❉ We Are Cult’s James Gent offers a personal appreciation of the heart and soul of the Python ethos.
As a card carrying fan-boy of one stripe or another since I could walk and talk, I’ve had numerous obsessions in my life – some fleeting, others more enduring. Only two of those I can sincerely call definitive, life-shaping influences and inspirations, and I first entered their world through one and the same artefact; a behind-the-scenes film documentary broadcast on BBC TV Christmas 1986, Inside The Labyrinth, a curtain raiser for Jim Henson’s muppety fairytale Labyrinth ahead of its British theatrical launch.
As someone fascinated from a young age with the alchemy of film and television, these behind-the-scenes films – a regular staple of ‘80s broadcasting whenever a studio had a film spectacular to promote – were a real eye-opener, and testament to the craft and manpower involved in bringing those classic ‘80s fantasy films to life (Audiences of a certain age may recall those aired for likes of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom and Return of the Jedi in the summer holidays). Inside The Labyrinth was a particularly fascinating showcase, as its production embraced lavish, complex set designs, the casting process, visual effects, the artistry of designer Brian Froud and the incredible craftmanship of Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop, but the talents whose contributions to the documentary immutably set my imagination in motion at the impressionable age of 11 was the film’s leading man and its scriptwriter. I am talking, of course, about David Bowie and Monty Python’s Terry Jones.
Seen in what is effectively a one-hour trailer for Labyrinth, I was absolutely fascinated by Bowie, who just exuded charisma in both the film clips and the behind-the-scenes interviews and footage – but that’s another story, which you can read about in the tribute anthology I edited, Me And The Starman. The other presence that leapt out of the TV screen at me was that of Terry Jones – a giggly, manic, wide-eyed, wildly gesticulating ball of energy. I found his enthusiasm and the way ideas seemed to be oozing out of him as if he could barely contain them absolutely infectious and engaging. He also seemed like a bloody nice bloke.
Thankfully, these first impressions proved to be completely accurate on all points. Anyone who’s been in the man’s presence, from the people he worked with to interviewers and panel audiences, can testify to this. Michael Palin is famously the Nice Python, Terry Jones was the Lovely Python.
Just a few months after Labyrinth stamped my Bowie fan card, I became an overnight Monty Python convert when BBC2 repeated the second series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus during Spring 1987. Series Two, Show One. Possibly the best jumping-on point for a Python neophyte, with its silly-walking civil servants, transvestite politicians, and violent, paranoid East End gangsters, but I think it was the Cooker Sketch that really pulled my funny bone in a new direction. This is the sketch where Terry Jones, in his most recognisable Python guise as a ‘pepperpot lady’, answers the door to a fright-wigged clown who enquires, “Mrs Rogers..?” to which she responds, in what I would soon learn was classic Monty Python il-logic, “No! Ooh, I must be in the wrong house!” Mrs Pinnet (for it is she) leaps out the house (through the back window) and vaults over the backyard wall with un-ladylike urgency (with the film sped up, slapstick style), and makes herself at home next door for the sketch to start properly, complete with a Ben Hur-style caption and music sting, in a comedy of errors which sees Jones’ pepperpot obligingly succumb to gas poisoning to appease the paperwork- and demarcation-obsessed men from the Gas Board attempting to deliver a new cooker. (Monty Python sketches never sound quite as funny when you try to explain them…)
It was daft. It was weird. It had a sinister punchline played for broad laughs. It was set in a world recognisably England post-war, but with everything titled at an acute angle where the normal rules of logic and rationality just didn’t apply. And at the centre of it all, the familiar in the unfamiliar, this manic, likeable Welsh clown as a mumsy housewife who doesn’t want to cause a fuss.
Looking at the Cooker Sketch like that, it’s the world of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in a nutshell and I got it instantly. It appealed to me as Python’s comedy only can when you’re too young to vote but old enough to realise that the adult world isn’t as orderly or as sane as your parents and teachers are trying to impress upon you. And just as Beatles fans are wont to pigeonhole themselves as either ‘Paul’ or ‘John’, with Python, out of the group anarchy, one invariably finds oneself coming on the side of either of its two main writing duos – Team Chapman/Cleese or Team Palin/Jones. The former specialised in a comedy of cruelty (“So much for pathos!”), bureaucracy gone mad and verbosity, with a rigorous internal logic, the latter more whimsical, character-focused (Thoreau’s men living lives of quiet desperation) and less bound to logic: A constant in many Palin/Jones sketches are absurdist juxtapositions and inversions – putting things on top of things.
