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The Yorkshire Post video interview: Python Terry Jones

As one of the Pythons he changed the face of British comedy. He's also acted in French movies, made television programmes about medieval British history and played a talking toad. Nick Ahad meets Terry Jones.

Silver hair, a sober black suit, the only hint there is something a little unusual about Terry Jones is the wristwatch hanging from a belt loop on his trousers.

It's a comforting sign. Since the final recording of Monty Python's Flying Circus, 35 years have passed. In the intervening decades, Jones has directed opera, immersed himself in medieval history and written children's poetry, but it's the surreal mind which came up with mouse organ sketch which most fans want to get inside.

"There is a character I created called Mr Creosote," he recently told a sell out crowd at the Bradford International Film Festival. "He's this great big fat bloke who is eating in a restaurant. Gradually he gets bigger and bigger and eventually explodes."

The explanation was largely unnecessary. Mr Creosote appeared in the 1983 film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and he and his 'waffer thin mint' has since found a place in our collective consciousness next to the Lumberjack Song and the Silly Olympics.

"I was writing with Mike and things were a bit of a struggle," says Jones, the audience hanging on his every word. "It was the end of the day and we had to come up with something. I had this image of man so fat that he was walking through a park carrying his stomach on a wheelbarrow, but the sketch wasn't going anywhere. Mike said he was going to nip to the toilet and when he came back I had to have some kind of punchline.

"I heard him coming back upstairs, so in a panic, I just wrote something like: 'He's in a restaurant, as he eats his stomach expands, then it explodes'.

"Mike came back and he laughed, so I got away with it."

The Mike in question is Michael Palin. Both Oxford graduates, the pair had already worked together on Do Not Adjust Your Set and The Frost Report. It was a formidable double act which continued throughout Python, with Cambridge boys John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam, who attended Barrack Obama's alma mater Occidental College, forming another writing team.

Collectively their surreal take on the traditional sketch show - which saw Jones usually playing a middle-aged woman or a man in the street wearing a bowler hat - changed the cultural landscape. They did away with traditional punchlines, they took the sketches out of the TV studio and liberally sprinkled the show with Gilliam's animations. It was a formula which not only earned them an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary - Pythonesque - but one whose legacy is evident in everything from The League of Gentleman to Little Britain.

"I never understand how we influenced all these comedians," says Jones, disarmingly humble. "The whole idea was to create something that didn't have a style, something that couldn't be defined. That way the audience would never know what was going to happen next. I think the fact we ended up in the OED simply proves that we failed entirely to do that.

"I I remember when we were setting the whole thing up I thought, 'This is it. This is our chance'. Mike and I had been writing together for various different things, but this seemed really important. I think we were convinced, I think we were arrogant enough to think we were going to be the funniest thing around at the time.

"However, I also remember thinking, 'Well, it's not quite the Goons is it? If only we had more characters and more stories'.

"If we had done any more Pythons I would have liked to have had more story telling."

The show only lasted four series, but by which time the Python effect had spread across Britain and beyond. Not bad for a show which had received a decidedly lukewarm reception when it was first aired in 1969.

"At the time it didn't seem all that successful," says Jones. "The first show we did the audience was full of old people. During the recording there was not a huge amount of laughter - they thought they were coming to see a circus and were a bit bemused by what was going on. The BBC had flagged it up as a new satire show, which it wasn't at all.

"We didn't really get much reaction until about the fourth or fifth show and then we started to get a lot of letters from children."

Adults, children, teenagers: the Pythons were on the path to becoming the comedy highpoint of their era. What hindsight doesn't record, is that like every other next big thing, their fans were also sometimes their biggest critics.

"When we did the movies everyone said, 'Oh well, Holy Grail is not as good as the TV series', then we did Life of Brian and people said, 'It's not as good as Holy Grail'. There's something about looking in retrospect."

Of all the Pythons, Jones is perhaps the least recognisable from the sketch show. Now 67, his shock of black hair has turned silver and while his post-Pythons CV is impressive, he hasn't had the public profile of a Palin or a Cleese.

"It was John (Cleese) really, he'd had enough of television and sketch shows and wanted to do other stuff," he says without any sense of bitterness. If there was sadness, it has been left in the past. "John was the first to get bored. I thought we had enough material to make full stories."

Co-writing Ripping Yarns with Palin, Jones' desire to tell stories was at least partially fulfilled and by the time the Pythons went their separate ways - Cleese to Hollywood, Palin around the world - he also had experience behind the cameras, sharing directing duties with Gilliam on Holy Grail before taking over as sole director on both Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life.

Since then he has also added children's book author, political columnist and screenplay writer to his list of credits.

"Fortunately we went through a couple of court cases and we now own the TV shows and Life of Brian. I can survive on that and it means I can do things that don't earn money, just because I am interested in."

Of the six Pythons, Jones' career has certainly been the most eclectic. He wrote the screenplay for Labyrinth, directed Erik the Viking and Wind in the Willows, in which he played Toad, made television programmes about Chaucer and Medieval England, acted in French movies and penned brilliant columns for the likes of the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph in which he has viciously attacked the War on Terror. He is also a member of the UK Poetry Society

So what is he? Writer? Director? Python? Jones smiles at the last of these.

"Aah, I don't know really. I suppose writing has always been the first thing for me. But I just feel very lucky I 've been able to do all sorts of things."

And if the wrist watch hanging off his belt is indication of anything, it's that Terry Jones will always do thing his own way.

 
 
 

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