Monty Python’s Terry Jones: Master of the absurd

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Terry Jones had a love of the absurd that contributed much to the anarchic humour of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

His style of visual comedy, leavened with a touch of the surreal, inspired many comedians who followed him.

It was on Python that he honed his directing skills, notably on Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life.

A keen historian, he wrote a number of books and fronted TV documentaries on ancient and medieval history.

Terence Graham Parry Jones was born in Colwyn Bay in north Wales on 1 February 1942.

His grandparents ran the local amateur operatic society and staged Gilbert and Sullivan concerts on the town’s pier each year

His family moved to Surrey when he was four but he always felt nostalgic about his native land.

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Jones (R) with Palin and Idle in Do Not Adjust Your Set

“I couldn’t bear it and for the longest time I wanted Wales back,” he once said. “I still feel very Welsh and feel it’s where I should be really.”

After leaving the Royal Grammar School in Guildford, where he captained the school, he went on to read English at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

However, as he put it, he “strayed into history”, the subject in which he graduated.

While at Oxford he wrote sketches for the Oxford Revue and performed alongside a fellow student, Michael Palin.


Jones also got to know Graeme Garden, who suggested that he and Palin join a team of writers and performers on Twice a Fortnight, a BBC sketch show that aired for 10 weeks at the end of 1967.

He also wrote for The Frost Report, the series that first saw the future Pythons working together, and in the ITV sketch show, Do Not Adjust Your Set.

He and Palin went on to write another show, The Complete and Utter History of Britain, which aired on the London region of ITV in 1969.

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He grew frustrated with The Complete and Utter History of Britain

His frustration at the way the show was put together made Jones decide he wanted to take charge of his own projects.

“It got me really convinced that you have to control everything,” he said later. “You not only act in the things, you’ve got to actually start directing the things as well.”

He had the opportunity when Monty Python’s Flying Circus launched in October 1969.

It was Jones who was the driving force behind abandoning punch lines at the end of sketches and developing what became the show’s trademark stream of consciousness.

Screeching harridans

This also took a lot of pressure off the writers, who no longer had to dream up a killer line to round off a sketch.

Graham Chapman would appear as an army colonel and declare the sketch over because it was “too silly”. Alternatively an armoured knight would wander on and hit someone over the head with a rubber chicken.

Jones also appeared naked, apart from a collar and tie, playing an organ as a form of punctuation between sketches.

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The gluttonous Mr Creosote was one of his most memorable Python characters

He made something of a speciality of playing middle-aged women, often one of the screeching harridans that populated the show.

Possibly his most memorable appearance was in The Meaning of Life as the exploding Mr Creosote who, after a gargantuan feast, misguidedly accepted “just one wafer thin mint”.

Like many of the Pythons, he later found it hard to fathom why the show became such cult viewing

“The thing is we never thought Python was a success when it was actually happening – it was only with the benefit of hindsight.”

Suburban brothel

The Monty Python films enabled Jones to further his skills as a director. After co-directing Monty Python and the Holy Grail he took sole charge of Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life.

He remained bemused at the fierce opposition to Life of Brian expressed by many religious groups.

“It wasn’t about what Christ was saying, but about the people who followed him,” he said. “The ones who for the next 2,000 years would torture and kill each other because they couldn’t agree on what he was saying about peace and love.”

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He often appeared as one of Python’s screeching female characters

The council at one town in his native Wales, Aberystwyth, actually banned the showing of the film for 30 years.

In 1987 he directed the film Personal Services, loosely based on the real-life story of Cynthia Payne, who achieved notoriety after being charged with running a brothel in suburban London

He went on to direct a comedy fantasy film, Erik the Viking, which featured a diverse cast including Mickey Rooney, Imogen Stubbs and Eartha Kitt.

In 1996 he wrote and directed an adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, in which he also played the part of Mr Toad.

Children’s author

The film struggled initially, getting few showings in the UK, but received a positive welcome in the United States, where it won top prize at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival.

Jones established himself as a popular children’s author with a number of books, including Nicobobinus, the story of a boy who can do anything, and The Saga of Erik the Viking, which won the Children’s Book Award in 1984.

He also wrote historical books such as Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary, which debunked the notion that medieval knights were paragons of Christian virtue

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Retracing the history of the Crusades for BBC TV

He also wrote and presented Crusades, a four-part documentary series that ran on BBC TV in 1995.

The latter featured scenes of Jones dressing in period costume to illustrate some of the events he was describing.

“My constant theme is that the medieval world is similar to ours in that the same people always take advantage of the same people,” Jones said. “Humanity doesn’t change all through the centuries.”

He enjoyed exploring alternative views of history such as his Emmy Award-winning Medieval Lives, in which he argued the Middle Ages had a more sophisticated culture than previously imagined.

Jones was an active anti-war campaigner and wrote a number of newspaper articles condemning the war in Iraq.

In 2016 it was announced he was suffering from dementia, a cruel blow for a man for whom communication was his lifeblood. He received a standing ovation in October that year when he appeared on stage to receive a Bafta Cymru Award for his outstanding contribution to film and television.

During an interview at the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival in 2017, Palin revealed that Jones was no longer able to speak.

Jones was asked in a 2011 interview how, out of all his various achievements, he would best like to be remembered.

“Maybe a description of me as a writer of children’s books or some of my academic stuff,” he replied. “Or maybe as the man who restored Richard II’s reputation. “He was a terrible victim of 14th Century political spin, you know.”

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