Notes From a Broad

At Home With Terry Jones

July 19, 2014

Tags: Monty Python, Terry Jones, Sara Rath, Airwaves, WHA Television

At Home With Terry Jones

3 August, 1983. London -- Grove Park, Camberwell. The last in a line of red brick row houses. Our taxi driver had been disappointed that we were not going to visit John Cleese, “that crazy man." Instead, I was interviewing Terry Jones – who, I assured our driver, was pretty crazy, too. My daughter Laura, then 19, was mortified to be seen as tagging along but, like her brother and mother, was a devoted fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, first introduced to American television in 1974. We'd been touring France and the UK for nearly a month.

I rang the bell and a Yugoslavian woman answered. She yelled “Terry.” He soon appeared and asked if we wanted to stay indoors or go out, or could he make us coffee. I said yes to the coffee and he showed us to the garden where we were seated at a wrought-iron table in the shade. (Three children were watching a videotape of “Polyester,” which seemed a bit odd -- Terry told them to take the dog, Mitch outside and get some fresh air).

He was wearing a pink shirt and seemed more handsome than I’d expected, but Laura said that’s because we usually see him in a wig and a dress. He had been informed (correctly) that I was writing a story for Airwaves a public television magazine published by the Friends of WHA.

On his current Wikipedia page, 7/19/2014, the resulting interview is last in a list of “External Links” but if you try to connect there’s just “Wisconsin Public Television,” and “Page Not Found”. So herewith is the article reproduced as it appeared in the issue of Airwaves October, 1983:

NOTE: Since this interview was published, Jones has been divorced, remarried, and fathered another child at age 69.

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AT HOME WITH TERRY JONES

by Sara Rath

Terry Jones, 41, has been part of the six-man Monty Python comedy team since its birth in 1969, along with Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Michael Palin…Sara Rath recently visited Terry Jones at his London home where, although having been kept very busy directing the Python’s latest film, The Meaning of Life, Jones is still reportedly available for odd jobs, party catering and lunchtime recitals. He also sells ladies’ underwear in his spare time.

The Mona Lisa was so small; Loch Ness seemed benign and just the night before I’d dozed off with Alan Bates no more than fifteen rows ahead of me on the stage of London’s Haymarket Theatre. You run risks when you travel – you expect things to be bigger than life, or at least as grand as they are in your imagination. So what would Terry Jones be like? Would I find this zany, madcap member of Monty Python to be aloof and unapproachable? The beige Volkswagen with antinuke bumperstickers parked in his driveway was reassuring.

In fact, he seemed almost shy. He was one of those people who have trouble looking you in the eye right away, until they feel more comfortable. We sat in his garden where we shared the shade with his two children, the neighbor kids and his dog, Mitch. He served espresso while I explained about Airwaves and WHA and the legions of Python fans back home.

Critics have frequently called your kind of humor adolescent and juvenile.

Yes, they totally do, you know. I think they’re absolutely right. I couldn’t think of a better way of describing it. I think as long as it stays adolescent and juvenile, I’m quite happy. In fact, I think if everybody was a bit more adolescent and juvenile, the world would probably be a happier place.
Bill! Close the gate so young Mitch doesn’t get out!


So what does that say about your audience? Does that mean those of us who appreciate Python have an arrested development?

I think that’s a little known fact about the Python audience. Or else, I suppose it also means there are people who are less hide-bound about conventions and are willing to relax their own preconceptions as well. I think a lot of art is about perception and seeing things differently, or seeing things from an original point of view, and to do that often it means sort of having a child’s approach. And I think, you know, you certainly can’t enjoy Python unless you’re prepared to be a bit silly occasionally. Mitch! Don’t dig up the lawn!

How did the Pythons get together in the first place?

Well, I guess we’d all been writing for TV, really, and we’d got a bit fed up with writing things for other people and thought that we could do it as well or better than it was being done. So Mike Palin and myself joined with Eric Idle and did a children’s s how called Do Not Adjust Your Set, and Graham (Chapman) and John (Cleese) were doing a show called At Last the 1948 Show, and Terry Gilliam got involved and did a few animations for us, and so then John and Graham proposed doing a show together. And we said alright, we came as a package, sort of the four of is and the six of us – it was kind of Adjust Your Set meets The 1948 Show, but…Mitch! What’re you up to, eh? Naughty dog!

