It had been a fitting farewell for a comedy legend, mixing humour with tender tributes.
At the funeral of Terry Jones, his Monty Python co-stars had sent a floral tribute bearing his immortal Life Of Brian line ‘Not the Messiah, just a very naughty boy’, while his wife Anna Soderstrom spoke of his ‘good-natured and generous’ character.
After the service last February, the mourners retreated to a nearby pub in North London for a small wake, where Anna, then 36, allowed herself a moment to reflect on the five years she had spent helping to care for her ailing husband as he succumbed to the ravages of dementia.
Anna met Terry at Oxford University in 2003 when she was a studying for a modern language degree and he was giving a lecture to promote a book
Terry’s death at the age of 77 had left a gaping hole in her life, and that of their ten-year-old daughter Siri, but at least they would be financially secure.
At the wake, a woman came up to speak to her. Anna was expecting condolences, but the stranger turned out to be a lawyer representing Terry’s ex-wife, Alison Telfer, delivering the stinging news that she and the comedian’s two grown-up children would be contesting Terry’s will.
Choking back tears as she recalls that moment, Anna says: ‘Terry had been dead for only a matter of days, he had just been cremated. It shocked me.’
At issue are the proceeds from the sale of the house in Highgate, North London, that Anna shared with Terry and where she nursed him in his final years.
‘After years of me desperately trying to keep him safe, this was happening,’ she says. ‘Within a few days, I was getting solicitors’ letters telling me they wanted the house that I was living in with our daughter – the half-sister of Terry’s other children. It absolutely broke my heart.’
Anna says the dispute, due to be fought at the High Court, threatens not only to tarnish Terry’s memory but also to jeopardise the future of Siri, who suffers from autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Anna says Siri, now 12, was profoundly affected by Terry’s gradual deterioration in the years before he died.
The courtroom battle will pitch Anna against not only his ex-wife but her two stepchildren, furniture designer Sally and TV producer Bill.
Anna, a clothes designer born in Sweden, is emphatic about what Terry would make of the dispute.
Anna says the dispute, due to be fought at the High Court, threatens not only to tarnish Terry’s memory but also to jeopardise the future of Siri
‘He would be turning in his grave, seeing what they are doing to me and his daughter,’ she said. ‘This is the last thing Terry would have wanted.
He lived for making people happy, not ripping lives apart. He would have stopped this, he would not have allowed this to carry on.
‘Poor Terry, it is so sad to see the disrespect that he is being shown. They have forced me to sell my home, I had to borrow money from friends. I don’t know what else they want to do to me.’
Central to the dispute is Terry’s mental capacity when he made his final will at the beginning of July 2015.
In it, he left Fegg Features, the company that handles royalties from his work and which last year held more than £400,000 in shareholder funds, to Alison, Sally and Bill. The Highgate house – purchased in 2005 – was bequeathed to Anna.
She sold the property for £2.8 million in March, but the comedian’s first wife and older children argue they are entitled to a share in the profits as Terry did not understand what he was signing nor the consequences of putting Anna’s name on the mortgage.
Not so, insists Anna, who met Terry at Oxford University in 2003 when she was a studying for a modern language degree and he was giving a lecture to promote a book.
Around the time he signed the will, Terry was working on the Simon Pegg film Absolutely Anything, which he directed, and a theatre project. He even travelled to America in April 2015 to appear on Jimmy Fallon’s TV chat show.
Anna says that Terry’s advancing years meant she had to have her name on documents when the house was re-mortgaged in 2015 and, that in any event, he wanted her name on the property deeds.
Most tellingly, at least in Anna’s view, is that Terry had a dementia test a few months before signing the mortgage papers.
They had decided to have it after he found it hard to remember his lines during the Pythons’ celebrated run of ten comeback gigs in London in 2014.
‘Terry was struggling to remember his lines which was very unusual for him and it frustrated him,’ says Anna. ‘So I took him for a dementia test with our local GP where he was asked questions such as what the Queen’s name is, and to count and spell backwards. He passed with flying colours, which was such a relief to him.’
Anna remained concerned so persuaded Terry to undergo more tests in September 2015 that diagnosed frontotemporal dementia, a condition that makes it more difficult for patients to communicate and to control their behaviour.
