Monty Python member Terry Jones is rather like a favourite uncle so often depicted in classic storybooks – he’s genial, solicitous, with a rather endearing distracted air, and inclined to chuckle at just about everything. But at 70, he’s rather more directly involved in family life than would usually be expected. And as the father of two-year-old Siri, he’s likely to be hands-on for some time to come.
As his stage in life, Jones might be thought to have the necessary time (if not energy) to devote to such a relatively late arrival in his life, but the Monty Python favourite has never rested on his laurels and his other projects are legion – a scriptwriter, children’s author, film director, political commentator, librettist and medieval historian.
He’s surprised but delighted that fans still want to talk to him about their favourite Monty Python sketches, even though the first episode was shown more than 40 years ago.
“I find it rather nice, because it’s a bit surreal, it almost makes it feel as though time hasn’t passed,” he says.
“I must say it’s odd, though, because when we were doing the shows we never thought they’d have a life as long as this and people would still be talking about them.
“I realised recently that we were terribly lucky because we went out the first week that the BBC was in colour. If we’d gone out a few months before in black and white, probably nobody would have picked up on the show.”
It’s been reported that there’s a reunion movie planned, Absolutely Anything – directed by Jones – with Terry Gilliam, John Cleese and Michael Palin already signed up to star in the sci-fi farce about a group of aliens who use an earthling as a plaything. Eric Idle’s possible involvement is not yet clear, but he remains game for a laugh after his comedy role in the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, as a failed human cannonball. Will the reunion happen? We will have to wait and see.
At his home in Hampstead Heath, Jones has a donnish air as he potters about his study, which is stocked with books on medieval history and collected Python scripts. And every so often he is interrupted by a lively Siri.
He met her mother, Anna Soderstrom, 29, at a book signing eight years ago. He was formerly married to biochemist Alison Telfer, by whom he has two grown-up children – a son and a daughter.
Ending his marriage was, he says, “like jumping off a precipice – a terrible thing to have to do”. But he beams at the very mention of second-time- around parenting.
“I’m very happy and it’s wonderful to have a little one running around. It’s like a rebirth of life. And it’s so nice to have more time to raise a child now because when my other children were growing up I was working so much,” he says.
“Also, I’m writing at home, so I’m constantly interrupted by her, and when she looks at me with her big eyes, I can never bear to refuse to stop for her.
“She teases me, and has a great sense of fun. I think all children have a sense of humour if they’re happy and then it gets stamped out of them at school.
“I remember writing very gloomy poetry from the age of seven and people worried about me, but it was just a phase.
“With Suri, her language is so interesting because she speaks in a mixture of English, Swedish and a bit of Slovakian, because that’s the nanny’s nationality.”
She doesn’t, though, make him feel younger, he says, because he still feels around 20 and can’t quite believe he’s clocked up 70 years.
“I think it takes your brain time to catch up with your age. Hopefully it never will!” he says
He’s more conscious of his health, and was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2006, but he says firmly: “To tell the truth, it never worried me. I have no idea why, but it didn’t. I have a tendency to look on the bright side.
“Fortunately, it was diagnosed early because as soon as I spotted a symptom – blood when I went to the loo – I got it checked out.
“The only thing that worried me was the prospect of a colostomy bag but I didn’t need one and I’m completely recovered.
“I’d urge everyone not to ignore symptoms out of embarrassment and just get on and get treatment as quickly as possible.”
So unfazed was he by the diagnosis – despite a statistic that every year 16,000 people die from colorectal tumours – that on the eve of his operation he joined fellow Pythons Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam for the London premiere of the highly successful Spamalot, the musical based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
He says he’s generally taken care of his health since he was 27, when a doctor told him he had an arcus senilis, a white ring around the cornea which can indicate a raised cholesterol level.
“So I’ve always exercised moderately, try to watch my diet, and keep an eye on my lifestyle. My aim now is to live long enough to see Siri into her twenties... but perhaps I should be so lucky,” he says.
Jones has recently taken on a new role as a health adviser, fronting a website (www.myhealthtips.com) which takes a humorous approach to providing information and support on common problems such as diabetes, asthma and hypertension.
He and co-presenter, the late Dr Robert Buckman, use stand-up and satire to get their message across, and Jones says: “I’ve always enjoyed blending humour into everything I do – whether it’s films, operas or political and academic writing.
“Instead of boring advice about what you should and shouldn’t do, and feeling you’ve been told off as Mandy in Life Of Brian once said for being ‘a very naughty boy’, you’re rewarded for healthy actions and there’s lots of fun, punchy and engaging help offered.”
Sadly, Buckman, 63, who was a GP, oncologist and writer of medical sitcoms, and met Jones when they both appeared at the Amnesty International fundraiser The Secret Policeman’s Ball in 1979, died shortly after finishing filming for the health website.
He’d suffered from a rare autoimmune condition, and Jones says: “We’d just finished a wonderful week filming, with my son, Bill, directing. He was a tremendous friend and we’d had a great time. He left to go back to Canada and died on the flight back.”
When asked to recall his own achievements, it’s a mixture of the serious and the light-hearted, which perfectly represents the two sides of this engaging man.
He names works such as his book Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary and his published poetry, but also delights in the success of a libretto for opera The Doctor’s Tale, and his 1996 film, Wind In The Willows.
“Life’s so interesting,” he enthuses. “I’m lucky because I’m an irrepressible optimist and I think the key to happiness is doing something you like doing. I feel so sorry for people who hate what they do.
“I have a lovely family and I’m always finding new projects and things to focus on. Boredom is never a problem.”
• My Health Tips is a blend of online health information and entertainment, with videos starring Terry Jones and the late Dr Robert Buckman. It has advice on long-term health conditions such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, respiratory conditions, smoking cessation and weight loss.