- Volume 22 No 2 | Hilary 2010
A Python's progress
The actor, writer and director Terry Jones (St Edmund Hall 1961) - and a new Patron of the Oxford Thinking campaign - recalls student life. Author: Greg Neale
Why did you apply to Oxford?
Originally I wanted to go to Cambridge because I thought they were more up to date in modern poetry, which I was interested in. The other universities I'd applied to turned me down because of my bad A-level results - I'd screwed up my English exam. So I went for an interview in Cambridge, at Gonville and Caius College, did the entrance exam, and they offered me a place on their reserve list. Then I did the exam and interview for Oxford. I remember going to the loo in Teddy Hall. They were outside toilets, like those at my primary school, and I thought: I just know I'm going to come here! They offered me a place, and I accepted it. Then, a week later, Gonville and Caius confirmed a place there. I was terribly excited, but my school - the Royal Grammar School, Guildford - was very firm, and said, no, you've accepted a place at Oxford.
What were your first impressions?
When I first went to Teddy Hall, I did think it didn't seem to be a proper college - in fact it had only recently been granted full college status [in 1957]. You just had the front quad, and then you had the Besse Block, basically rooms above the shops in the High Street. You ate in the old Hall, and it needed three sittings to get everyone in. They gave me a room in the front quad: it was really just a converted passageway - into the Bursar's office, I think - with a glass partition on one side. Years later, when I went back to see it, it had been turned into a lavatory!
What sort of a student were you?
Very keen, but hopeless at languages - we had to do Anglo-Saxon and Latin, so I think Bruce Mitchell, one of my college tutors, thought I wasn't working. I got a 2:1. Away from college, I remember J R R Tolkien giving a lecture on Beowulf in the Examination Schools. The room was packed. He started off reading with great animation, and then he stopped, pulled out his handkerchief, and - amid a great laugh - put his false teeth in!
Who were your contemporaries?
Notably, Michael Rudman, who became a director with the National Theatre, and David Aukin. They helped revive the John Oldham Society, the college drama group, and between them gave me my start. We did Chekhov's A Month in the Country and spent two terms rehearsing. We used to stay up a week after term, then go back to Oxford a week or two before the start of the next term, so it was like going to drama school.
It sounds a very full life ...
Never a dull moment. I was doing a lot of acting, working on Isis - I was designing it in my second year - and I played rugby as well.
How did your acting progress?
In my second year, the Oxford Review that was going to the Edinburgh Festival was directed by Ian Davison. Doug Fisher was in it, and Robin Grove-White and Paul McDowell. I'd done a small part in a review called Loitering with Intent, and I was designing posters as well. Suddenly I got a call from Ian, asking me if I'd be in the review. Paul McDowell used to sing with a group, The Temperance Seven; they'd just had a hit, and he was going on tour with them. So it was thanks to Paul that I got into showbiz. That review was called **** and I've still got a programme, which I designed. I see we were all looking very moody - and that Miles Kington [Trinity] was playing the double bass. Afterwards, we took **** to the Phoenix Theatre in London. When I came back for my last year at Oxford, having been on the West End stage, suddenly I was in demand. I'd met Michael Palin [Brasenose, and later a Monty Python member] before that, but in the third year we did the review Hang Down Your Head and Die.
You've written on medieval history. Did that have Oxford origins?
It started there. I wrote a paper on Chaucer's Knight for Del Kolve, an American medievalist who took me for a couple of terms. Much later, while we were doing the Monty Python TV shows, I'd be moonlighting at the British Museum; research for what later became a book.
What did Oxford do for you?
I made friends who have remained with me all my life. But it was also such a privilege to live amongst beautiful buildings, and have three years where you could explore things. I don't know whether it's the same now, whether everyone is so focused on a career, and desperate to pass exams, but I was able to explore acting and performing and journalism and design, and by the end of those years I knew what I wanted to do: to write and act.
Why do you think Oxford is important?
I think its diversity is very important. I think Oxford and Cambridge are precious institutions that we need to keep hold of, to keep going.