Cleese and Chapman’s worldview as expressed through their sketches could have existed outside the Python model, as it did successfully with Fawlty Towers, but Palin and Jones’ outlook could be said to be the heart and soul of the Python ethos. Ridiculous, dreamlike, segueing from one concept to the next. Terry Jones was the Python who pushed hardest for embracing this ‘flow’ of ideas and was the most concerned about the ‘bigger picture’ of Python’s comedy as a conceptual entity rather than loosely linked discrete sketches:
“I remember John saying that the main thing was to have funny material and that’s all that counts, or something to that effect. The Cambridge people didn’t want to know about that flow of consciousness. They considered the sketches would be the thing. So that’s why the first series takes time to strike its form. It was just that half the Pythons weren’t interested in the flow of the show. I think by the end of the first series they’d realised the advantages!”
The above quote comes from an interview I conducted with Terry Jones in Summer 2013, and the story behind it is a long-winded one but one I’d like to share as my own personal tribute to the man and his qualities…
A few short years after my Python epiphany in ’87, my interest in Python had hardened into a full-blown obsession, triggered by the home video release of the Twentieth Anniversary special, Parrot Sketch Not Included, and yet another run of repeats on BBC2. I began taping what I could off the telly, corresponding with fans around the world to get hold of the series on tape (the series had only been re-run in fits and starts, with egregious gaps, the Series Three VHS had been deleted almost as soon as it came out, and the fourth and final series could only be obtained across three separate NTSC tapes), hoovering up the vinyl albums and burying myself in Pythonology thanks to Just The Words, George Perry’s Life of Python and the ‘Bible’, Kim Howard Johnson’s The First 200 Years. Before the internet, you really had to be prepared to put in some serious work to put together a picture of Python…
One thing that did exist before the internet were fanzines. In fact fanzines were the internet before the internet. For anyone with a specialist interest in a pop group, music scene, comedy scene, sending off for a zine – usually a stapled together, photocopied, folded A5 booklet with a single colour cover – connected you with other fellow weirdos, sorry, obsessives, pen pals, collectors, and their guerrilla style of journalism provided the information-hungry fan with insights into all sorts of ephemera beyond the scope of official fan clubs and their prescriptive, PR-approved copy. There was no ‘fandom’, you were just sending out and receiving messages in an inky bottle for similarly afflicted tragic cases to share your rabid enthusiasm with.
The great thing about fanzines was once you got hold of one, you realised how easy it could be to create one. All you needed was a typewriter, Pritt Stick, Letraset, scissors, access to a photocopier, bags of enthusiasm and a lot of stamps. And that’s how And Now For Something Completely Different was born.
That’s the name of the fanzine I produced for five years in the 1990s; it was ragged and naïve but without it We Are Cult probably wouldn’t exist. I sent the first issue off to the Pythons’ offices, then located on Delancey Street in London and its head honchoes, Kath James and Roger Saunders sent me photos, press kits, and a Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl poster. This was very exciting! What was even more exciting was that my first issue also yielded a signed photo and a letter from Terry fucking Jones. Yes, an actual Python, the one who had started me on this journey, had actually sat down, looked at my juvenilia and taken the time to write back a very complimentary letter (“It looks great and you’ve obviously spent a lot of time on it… where did you find all that stuff?”). A ringing seal of approval!
Maybe he was just being polite. But the point is, he didn’t have to have bothered – but he did anyway. That he did meant so much to me as a validation for my efforts. The correspondence was intermittent after that, but Terry’s endorsement emboldened me to continue, which I did for twelve issues, until I wound it down as I set off for University.
Python didn’t figure much in my student days; finally, the shows were all on VHS (albeit mutilated) and the reissues of the films and albums kept on coming to diminishing returns, but during a flurry of small press activity devoted to cult television amongst some of my friends and peers in geekdom, I struck upon an idea I’d briefly toyed with when I had a contact at Virgin Books in the late ‘90s, to compile and write the ultimate guide to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Something akin to the treatment a show like Doctor Who received, where every cultural reference, every production detail, every tricky edit on home video and repeats, every use of stock music could be assembled into a kind of handy viewers’ guide.
No one had attempted this before, really, beyond the fine work of Andrew Pixley in TV Zone and the resourceful website Some Of The Corpses Are Amusing. It just needed someone to draw it all together. For a few years I laboured under the misapprehension that, with my past experience, I could be the man for the job. The fact that, almost a decade after I first conceived of it, such a book has failed to materialise under my time says it all – but key to getting started, in my first flush of enthusiasm prior to suffering what in retrospect I know realise is some kind of burn-out, was getting back in touch with the dude who’d taken time out to be supportive of my primitive, fanzine endeavours.
All these years later, Terry did not let me down. We engaged in intermittent e-mail correspondence – at the time, he was busy writing a novella (Trouble On The Heath) and an opera (Evil Machines) – where he indulged some of my enquiries, which were frankly too specific for a gent with a foggy memory at the best of times and not prone to looking back on his past, always more interested in living in the moment of his current projects. So I tailored my research enquiries into more broad, allusive ones, once I had adumbrated that Jones was more of a conceptual, creative thinker – the man who saw the ‘bigger picture’ of Python – than a minutae/details man like his opposite, John Cleese. For the finer details, I had the BBC’s Written Archive Centre and a panoply of editors, cameramen, visual effects boffins and set designers.
