Saturday, 24 September 2016

interview: Terry Jones

I'm not sure of the exact date of this interview, but it was done as part of my research for Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams, so probably around 2002. Terry Jones very kindly allowed me to email him some questions about his memories of Douglas and returned these fascinating insights. I feel very lucky to have interviewed 33% of the Pythons - see also my Terry Gilliam interview.

When/how did you first meet Douglas?
“I first saw him on stage doing some sketches in a Cambridge Revue that had been up in Edinburgh. I thought the sketch was funnier than Douglas's performance but I remembered him because of his size. He then started writing with Graham and started coming to Python rehearsals and read-throughs during the last series in 1974-5 (or whenever it was). Douglas and I started going off to drink real ale together and became good friends.”

How would you describe Douglas' working relationship with Graham Chapman?
“Well I don't really know - I didn't really see them working together. But I owe it to Graham for bringing Douglas along otherwise I wouldn't have become a friend.”

Did you ever see/read any of Douglas' material for Footlights or the Adams-Smith-Adams revues?
“Yes. The first time I ever saw Douglas he was performing as sketch about (I think) a meeting of the Paranoid Society.”

During Douglas' 'wilderness years' between leaving Cambridge and the success of Hitchhiker, how much did you stay in touch? And did you discuss any possible collaborations?
“I can't remember talking about collaborating, but he and I used to drink quite a lot of beer together and Douglas was a regular dinner party guest down here in Camberwell.”

What was Douglas' ambition in those days, and what was his confidence like?
“Good question - not sure I’ve got an answer though. He seemed reasonably confident. But as far as I can remember (which isn’t very much - probably owing to the beer) we tended to talk about life in general and beer and that rather than careers. He seemed to enjoy working for Doctor Who and the radio stuff he was doing.”

What was your initial reaction on hearing about the idea of Hitchhiker, and on hearing the show itself?
“Well, one day Douglas asked me and Mike along to hear a radio show he'd just finished. So Mike and I went along to Broadcasting House and sat in a room while Douglas and his producer played The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This was some time before it went out. I can remember we listened to about three shows and then couldn't really cope with any more. It was a bit too intense with Douglas and his producer watching our every move and waiting for us to laugh. I think I was a little critical of some of the performances. I know Mike and I both thought it was pretty funny - but we had absolutely no idea that it would become as successful as it did.”

You were one of the very first people ever cited as possible director of the Hitchhiker movie (ref. 1981 interview: "Then the whole thing reopened when Terry Jones said he'd like to think about making a film of Hitchhiker. But in the end Terry and I said, 'It'd be nice to do a film together, but let's just start from scratch and not make a Hitchhiker'."). What sort of discussions did you have with Douglas about the Hitchhiker movie, in those early days and over the ensuing years?
“Well, I think we hit on the basic problem of making a film out of Hitchhiker. That is that Arthur Dent doesn't really have much character and there really isn't a lot of character-development in the story. In fact there really isn't a story in terms of a ninety minute film. It's a wonderful wander through space with lots of interesting and funny and thought-provoking things happening – but not narrative exactly. No beginning middle and end - which I know I shouldn't be interested in as a Python, but they sort of count when it comes to ninety minutes in a cinema.”

How did you come to collaborate with Douglas on 'A Christmas Fairly Story' for the Comic Relief book? (And why has this never been reprinted?)
“I don’t know why it's never been reprinted. I think I wrote something and then Douglas improved on it - but I can't remember much about it.”

When I interviewed Douglas in June 1997 he had the idea of making the Hitchhiker film in IMAX, but only using parts of the screen to show normal sized figures, etc. Shortly afterwards, you used this idea in the short film you made for the London IMAX screen. Did the two of you discuss this at all or was it just coincidence?
“Ah - coincidence I think. This is the first I've heard of Douglas's IMAX thoughts.”

In all the 150 or so interviews with Douglas that I have on file, I can't find a single reference to Graham Chapman's passing. Douglas talked about working with Graham, but never even alluded to the tragic early death of his mentor. Can you recall how Graham's death affected Douglas, or offer any clues as to why he never mentioned it?
“No, I can't remember seeing Douglas around the time of Graham's death. Graham was a strange absent sort of figure. He was a lovely man but there was always a feeling that he wasn't really there. When we were filming you always felt Graham's spirit was somewhere else. For a some of the years his spirit was in the spirit (gin) and maybe that's where his soul was too. But when he came out of that he still seemed to be elsewhere much of the time. When I read some of the stuff in A Liar's Autobiography that he wrote about filming the Grail, for example, it seemed to me that Graham really hadn't understood what was going on at all - or how the films or the TV shows got made.”

