Terry Jones: Monty Python star who helped to change the course of comedy

Anthony Hayward

Terry Jones, who has died aged 77, was one of the team who broke down boundaries in television humour when they launched Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969.

He was soon famous as the nude church organist in short interludes between sketches and for portraying shrill-voiced women in the programme – as well as in the Pythons’ big-screen outings.

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian​ (1979), which he also directed, Jones played Mandy Cohen, who flings open her shutters to tell the chanting “followers” of her son, mistaken for Jesus: “He’s not the Messiah – he’s a very naughty boy!”

Some local authorities banned the film from cinema screenings, regarding it as blasphemous, but the line entered the annals of film comedy history and became the title, three decades later, of a “baroque’n’roll” oratorio written by fellow Python Eric Idle, premiered in 2007 at a Canadian festival.

Two years later, Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy) – combining the humour of the film with opera singers, plus chorus and symphony orchestra – was performed at the Royal Albert Hall, London, to mark 40 years of the Python team. Four of the six Pythons reunited to appear in cameo roles alongside opera stars such as mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright, who played Mandy.

Just as memorable as Mandy was the gluttonous Mr Creosote, one of the dozen characters acted by Jones, in the group’s final film The Meaning of Life (1983), which he also directed. The morbidly obese bon viveur is seen in a posh French restaurant projectile vomiting as he eats and drinks more and more, until the scene finishes with his stomach literally exploding.

Terence Graham Parry Jones was born in Colwyn Bay, Denbighshire (now Clwyd), in 1942, the son of Dilys (nee Newnes) and Alick Jones.

When he was four, the family moved to Claygate, Surrey, where his father – who had served with the RAF in India during the Second World War – worked as a bank clerk. Jones attended the Royal Grammar School, Guildford, then graduated in English from St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

Jones (far right) with his Python colleagues on the set of ‘Life of Brian’ (PA)

While at university, he performed in revues with Michael Palin. When they took their satirical sketches to the Edinburgh Festival in 1964, they met David Frost and future Pythons Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Eric Idle.

After briefly working as a copywriter for ITV company Anglia Television, Jones became a script editor at the BBC, working on Late Night Line-Up, then in 1967 – along with the other Pythons – wrote material for satirical shows such as The Frost Report, starring David Frost, and A Series of Bird’s, featuring John Bird and John Fortune.

They also wrote and appeared in the sketch shows Twice a Fortnight (1967) and Marty (1968-69), with Marty Feldman, and the anarchic children’s programme Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69) before wider fame came with their surrealist, stream-of-consciousness comedy in four series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74).

Reading Chaucer at university gave Jones a lifelong interest in medieval history that found an outlet in the King Arthur film spoof Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), which he co-directed with Terry Gilliam, along with television documentaries such as Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives (2004) and books that included Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary (1980).

On TV, from 1971 to 1976, Jones and other Pythons contributed sketches to The Two Ronnies. Then, he and Palin co-wrote Ripping Yarns, which ran for two series on TV (1977 and 1979) following a 1976 pilot.

Jones in 1974 (Radio Times/Getty)

Palin played characters in parodies of pre-Second World War Boys’ Own adventures, from “Escape from Stalag Luft 112B” to “Roger of the Raj”, and was joined in “Tomkinson’s Schooldays” by Jones, who appeared as teachers and a grizzly bear grappling with the public-school hero.

In a different vein as a director, he made the comedy Personal Services (1987), written by David Leland and based on the real-life story of Cynthia Payne – “Madam Cyn” – with Julie Walters starring as the suburban brothel-keeper taking luncheon vouchers as payment.

Less successfully, he directed Erik the Viking (1989), inspired by his 1983 children’s book but with a new story featuring Tim Robbins as an invading Norseman turning his back on rape and pillage. Bitingly, film critic Roger Ebert described it as “uninformed by the slightest spark of humour, wit or coherence”.

More happily, Jones was in the director’s chair again for a well-reviewed live-action film of The Wind in the Willows (1996), which he scripted, with himself in the role of Toad. He also directed Absolutely Anything (2015), starring Simon Pegg as a teacher given miraculous powers by aliens.

The five surviving members of the Monty Python team (Chapman died in 1989) reunited for the last time in 2014 for a 10-date stage show at London’s O2. A year later, Jones was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia.

He is survived by Anna Soderstrom, his second wife, whom he married in 2012, and their daughter, as well as the son and daughter of his first marriage, to Alison Telfer (1970-2012), which ended in divorce.

Terry Jones, actor, writer and director, born 1 February 1942, died 21 January 2020

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