As the most approachable, accessible Python, after a year of fits and starts of research, I figured that there would be no harm in trying to arrange a chat with Terry in person. With the invaluable assistance of Terry’s friend, the comedy historian Rob Ross, the wheels were set in motion and so the most unreal day of my life came to pass, in leafy Highgate in the hot summer of 2013.
You haven’t really been star-struck until you’ve spent three hours waiting in a part of London you’re totally unfamiliar with, to meet one of the best minds of his generation – the man who directed Life Of Brian, for fuck’s sake! – and he wheels up, in a linen suit and sandals, crowing in that familiar deep Welsh voice, “James! I’m so sorry I’m late, I’m so sorry!” Hang on, aren’t I the one supposed to be feeling awkward here?
After a bit of chat trying to provoke recollections of a Labour Party canvassing film the Pythons recorded in 1970 on Hamstead Heath, just up the road, and a bit of nerdy talk about Steinbeck editing machines, we adjourned to the upstairs bar for my rigorously prepared Q&A. I was determined to go beyond the usual well-polished anecdotes about Python, and I think Terry responded favourably to this line of questioning, and he was very patient indeed, as my inner fanboy (which is basically all of me) often got tongue-tied and overwhelmed. Nevertheless, Terry shined when recalling his early days the BBC and I daresay it was probably the first time anyone had asked him about things like Ian MacNaughton’s location filming choices or senior film cameraman Jimmy Balfour, and I was personally delighted to hear Terry say that he would have loved to have done Ripping Yarns with the full Python cast.
Spending an afternoon in my company is hard work for anyone, but with Terry, the pints kept coming thick and fast during our chat (I had just ended a year spent teetotal – yes, Terry Jones got me back on the wagon!) so I was unsurprisingly startled when Terry casually said, “Shall we go back to the house?”
The unlikeliest day of my life concluded with me sat in Terry’s open plan kitchen, and it got even weirder when – while cooking me a meal (!) – my comedic hero said, “Do you want to go upstairs and have a look at my study?”
This was at the peak of my Python research phase. On a bookshelf, bound and embossed, were the rehearsal scripts for Series 1, Series 3, Series 4, the German shows and Mayday special… North London probably felt a tremor as my jaw hit the ground when I browsed through one of these volumes to see the complete, unedited script for Historical Impersonations and the original, abandoned and radically different original version of The Visitors sketch.
Fast forward a few months after this surreal day of days, where my bona fide comedy hero has indulged my yammering, got me drunk and cooked me tea, and paid for my taxi back to Mill Hill East… (pinches self) I casually ping Terry an e-mail along the lines of, “Can I spend a day going through the MPFC rehearsal scripts… I’d sit at the back and not get in anyone’s way…”
Long shot, but I was on a mission! The response was a total measure of what an absolutely helpful and kind man Jones was – the next day, he shot back with an e-mail to say that he would be on a family holiday in Anglesey but his PA would be house-sitting and I could spend time going through his study to get the information I needed. This is not the sort of thing world-renowned comedy legends and successful film-makers normally do.
I felt privileged to have been allowed to freely inhabit the Jones crib, and the findings were something else! I’ll put them to good use some day, although I fear Pixley’s Blu-Ray box set booklet may have stolen that thunder.
Then came the 02 reunions, where – through another stroke of good luck – I got to sit in on the full dress rehearsal in North Acton, sat between Nick Mason and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry… By now my arm is black and blue from pinching myself.
Terry was visibly struggling during those shows, although he held his own in the Whizzo Crunchy Frog sketch even as Cleese threw away his cue cards but the general consensus with the 02 shows was that it was one last opportunity to say thank you to the team for half a century of laughter, a very moving farewell. The news confirming Jones’ dementia was tragic – Python had made many dark jokes, but none were as cruel or punchline-free as seeing a titanic polymath like Jones, a man who had conquered the worlds of film, TV, childrens’ fiction and history through his intelligence and locquaciousness, succumbing to what must have been an utterly heartbreaking decline for those around him. His old friend Michael Palin provided stoic support to his ailing comrade right through to the very end, a touching tribute to their lifelong closeness.
I feel really lucky to have had a few times in my life blessed by Terry Jones, in a very small way that meant an awful lot to me, and that’s a drop in the ocean compared to what he meant to his friends, family and collaborators. He was a remarkable man, who wore his achievements lightly, and packed several lifetimes of work into his time on this planet, living life to the full, and the results are there for us all to keep enjoying. A true inspiration.
❉ James Gent is editor of We Are Cult, and co-editor with Jon Arnold of Me And The Starman. In 2014, James Gent wrote the biography for the official Monty Python website. He also acted as a consultant for the documentaries ‘Monty Python: And Now for Something Rather Similar’ (BBC) and ‘Monty Python: The Meaning of Live’ (GOLD).