How did the success of Hitchhiker affect Douglas?
 “I remember Douglas arriving late at a dinner party down here in Camberwell and saying how sorry he was but he'd been at his first book-signing - it was for the paperback of Hitchhiker and he'd signed a thousand books! He looked absolutely stunned. I think it was the first time he had any real indication of just how popular he was going to become. The worst effect success had on him was that it seemed to make it more and more difficult for him to write. He'd always had problems with writing, but the more they paid him up front, the less he felt he could possibly justify what they'd paid him.”

What about his burgeoning interest in computers?
“This did indeed become an obsession - I remember him showing me his first Apple - and it was almost as if we'd lost Douglas. He'd become a convert - a zealot - and somehow everything was related to the possibilities of the computer.”

Do you recall when he was researching and writing Last Chance to See?
“He loved doing that. He always said it was his best book and also the thing he'd mostenjoyed  making.”

Douglas' legendary parties - what were they like?
“They got too grand for me. I enjoyed being with Douglas most when we used to go off for a beer together in the early days. There was a sense in which Douglas seemed to get stuck in star-worship. He seemed to become very impressed with the incredibly famous people he'd got to know - and that was a little disappointing, since it somehow diminished himself. When Douglas was narrating a Bill Gates party or whatever it was as if he'd lost himself amongst the stars. Odd really for the author of a Guide to the Galaxy.”

What memories do you have of your Starship Titanic US signing tour with Douglas? (Is there any truth in the legend that the British edition was delayed because the publishers couldn't catch up with you to get the corrected proof back?)
“That might be true - rings a bell. I'd agreed to do the signing tour because I really hadn't had the chance to spend time with Douglas for - I don't know - ten or fifteen years. It was like returning to the early days of our friendship. We'd forgotten how well we got on together and what fun we had. I don’t think we stopped talking for the duration of the tour and we never ran out of subjects for discussion. It was a magic time and one of my very best recollections of Douglas.”

What was the Starship Titanic film treatment like on which you based your novel? Did you ever see the earlier (rejected) novel by Robert Sheckley?
“The treatment was about twenty pages. It had all the characters - or at least all the character names, and it had most of the plot. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever had to write. Douglas asked me if I'd do it because he owed Simon & Schuster a book and they were going to publish the Robert Sheckley version with Douglas' name on it if he didn't come up with an alternative by 5th June. I'd read the treatment and made some comments on it – and Douglas rang up and asked if I'd be prepared to write the book. Well, there were then five weeks before 5th June. I loved the idea of just stopping everything else I was doing and concentrating on that. It was great fun to do because as far as I was concerned all the really hard work had been done. Douglas had the whole structure and world and ideas there - all I had to do was fill it in. It's like you imagine writing but like writing never is. Every time I got stuck I just had to refer back to the treatment and off I’d go again. In the end I finished it in three weeks. Douglas said well this is perfect - we must do more - he liked writing the outlines and I liked writing the details.”

Did you and Douglas have any plans for collaboration beyond Starship Titanic?
“So yes, there was some talk of doing more books. But I think the initial negative responses to the book put a damper on the idea. I personally blame the publishers. I think it was a stupid idea to call it ‘Douglas Adams's Starship Titanic a novel by Terry Jones.’ They were so anxious to push it as a Douglas Adams book that some of his fans felt they’d been cheated. If they simply put ‘Starship Titanic by Douglas Adams and Terry Jones’ there wouldn't have been the problem."

Finally, I have been told by someone else researching Douglas' life that John Cleese politely declined to be interviewed, saying he didn't really know Douglas that well. Which is odd, given that they worked together several times (Video Arts, Doctor Who, Starship Titanic). Can you offer me any insight into why John might feel this way?
“John I think didn’t have any opinion about Douglas - I suspect he never read the books - maybe he even didn’t like Douglas filling the vacant place he’d left working with Graham - I’ve only just thought of that and have no idea if it's true. Probably not, because John was very relieved not to be working with Graham.”

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