Unlike other forms of dementia, however, there is usually no reduction in the ability to reason.
Anna suspects the decision to contest the will stems from simmering resentment over Terry’s decision to abandon Alison and their children for her.
At the time, he was 61 and Anna was 22. She dismisses suggestions that she was – or is – a gold digger.
‘I have lost my 30s to Terry’s illness and then this legal fight,’ she says. ‘I have a good education and I have always worked. I was always able to support myself.’
She says that after they met, Terry offered to rent a flat for her while he stayed at his family home in South London, but she rejected the idea.
‘It would have been too painful,’ she says. ‘The thought of taking his money to live somewhere while he was at home with his family was not something I could agree to.’
She had fallen for Terry the moment she met him. ‘We started talking after his lecture and we never stopped,’ she recalls. ‘He was so charming. We stayed in contact by phone and then met for lunch and walks in London.’
But their life together was far from glamorous. Before dementia, the comedian battled bowel cancer and his marriage proposal – delivered as ‘a little love poem’ – came over a pint of beer in their local pub. Terry didn’t get on one knee and the engagement ring only arrived much later.
The couple married in November 2012 at the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, with their next-door neighbours as witnesses and the bride wearing a black T-shirt, blue jeans and a pair of flat boots. The wedding breakfast was sausage and mash at a nearby pub.
In any event, adds Anna, the money from the Highgate house sale was primarily intended for Siri.
The pair of them now live in a two-bedroom flat in Camden, North London, bought with those proceeds.
If the High Court rules against her, Anna fears she will have to sell up. For now, she is using the remaining funds to pay her daughter’s boarding school fees.
Siri was traumatised as dementia cruelly transformed her father from her ‘best friend’ to someone she barely recognised.
‘Terry would get Siri up early and they would make a fry-up together while I was still in bed,’ Anna recalls. ‘Then he just started to not be there, his behaviours changed.
‘He became irritable and impatient. That change with Siri being so little and so close to him and such a sensitive person was devastating to her. If he wanted something, he would want it right there and then.
‘For example, one evening I was reading Siri a story and Terry came and said he needed me to drive him to the shop to get a specific beer he wanted, so I had to stop the story and we all had to get into the car.
‘Siri found that hard, her routine had changed. She also saw my strain and suddenly her safe little world had become uncertain.’
The strain became so severe that Anna and Siri moved out of the family home to a nearby flat for around a year until a few months before Terry’s death.
He had a carer, but Anna says the comedian’s family took a dim view of the decision.
‘It was so hard trying to keep both my husband and my daughter safe,’ she explains. ‘Siri needed space away from her father. It got too traumatic as he started to drink more and became erratic.
‘Once, even when we were living away, I went to pick Terry up as the three of us were going to see the Alvin And The Chipmunks film at the cinema.
‘We arrived at the house to find Terry had a black eye – he had fallen in the night. Siri was distraught when she saw him, so rather than going to the movies we had to take Terry to A&E.’
Anna is worried that the legal battle could exacerbate Siri’s distress. ‘They were so close,’ she says. ‘They would do everything together, they were inseparable. She was the only person allowed to go into his study, he would scoop her up and sit her on his lap while he worked.
Terry Jones and his first wife Alison Telfer who is contesting the Python star’s will
‘They had a lovely relationship. Siri would call him Daddy Toad after the character in his version of Wind In The Willows, so he would be so devastated to realise that if this money goes, she will suffer.
‘Sally and Bill will literally be taking money from their sister’s care, that’s the truth of this.’
As Terry’s condition deteriorated, his older children helped care for him and he received regular visits from his fellow Python, Sir Michael Palin.
But his final days were largely spent with Anna and Siri watching his favourite films including Some Like It Hot, Fred Astaire’s Follow The Fleet and some of Buster Keaton’s silent movies.
‘I was with him when he died. It was just me at the end and then I had to tell Siri that her daddy had gone,’ she says.
‘That was bad enough, but I had no idea what was coming with the will. I wish more than anything we could just sit down together and talk about it – and show some respect for Terry.’
Source: Daily Mail UK