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Is Terry Jones just a lucky blighter?

BY Bruce Dessau

1st Jan 2015 Celebrities

Is Terry Jones just a lucky blighter?

At an age when most sensible people might be toying with the notion of slowing down, 72-year-old Terry Jones seems to be speeding up. Maybe it’s something to do with all the espresso he drinks.

During our interview in the airy study of his modernist Highgate home, he repeatedly pops downstairs for another little cup of coffee. It seems to give him a burst of energy—and he’s going to need plenty of that in the coming months. He’s directing a film, working on a musical and, in case you’ve been living in a cave recently, performing on stage with the rest of the Monty Python team for the first time in 32 years.


The Long Awaited Reunion

While the media has had a field day wondering whether the comedy gods will still be able to deliver the comedy goods after all these years at the enormous O2 Arena, Jones couldn’t appear more relaxed if it was a Sunday afternoon performance in a friend’s front room. “It’s all good. The size of the auditorium doesn’t inhibit me at all. Though I haven’t seen it yet!

“You’re [supposed] to have some nerves to get up on stage, but I’ve never suffered. We played to six million on television, so 16,000 fans is nothing. I used to go to sleep before the TV shows. Have a little snooze in the dressing room.”

None of the other illustrious members of the team—John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam—seem that anxious either, according to Jones. “I think it’ll be exhilarating to play to a large audience. We don’t talk about nerves. It might make us nervous!”

"I used to go to sleep before the TV shows. Have a little snooze in the dressing room.”

He’s clearly looking forward to the group getting back together again, though they have been in touch over the years, both socially and professionally—Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin live nearby and Terry often meets “Mike”, as he calls him, in a Highgate pub. There haven’t been any full dress rehearsals yet, but there have been plenty of meetings. Eric Idle is directing and has written the script, dusting off some old classics and giving them a modern twist.

“Eric has already met with the choreographer Arlene Phillips. There’ll be 20 dancers. All the girls are wearing Agent Provocateur underwear. I don’t know what they’re going to do, though. Eric has also picked some sketches that we’ve never done on stage before, like the Spanish Inquisition.”

Terry tries to resist giving too much away, but he does hint that the night may well end with a big singalong of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, which in some ways sums up his philosophy.

The Nice Python

If Michael Palin is considered to be the Nice Python, Terry, dressed in black with a watch hanging from his belt, could certainly give him a run for his money. As well as plying me with coffee, the interview has barely started when he offers me some of his home-made lamb-and-potato pie. There’s something innately hospitable about him. His voice has a sing-song timbre to it. The cheery, youthful outlook may be partly down to his newish family. As well as two adult children from his first marriage, he now has a four-year-old daughter Siri with his second wife Anna.

Indeed, the only thing that does seem to slightly worry Terry about the Python reunion is the risk of injury: “In the slapstick lecture that closes Act One, I have to fall over a lot and get hit on the head with planks and things like that. I’m not sure how this is going to happen—we’re going to have to work out some padding. It might look a bit odd with a lot of grey-haired people getting bashed up. Eric says we should all get fit, but I walk the dog for an hour on Hampstead Heath every day and I’m hoping that’s enough.”

"I have to fall over a lot and get hit on the head with planks and things like that. I’m not sure how this is going to happen"

After more than three decades away, has he missed it?

“Being hit on the head? No!” After a fruity chuckle, he explains that he’s had plenty to occupy his time in the intervening years, including his academic side, writing several books on medieval history. And he’s currently in the middle of directing his first film since 1996, entitled Absolutely Anything, which he’s written with novelist Gavin Scott.

“I’ve been writing it for about 20 years,” he reveals. “It’s about a teacher who gets special powers and can make impossible things happen. It came from the H G Wells story ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’. We’ve got Simon Pegg in the lead and we’re just looking at locations. We’re shooting it a stone’s throw away in Hornsey Lane, so that’s a relief.” The film is also a partial Python project with Cleese, Palin and Gilliam doing the voices of CGI aliens, alongside Robin Williams as a talking dog. 

Looking around Jones’s study gives other insights into his life. By the window there’s a Bafta given to the Pythons in 2009 for their television work. Alongside it is a picture of Jones—in a Victorian frock—next to his two older children Bill and Sally. The shelves groan with comedy books, but also books on Chaucer, the Oxford history graduate’s favourite period. There are also new copies of The Saga of Erik the Viking, his version of the Icelandic sagas first published 30 years ago. 

“I wrote Erik because I was disappointed by the original Icelandic fairy tales I was reading to Bill. I thought they’d be full of magic and dragons, and they aren’t. They’re all about feuds. Somebody goes and steals somebody’s cow, so the other person kills their cow and then the other person kills their daughter and it all escalates. We did a skit of Njal’s Saga in Monty Python called Njorl’s Saga, which was all about how Njorl never gets started on his adventures because it’s all about explaining how so-and-so married so-and-so and so-and-so married so-and-so, which I must admit is a bit like what the tales are actually like.”

With all of these different strings to his career, how would he describe himself? “I’m just a lucky blighter; I’m able to do anything I like. Python opened up so many doors.”

Monty Python Live (mostly) is at the O2 Arena on July 1–5, 15, 16 and 18–20. The Saga of Erik the Viking is published by Pavilion Books (£6.99).

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