The Mad, Mad World of Monty Python's Terry Jones Is Not for Adults Only
Once upon a time there was a funny man named Terry Jones who slithered around playfully with his friends, the Monty Python team, and sometimes pretended he was a nude organist. He liked to read bedtime stories to his daughter, Sally, in their big Victorian house in London. One day he decided to write his own stories about sea tigers, wind ghosts and monster trees. Sally, then 7, picked her favorites. So did a British publisher. Then children on both sides of the big ocean heard Terry Jones’s Fairy Tales. And Sally and her daddy lived happily ever after.
Or at least until Sally’s brother, Bill, then 5, began wondering why his father didn’t write a book for him too. So Jones, now 42, spun out The Saga of Erik the Viking (Schocken Books, $15.95), a whimsical adventure about a plucky Norseman who sails off to find “the land where the sun goes at night.”
Like Fairy Tales, written in 1981, Erik the Viking has won wide praise from critics and brought Jones a loyal new juvenile audience. The same zany imagination that inspired the three Python films, The Holy Grail, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life (all directed by Jones), is equally adept at conjuring up giants, ogres, mermaids and wolves. “I like the way fantasy can abstract a human quality, emotion or moral and make it into a simple, single image,” says Jones. “The Emperor’s New Clothes, for example, makes quite a complicated political point about the way you can fool the majority of the people the majority of the time. Yet it is told in a little simple story that everybody can understand.”
Other familiar myths, notably those written by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, do not meet with Jones’s approval. “Some of them deal with violence in a way I don’t approve of,” he says. “One version of Sleeping Beauty ends with the wicked stepmother being made to put on these red-hot iron slippers and dance until she falls down dead. You’re reading this to your little daughter, thinking she’ll go to sleep now saying, ‘Oh, I’m so glad they tortured that old woman to death.’ ”
Jonesian plots are far less Grimm. His characters possess the jolly derring-do that Monty Python fans will recognize in Jones’s TV persona. This, after all, is the man who not only dressed down as a nude organist, but up as a dirty vicar and a deranged housewife who served her family a rat tart.
The Jones saga began with poetry writing. During his childhood in the Welsh coastal resort town of Colwyn Bay, Terry developed a passion for rhyme that baffled his bank clerk father. Later, as a student at Oxford, his artistic interests shifted to acting and comedy writing. After graduation Jones and an Oxonian squash-playing buddy, Michael Palin (later a Python), began collaborating on TV scripts for David Frost and other British performers. Then came a children’s TV show, Do Not Adjust Your Set. Jones and Palin both wrote and performed, along with Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam. The show soon won a cult following and evolved into Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which the BBC ran on and off for five years and is still rerun in the U.S.
Since the program stopped production in 1975, Jones has been focusing on films, and is currently working on a new one with Palin. It took Jones, holed up in his three-story row house in Camberwell, a seedy section of south London, a mere month to write the saga. During breaks Terry would cook for Sally and Bill or read to them while his wife, Alison, 38, a botanist, went off to work at the Imperial College laboratories.
Bedtime is story time in the Jones household, and sometimes the selection is one by Dad. Which of Jones’s fairy tales and Viking episodes are in biggest demand? Young Bill knows where the toast for his tea is buttered. “I think,” he says, “I like all of them best of all.”