I Don’t Like Spam, A Very Naughty Boy, and Terry Jones, born 1942 Feb. 1st

Terry Jones with early self and two dogs.

Terence Graham Parry Jones was born in Colwyn Bay, Wales, on Feb. 1, 1942. The family soon moved to Claygate, near London, for his father’s banking job.


Jones was born in Wales in 1942; his family moved to England when he was a little boy and he eventually ended up at Oxford, where he studied English — and most importantly for our purposes, where he met fellow student and future Python Michael Palin, with whom he wrote and performed comedy sketches. In 1969, they teamed up with Cleese and Chapman, along with Eric Idle and animator Terry Gilliam, to create the show that became known as Monty Python’s Flying Circus (though it was almost called Owl Stretching Time).

Jones, playing a succession of middle-aged battle-axes stomping across the screen in support hose and headscarves.. (The BBC credits Jones with pushing the Pythons away from traditional punch lines and towards those surreal moments — the naked organist, or Chapman in full military kit, shutting down a sketch for being “too silly.”) And of course, he co-wrote the famous “Spam” sketch, which gave us today’s term for a flood of junk email.

Monty Python went off the air in 1974 but had a robust afterlife in movies and on the stage. Jones went on to make several movies of his own, including 1989’s Erik the Viking, starring Tim Robbins and loosely based on one of the children’s books he’d written. He also made documentaries that reflected his interest in ancient and medieval history, and published two books on Geoffrey Chaucer. In a 2011 interview with Wales Online, Jones said that was what he’d like to be remembered for: “Maybe a description of me as a writer of children’s books or some of my academic stuff. Or maybe as the man who restored Richard II’s reputation. He was a terrible victim of 14th century political spin, you know.”

Python historian Richard Topping noted that one of Mr. Jones’s principal creative legacies was behind the camera, keeping a watchful eye on editing and production values and providing the “comedic rhythm and visual logic that make much of the Python material so durable.”

Mr. Jones was captain of his private school’s rugby team, but a long-gestating interest in poetry and acting led to his bond with Palin at the University of Oxford in the early 1960s. The duo created a sketch comedy troupe and over the next several years contributed to satirical TV programs such as “The Frost Report” and “Do Not Adjust Your Set.”

Cleese, Chapman and Idle — all Cambridge alums — and the expatriate Gilliam were also working in the light entertainment realm for British TV. Cleese and BBC producer Barry Took both claimed credit for organizing the writer-performers into “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” — a name chosen to evoke the moniker of a hinky theatrical booker and the shorthand for a World War I aerial squadron. The conjoining of those phrases meant nothing, but that was the point.

Mr. Jones’s directing career continued with an uneven parade of film credits as he immersed himself in a literary career. His accountant’s suggestion of investing in rare books sparked his interest in the Middle Ages. His volume “Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary” (1980), established his reputation for scholarship leavened by humorous turns of phrase. An Economist reviewer called Mr. Jones a “historian of impressive competence.” Mr. Jones also wrote critically esteemed children’s books.

When Jones was asked what he would like on his tombstone, he did not want to be remembered as a Python, perhaps surprisingly, but for his writing and historical work. “Maybe a description of me as a writer of children’s books or maybe as the man who restored Richard II’s reputation. I think those are my best bits.”

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