Was that concept sort of a series of sketches?

Yes, yes they were sketch shows. We’d been doing revues, revues at university. And revue in England is kind of a series of sketches, an hour and a half usually, on stage. Terry Gilliam had done an animation in Do Not Adjust Your Set that was a kind of stream-of-consciousness, so in a way the flow of Python came out of that animation.

You know, of course, that FLYING CIRCUS is returning to PBS this fall [1983] Why do you think the series is still relevant now, 14 years after it was originally produced?

Yes, yes, it’s odd, isn’t it? I only very occasionally look at them. It wasn’t like That Was The Week That Was, or I guess Saturday Night Live, in a way, when you’re much more geared to personalities of the moment kind of thing, so it’s a more abstract kind of comedy. I suppose it’s more fantasy. Fantasy’s more abstract, so I supposed in a way it doesn’t date.

Do you have any favorite bits from that series that you remember fondly?

It’s funny, I keep remembering different bits. People keep mentioning, “Hey, do you remember that bit,” and I think, Oh, yes, um…

The Lumberjack bit went over very well in Wisconsin.

Oh, yes, it’s quite a lumber state, is it? I guess I’d better say it’s the Lumberjack bit that I like…

I liked the one where the guy bought the dead parrot.

Oh, yes…pity. Well, I’ve always been rather fond of The Spanish Inquisition…

Do you think there’s a difference between British humor and American humor?

I don’t think there is, really. I mean, there may be different fashions at different times; or at one time you’re having a lot of stand-up comedians in America and in England, well, maybe the comedy is being expressed slightly differently. But I don’t think in essence that comedy is different in any country. When I think of the film makers that I like best I’d have to say that Keaton is my all-time favorite, and he’s as American as they come. Whereas Chaplin, who was, I suppose, originally an Englishman, I don’t particularly like all that much…ooh, see this little bug, and how its little antennae are going?

I understand FLYING CIRCUS was a big hit in Japan.

Well, it did jolly well, became quite popular. When they showed it in Japan they called it the Gay Boys Dragon Show, evidently that was the translation, and they showed the scenes but they had to explain them to the Japanese so they’d cut back to a panel of businessmen or a panel of interpreters to explain and discuss what they thought the joke was about.

When you get together, do you have a general idea or an outline? Who’s going to do this, who’s going to do that?

We kind of did with The Life of Brian, we had a vague idea that we were going to do the Life of Christ or something, and although that changed as we wrote, we did kind of have a starting out point. But with The Meaning of Life, we didn’t. We’d just sort of go away and write bits and then after a day or two of writing I’d get together with mike and he and I would read to each other and say “Hey, that’s good, but I’m not sure about that bit,” and then we’d swap over materials and I’d complete writing or change something that Mike had written and we’d get together again and read it out to the group. So we’d have a week of writing, a week of writing individually or in pairs, and then the pairs would go and converge…

So you write in twos?

Well, Mike and I usually write together, and John and Graham tend to write together; Eric tends to write his alone, and Terry Gilliam always his stuff alone, the animation.

So, when we look at something, if we really knew your work well, would we be able to tell who wrote what sketch?

Probably at first, although it got increasingly difficult as we went on because we finally started writing like each other. So whereas Mike and I had sort of been specializing in little visual things and John and Graham were very much verbal, we tended to start changing over, and occasionally – Mike and I were always sort of self-conscious about certain things we’d write because eventually they’d be sent up by the group and they’d go, “Oh, there’s one of those again,” so we started not to write those, but John and Graham started writing that kind of sketch. Occasionally we’d write parodies of each other’s styles, which eventually became sketches.

About The Meaning of Life, how do you feel about having taken the role of the most disgusting character in the film?

