty Python he always wanted to be remembered for his historical writing and children’s books and on January 22nd 2020 at 77 years old he passed away.