Terry Jones on Marty Feldman, directing and recycling rejected sketches for Monty Python

Terry Jones. Picture: Steve Ullathorne

Terry Jones. Picture: Steve Ullathorne - Credit: Archant

The Highgate resident and former Python tells Bridget Galton about directing a play, Jeepers Creepers, concerning his old boss, Marty Feldman.

Marty Feldman. Picture: PA

Marty Feldman. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Born in the East End to Jewish immigrant parents, Marty Feldman was a comedian who wrote for ‘60s comedies Round The Horne and The Frost Report before getting his own show It’s Marty, which featured early appearances for future Monty Python stars.

It was a botched childhood operation for Graves Disease that gave him the protruding eyes that distinguished his appearance in film roles such as Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and The Last Remake of Beau Geste.

Success in later life heralded a move to Hollywood, a period covered in new play Jeepers Creepers by Feldman’s biographer, Robert Ross.

Dealing with the burden of fame, the vaulting ambition of wife Lauretta and the depression and excess that led to his early death from a heart attack aged 48, it is directed by ex Python Terry Jones, who lives in Highgate and has previously directed movies including Personal Services and The Life of Brian.

Here he recalls his own relationship with the comedian.

How did you first meet Marty?

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I first met Marty in the mid-1960s when both Michael Palin and I were making our way as writers. We had been invited to write for the television show The Frost Report, which Marty was script editor for. My fondest memory of those days is that very first meeting. He shook me warmly by the hand and introduced me to everybody. We really felt welcomed into that team of writers. It was a very happy experience.

Mel Brooks said Marty was the most complicated man he had ever met, does that fit with your experience?

Well, complicated could suggest he was difficult to work with. I wouldn’t exactly say that, but I suppose he was a complex man. He seemed to have some sort of sixth sense that he would die young. He would say things like: “When you get to my age, you’ll understand”, and he wasn’t that much older than any of us!

In his biography Ross describes Marty as a young man determined to take the offbeat path of the misfit rather than conformity. How did that inform his comedy?

Marty was a lover of the absurd. He was also a devotee of the slapstick beauty of ‘Buster’ Keaton’s work, as am I. His sketch shows often cast him as the outsider, this other-worldly character at odds with authority. Comedy should make you question things, and for Marty it was a very personal platform. There’s a line in the play where Marty explains comedy heightened his self-awareness and allowed him to release his neuroses. Comedy was his therapy.

What influence did Marty have on the Pythons?

Our main influence was Spike Milligan, and his unrestricted ‘Q’ shows for the BBC, but Marty was in the mix too. In a way, we were just one step behind him. Don’t forget, it was alongside John (Cleese) and Graham (Chapman), as well as Tim Brooke-Taylor, that Marty became a star on television. The following year he got his own show, and all of us were involved in that. Me as both writer and supporting actor.

What was it like to write for him and he for you?

Well, being just that one step behind him, ‘It’s Marty’ was a quite frustrating time. We were all fighting to get our sketches in the show, and often he would reject them completely. Those were never wasted though, and we used many on ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’. We were commissioned just after ‘It’s Marty’. Actually, I remember Mike and I writing a sketch about a gnome who goes to the bank in order to secure a loan for a mortgage. There was a time in the studio when Marty had almost re-written it out of existence, and made it just a torrent of gnome jokes. That was when I, for one, felt the need for us to perform our own material. As for Marty writing for me, my place in that cast was extremely limited. I would pop up as a footballer or a guest in a restaurant or something. It’s not false modesty to say that ‘anybody’ could have played the parts I played!

Marty wrote, directed and performed – was his talent rare for the time?

Only if you qualify it. For a British comedian in Hollywood in the 1970s, yes, that was unique, but even in terms of comedy ‘Buster’ Keaton and Charles Chaplin and Jacques Tati had been there before him. Mel Brooks, Ben Stiller, Ricky Gervais... Lots of us have done it.

This play deals with him achieving the next level of fame – how did he respond to life in LA?

I’m tempted to say that you’ll have to see the play, but at first Marty was having the time of his life. He saw Hollywood as his friend Orson Welles had described it: the biggest train set any boy could have. Marty’s sense of fun, and refusal to play by the rules, didn’t fit in with the Hollywood regime though.

It also deals with the relationship with his wife. Were there tensions in the marriage?

Again, come and see ‘Jeepers Creepers’! The dynamic of Marty and Lauretta’s marriage is the very core of the play. On the surface, it’s a struggle between a principled film-maker, and his very ambitious wife. Below the surface, there’s all sorts of peaks and troughs at work.

Marty died early and had wrestled with drugs and depression – how much of that did you see in him?

I didn’t see any of that at all. Like almost all writers at that time, he seemed to survive on a diet of alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee, but the pressure of Hollywood took its toll. He had a surprise 40th birthday party before going to America to film ‘Young Frankenstein’. Sadly, I lost touch with him after that, and he died before he reached 50.

What made you want to direct a play about Marty and how are you finding it?

The writer, Robert Ross, has been a friend of mine for many years. He wrote an excellent biography of Marty, and over dinner one night told me he was planning to write a play, based on the book. I told him that if he wrote it, I’d direct it. Then he actually wrote it! The book and the play are very different things, obviously. The play is a fantasy based on fact. Our actors David Boyle and Rebecca Vaughan are very good indeed. They capture the roller coaster relationship perfectly. I’m having a wonderful time.

Jeepers Creepers runs at The Lounge, Leicester SquareTheatre until February 20, Box Office: 020 7734 2222, leicestersquaretheatre.com