A few weeks ago, I watched an archive programme exhumed as a tribute to the recently-departed Clive James. It saw James retrace his footsteps around the London he’d known when he’d first arrived here from down under in the 60s. I had a feeling I’d watched it on its original airing around 1991, though seeing it again after so long was a sobering reminder of the unfairness of time. James interviewed several people who’d figured in his London life, the likes of Peter Cook, Alan Coren, Terence Donovan and Victoria Wood – all of whom, like James himself, are now deceased. In one poignant sequence, he even strolled through the basement of the glorious old Daily Express Art Deco temple on Fleet Street and the original printing presses were still there, albeit having finally been silenced not long before in preparation for digital relocation. He knew this was already a world that was vanishing before his eyes. Seeing the programme 30 years after it was made, I knew exactly how he felt.
As Clive James was showing one of the true signs of age – that of having lived long enough to witness the passing of a moment that had once seemed perpetually fixed in the present tense – I experienced the same sensation by simply watching him three decades down the line. Three decades? Afraid so. I was seeing the ghosts of people who had contributed something special to popular culture, each in their own individual fields of it, and whose contributions were not being echoed by their successors – because, no matter how hard their successors might try, they reside in a very different landscape. And today, barely a month after the sudden death of Neil Innes was announced, we are informed Terry Jones has joined him. Both were products of the same cultural renaissance that had provided a platform for Clive James’s 1991 interviewees, as was Clive James himself.
Neil Innes had been the musical driving force of the late, lamented (not to say demented) Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in the late 60s; and although that giant of Great British eccentrics Vivian Stanshall tends to be the first name that springs to mind when the band is mentioned, Innes was the one who was able to use the Bonzos as a launch-pad to greater things. After being called upon to add musical muscle to live Python outings in 1974, Innes was recruited as an unofficial member of the team in John Cleese’s temporary absence for the final TV series later that same year. As the Pythons went their separate ways on the small screen, Innes emerged as a vital collaborator on Eric Idle’s unjustly-overlooked ‘Rutland Weekend Television’ series in 1975/6; this then led directly to the creation of ‘the Prefab Four’, AKA The Rutles, the spoof Beatles tribute act whose imaginary career was memorably documented in the 1978 TV movie, ‘All You Need is Cash’.
Within the Pythons, there had always been creative divisions that underlined how the team had pooled the resources of fruitful partnerships and solo acts to ensure the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. The likes of Neil Innes and even Douglas Adams may have been given backstage passes, but there was an inner core of six, each of whom tenaciously fought their respective corners. John Cleese wrote with Graham Chapman, whereas Eric Idle (like Terry Gilliam) tended to work alone; the other double act was that of Michael Palin and Terry Jones. The latter’s passionate Welsh temperament and creative clashes with Terry Gilliam surfaced most prominently when the Pythons transferred their projects to the big screen; the pair co-directed 1975’s ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, and though this was an evidently uneasy compromise, it fuelled the two Terrys’ appetites enough for them to embark upon parallel directorial trajectories that have spanned decades.
The first post-Python TV outing for Jones was his collaboration with Michael Palin, the fondly-recalled ‘Ripping Yarns’. Although Palin acted in each of the nine episodes of the series and Jones restricted himself to the unforgettable opener, ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’, the pair wrote the lot together, cementing a creative union and enduring friendship that had begun at Oxford. After cutting their teeth as a writing partnership on that mid-60s television university for comedy teams, ‘The Frost Report’, Jones and Palin then progressed to ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’. Nominally a children’s show, albeit one attracting a strong adult fan-base in a similar way to ‘Tiswas’ a decade or so later, ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’ also featured Eric Idle and the animations of Terry Gilliam. Jones and Palin wrote for it and appeared on camera, raising their profiles to the point whereby London Weekend offered them their own vehicle, ‘The Complete and Utter History of Britain’.
This near-forgotten series was a forerunner of ‘Horrible Histories’ as it presented historical events in a contemporary television style, such as interviewing William the Conqueror in a changing-room communal bath after the Battle of Hastings, as though he’d just participated in a rugby match. Jones was seriously interested in ancient British history, writing books on Chaucer and presenting TV documentaries on the medieval period; but this more academic side took a backseat when he and Palin united with Cleese, Chapman, Idle and Gilliam for a new offbeat comedy series on the BBC in 1969.
Writing about the impact, importance and influence of ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ in a few paragraphs is akin to doing likewise with The Beatles; in other words, it can’t be done; there are enough heavyweight volumes on the bookshelves that give the subject the time and breathing space it requires in a way I cannot with the limitations of this format. Needless to say, Terry Jones’s contribution was as vital as the rest of the team to the overall product and though their record-breaking ten-show reunion at the O2 in 2014 looks as if it will indeed be the group’s swansong, the loss of Graham Chapman in 1989 had already removed a crucial element of what made them who they were. Modern technology enabled Chapman to ‘virtually’ appear, but Jones himself displayed signs of his fragile health when struggling to remember lines. It was just as well the audience knew them all and gladly acted as impromptu prompters.
One of my all-time favourite Python sketches features Terry Jones on his own, playing the part of the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs. Strolling onstage dressed like a city gent to deliver what seems to be a typically boring, droning politician’s speech, Jones does so whilst simultaneously performing a striptease, ending up in socks and pants with tassels on his nipples. It’s sublimely silly, and pokes fun at characteristic English pomposity in a brilliantly funny fashion – which was precisely what the Pythons did best. Jones went one step further by doing away with the rest of his clothes when adopting the guise of the naked organist with the mad hair who formed a key part of the programme’s opening titles.
It’s now half-a-century since ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ debuted on television; in 2022 it will be sixty years since the release of ‘Love Me Do’. Growing-up in the 1970s, I’d just missed something that was only a blink away, though all of its practitioners were around and still riding the crest of the creative wave that had brought them to prominence – and the fruits of that could be everything from ‘Fawlty Towers’ and ‘Band on the Run’ to ‘Derek and Clive’. Yes, it’s a long time ago, and yes, that sucks. But at least it’s all out there for anyone to sample anew, now as enshrined in the cultural thread of the national narrative as the medieval knights Terry Jones revered. And that is indeed something completely different.
© The Editor