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Terry Jones Interview: He's Not the Messiah... He's a Python

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Nancy is nervous. She sniffs the peanuts before snaffling them, her svelte body aquiver. Terry Jones looks at her with benevolent eyes. 'I've never been able to fathom Nancy,' he says, gently touching her face.

'Another pint?' he then asks, and makes for the bar, leaving me alone with Nancy, who eyes me askance. Then she tries to bite my hand, misses, then goes for the other. Nancy is a dog. A Jack Russell. She's unhappy with me stealing her master's attention away from her. This much I can fathom, as she snarls and looks for some other part of me into which she can sink her girlish teeth.

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'Ah Nancy,' says Terry returning, as I check my hands for traces of blood. 'I've just finished writing a documentary about the economy,' he continues. 'I'm working with a Dutch risk management company. The company head just been made head of risk management at one of the Amsterdam universities, and he suggested I make a film based on his inaugural address. So I suggested a feature documentary.'

Both Nancy and I cock our heads as Terry flings nuts into his mouth. 'It's based upon the financial instability hypothesis of an economist called Hyman P Minsky which asserts that capitalism is unstable, and it's human nature that makes it unstable. It's likely that we're in for a worldwide recession which could last 10 or 20 years.'

This is not the sort of conversation I thought I'd be having with Mr Creosote, but Terry Jones has always been a curious brew of erudition and surrealism, one or the other creeping out depending on his mood.

Born in Colwyn Bay in 1942, the family decamped to Surrey when his father, a Barclays Bank cashier, changed jobs. 'I felt very Welsh when I was translocated to Claygate and Esher when I was 5,' he says, gazing at the bitch between his feet.

'When I met my dad for the first time at Colwyn Bay railway station when he returned from the war, he kissed me, and had a strange and prickly moustache. I think I then developed a phobia of being kissed by men with moustaches,' he chuckles.

Neglecting to tell him it's a phobia I share with him, I suggest the England upon which the Pythons unleashed their humour was a more civilised place compared to now, but he shakes his head. 'This country is more civilised now. You can get good food in restaurants! Good beer too. I've always been interested in beer. You could say I kind of started the micro-brewery business.'

After Monty Python and the Holy Grail [1975], the Pythons were paid £75,000 each, and in those days with tax at 84%, Jones wisely invested in a micro-brewery in Hereford with Peter Austin running things (Austin went on to make it big in the micro-brewery world, I'm assured.)

While this was going on, Terry was writing a book on Chaucer called Chaucer's Knight. 'I've been very lucky to have been able to act, write and direct and not have to choose just the one thing.' Is he the more serious of the Pythons? 'Well, John's pretty serious,' he laughs. 'He's the cleverest one.'

Surely there were doubts about where they were going with Monty Python? 'Well yes there were,' he says. 'The first script we recorded was the flying sheep sketch, and as Graham and I were doing it, John turned to Mike and said "Do you realise that we may be making a comedy series at which nobody ever laughs?" '

After five shows, the Pythons began to receive letters from school kids who liked what they were doing. 'That was our first hint of success,' says Jones, pausing for thought. 'You know, I've never thought of myself as a comedian. It was something we were all just doing, just having fun doing it.'

Jones also somehow managed to capture a strange quintessence of English femininity when dressed in drag (below), but how did he feel when he first saw himself in a dress? 'I looked like my mum, but my mum didn't have the screechy voice.'

Currently busy with the 'financial documentary', Jones will also direct a feature film in the summer about a man who acquires magical powers (produced by Mike Medavoy's Phoenix Pictures), and on Broadway at Christmas he plans to direct a new version of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite set to a heavy metal score.

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Yet for all the current industriousness, the legacy of Monty Python's Flying Circus cannot be undersold, for the absurdist comedy that first aired on 5 October 1969 made it possible for successive generations of comedians, including Vic and Bob and Eddie Izzard, to experiment with form and content. The Pythons gave the world a true freedom to laugh; nervously at first, and then with abandon.

'The consensus of our writing as a team formed the fair-mindedness of Life of Brian [1979],' he says. 'John wanted to play Brian in the beginning, but that would have been a disaster! He also wanted to have a scene where the restaurant didn't have enough reservations for the last supper...but we scotched that one,' he laughs.

'Graham took acting seriously. The Cambridge Revue was the first time I saw him on stage, and I just couldn't see what he was doing. He looked like he'd just walked in from off the street. He was bumbling around.' Did he ever work out what Chapman was doing? 'No, it was always a mystery to me.'

Is there room in his full, creative life for religion? 'I don't think you need religion,' he says after a belt of ale. So is he godless? 'Yes, I'm godless. When I was younger I was going to be a poet, that was what I was destined for. And some of my poems then refer to God, but now I have no need to follow anyone,' he laughs.

'When I was boy, I remember thinking wouldn't it be nice to not chance it and go into a steady job, but I dismissed that pretty quickly. Mike [Palin] does a talk called "Forty Years Without A Proper Job" which sort of sums it all up. But I have led a charmed life, I must admit. But life is absurd, but it is also about sex, beer and wine and food!' Ah, so he has vices? 'They're not vices!' he corrects. 'I'm cheerfully optimistic about life. Optimism is very important!'

And somewhere below my knees I hear a muted growl and see a flash of incisor. 'Ah Nancy, don't be like that,' says Terry, handing down the last nut into the darkness.

'And now I must love you and leave you,' he announces, 'because I'm going home to make tacos.' And I watch him lead the peevish Nancy from the pub, looking for all the world like the don which, at heart, he is. Even in a dress.

© Jason Holmes 2013 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk / @JasonAHolmes

Portrait photo by Abi Symons (abisymons@gmail.com/@Klutzface1)
Photograph of Terry Jones courtesy of the BBC