Mr. Creosote? Well, I’ve suddenly begun to realize that a lot of the Meaning of Life is about people failing to come to terms with what’s really happening around them – like the restaurant scene, with Mr. Creosote, what’s funny in that is really the reaction of the head waitier, trying to gloss everything over as if this awful thing’s not really going on.

And the other patrons, continuing…

And the other patrons, trying to go on eating, trying to be polite, yes. And the same thing with Death coming to the dinner party. And with the Liver Donor, in a way it’s sort of a, Shut the gate, Sal? You know, it’s, here’s this awful, terrible thing happening on the table and the woman comes in and sees it and immediately says, “Why it’s typical of him, isn’t it?” you know, she’s lived her whole life blaming her husband for everything and so there he is, having his guts torn out and she does it again…

But, Mr. Creosote…

Yes, well, that was sort of my scene, really. Originally I wanted Terry Gilliam to do it; I thought he’d make the character look very gross.

I think you did very well!

Well, we fortunately had a wonderful makeup man, and then the body, basically it was a cage, a kind of light cage, with a big of air bag in it. There were different bodies actually; one for when I was walking and a different one for when I was sitting.

Then did you have some sort of tube?

Yes – for the vomit we had, I think it was 900 gallons of stuff mixed up.

Looked great.

Yes, the special effects guy got various sample vomits for us to choose from. We had this great bath of it sitting on the set while we were doing it, and it was really very nice. It was vegetable soup with sweet corn and things like that, but by the end of the week it had begun to smell what it looked like.

Now that you’ve directed The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, what do you find most gratifying about your work? Do you prefer directing? Do you like acting? Writing?

I think the most gratifying part is doing it all, really. Just being able to have the opportunity to do all the different things, because they’re all fun in different ways. I enjoy writing, but I’d get stale, I think if I was just writing all the time, and vice-versa.

Do you ever find a need to develop more individuality? Is there ever too much of a sense of being a part of a group?

It’s funny, maybe I’ve sort of always got other things going. Like all the time we were doing Python, I as researching a book on Chaucer. In any case, we don’t do that much Python now. I mean, we’ve done two films in the last eight years so we’re not really treading on each others’ toes anymore. We’ve all developed other things. Like I’ve sort of got these childrens’ books; I wrote a book of fairy tales that came out last year, and this year I’ve got another one, called The Saga of Eric the Viking [Goes inside and comes back out with the books]. I started the fairy tales because I like the idea of fairy tales. I like the way you can talk about truths and things but it’s all sort of in a fantasy. In that way they’re not a mile away from Python; it has the same kind of function. I tried reading Anderson and Grimm to [his daughter] Sally and she found them too long. And sometimes I didn’t agree with the morality of them at all, so I thought it would be nice to sort of write my own. Once I’d written one for Sally, I had to write something for Bill, so Bill said he wanted the same characters going all the way th rough; he didn’t just want stories like Sally, so he got a Viking. He got a Saga, in fact.

You have just two children?

Yes.

And you’ve written two books…

Two books, yes. If I’m going to write another book we’d better get busy on having another child, I suppose…What’re you up to, Mitch? That’s a new one, playing with the hat.
Here, I’ll show you what she likes [does a trick with the dog and an old glove]. She likes this more than anything else in the world, don’t you, Bitch?


I thought Mitch was a boy’s name.

She’s Mitch-the-Bitch, really…


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We took photos and prepared to leave, but then he wanted to chat some more and insisted that we wait while he ran up to his office to bring down snapshots of their last weekend trip to Inverness. Laura and I had spent two weeks in Scotland (we returned to London on “The Clansman,” an eleven and a half hour railroad trip) but they had flown, five of them,for only 100 pounds.

A rocking horse stood in front of the living room window and there were toys scattered on the floor. When we left, he stood in the doorway and waved and called “Cheerio” while we went down the walk. I was smiling to myself. They really do say that in England.

The next day Laura and I walked down to Buckingham Palace and saw the Queen Mum, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Diana, Princess Margaret et al at Clarence House because it was the Queen Mum’s birthday. It was a memorable trip

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IN MY NEXT BLOG I’ll tell you about when we met Bono. Yup, that’s the one.