Terry Jones was first among equals in the era-defining ensemble that launched Monty Python’s Flying Circus on unsuspecting television viewers used to more sedate, less anarchic and zany forms of entertainment in 1969. Its success reshaped the course of British comedy to become an international phenomenon.
With co-writer Michael Palin, Jones was responsible for some of the troupe’s most memorable characters, including countless screeching women, the flustered Spanish inquisitor Cardinal Biggles, exasperated composer Arthur ‘Two Sheds’ Jackson and the regurgitating glutton Mr Creosote, for whom a last “wafer-thin mint” proved too much even for his voluminous stomach to digest.
Python remained a feature of Jones’ life, taking on directing duties for three of the troupe’s forays into film, beginning with the gloriously silly Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1975.
Four years later, Jones delivered its masterpiece with The Life of Brian, a spoof on the life of Jesus that provoked controversy amid accusations of blasphemy and local-authority bans in the UK and outright censorship in Ireland. It also gave Jones one of his most oft-repeated lines: “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.”
Born in Colwyn Bay, north Wales, he was raised in Esher, Surrey from the age of four and read English at Oxford University. There he joined the Experimental Theatre Club with fellow student and future director and playwright Michael Rudman and first met Palin. The success of the company’s revue at the 1963 Edinburgh Festival Fringe led to a London run at the Phoenix Theatre.
The BBC’s Late Night Line-Up gave Jones his first television credit in 1964 and he cemented his comedy credentials in a new era marked by convention-baiting, boundary-testing satire in contributions to The Frost Report (1966) and Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967).
The same year, he and Palin collaborated on a pantomime, Aladdin, for the Civic Theatre, Watford, which was revived by the Glasgow Citizens in 1971.
Theatre was a recurrent platform for Jones. Their Finest Hours, his first stage play (co-written with Palin), a brace of two one-act plays that married absurdity with acerbic commentary, was staged by the Sheffield Crucible in 1976.
Although Gargantua, a West End “musical extravaganza” based on French Renaissance writer François Rabelais’ novels, failed to materialise in 1992, Jones enjoyed greater success with stage adaptations of his admired children’s stories. These included Erik the Viking (the first adaptation was staged in 1986 by Birmingham’s Puppet Theatre), Snow Baby (2004), Silly Kings by the National Theatre Wales (2013) and Nicobobinus, co-produced by Red Ladder and DumbWise (2014).
With Jonathan Moore in 2011, he co-directed Anne Dudley’s The Doctor’s Tale at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre, reuniting with the composer to provide a libretto based on Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussy-Cat at Brentford Lock in 2012.
He was also a guest voice of the Book in Dirk Maggs’ 2012 tour by the Radio Drama Company of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Jones returned to the stage for the widely celebrated reunion of the Python team in 2014 at London’s O2 Arena, 25 years after the death of fellow member Graham Chapman, in the adroitly titled Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go.
With Palin, Jones was also responsible for The Complete and Utter History of Britain for London Weekend Television (1969) and the BBC’s cult-attracting spoof Ripping Yarns (1976-79).
He wrote the screenplay for Jim Henson’s David Bowie-starring fantasy Labyrinth (1986) and his other film-directing credits included Personal Services (1987), a star-packed The Wind in the Willows (1996) in which he also played Toad, and his swansong, Absolutely Anything with Simon Pegg, in 2015.
A respected historian specialising in the Middle Ages, Jones wrote several books on the period and the television documentary series Crusades (1995), Ancient Inventions (1998), Medieval Lives (2004) and Barbarians (2006), which he also presented. He was also a prominent agitator for a reassessment of Richard II’s Shakespeare-skewed legacy.
Diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia in 2016, he was awarded a BAFTA for outstanding contribution to comedy, television and film the same year.
Terence Graham Parry Jones was born on February 1, 1942 and died on January 21, aged 77.