You could possibly say that I had a deprived childhood. There was this programme on BBC TV, late on Sunday evenings, with a weird title, that made me curious. All I had to go on was the name in the TV schedules: what on Earth could it be about? When I mentioned it to my parents, said I’d like to see it to see what it was about, they said it was rubbish. Well, they would, wouldn’t they?
That wasn’t much by itself. It was at school where it got serious. By this time, the programme had moved to Thursday evenings, I think (I could look all this up, but when you’re in the shadowy areas of distant memory, it’s best not to let facts taint anything). And Friday morning would come round and I’d arrive at school and it was like a nightmare. Spam? Spam? Why’s everybody going round saying spam all the time? And what’s this sudden fascination with being a Lumberjack?
I had no idea what it was all about, and my status at school was sufficiently shaky as to deter me from asking questions. I was already so far behind everybody when it came to knowing things about the outside world that being confessedly outside this… this… hell, I had no idea what it was but it was obviously so massively popular that I didn’t dare ask what the thing was.
Well, eventually, I came to know that these Friday morning mystery obsessions were sketches – long long since classics – from the oddly named Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Not that I still ever got to see these things for myself, since my parents still thought it was rubbish and wouldn’t have it on. They’d been pretty hip about Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In but this was another order of things.
But it means that, seemingly alone among all my contemporaries, I was immune to the fascination and hilarity of one of the seminal comedy programmes of all time. I missed the whole thing when it was there to be experienced, I was further ostracised through ignorance and, when I did finally get to see these programmes and sketches and insanity for myself, I couldn’t relax into just watching and laughing. I was self-conscious about my massive gap in knowledge, and I couldn’t just take in any sketch when I was constantly going, ‘oh, so that’s what they were talking about’.
If I’d watched Monty Python in the ordinary way, probably I’d have been in hysterics at what I was seeing. I was already developing an antic sense of humour that took delight in anarchy and improbability, and I had a burgeoning loyalty towards the even more seminal comedy that inspired the Pythons themselves, The Goon Show.
To the best of my recollection, I’d actually only heard one Goon Show by that time, a Saturday night repeat that included a gag that I remember to this day which had me rolling on the floor laughing. But I’d been introduced to the Goons through the wonderfully silly puppet version, The Telegoons, and its comic strip version in TV Comic.
I wouldn’t properly get into the Goons in their serious form until the Seventies and, truth to tell, they hold the place in my funny bone that those of my generation reserve for Monty Python. That chance was missed, and it can’t be created retrospectively.
The only Monty Python I did see when it came out was the fifth and final John Cleese-less series, which everyone agrees wasn’t up to their standards. I’ve seen the films, two of them in the cinema, I heard the Live at the Hollywood Bowl album innumerable times (the fact that I relatively quickly got bored with shrieks of ‘Albatross!’ suggests that I might not have been the ideal receptive audience after all), and I’ve seen most if not all of the programmes.
I’ve even seen all the unwiped episodes of the two series that fed into Python, the BBC’s At Last the 1948 Show and ITV’s Do Not Adjust Your Set, the later of which I’d watched and loved when it came out.
That one featured Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. And Terry Jones is why I’m rummaging through these memories today. Terry Jones, a very funny man, a very intelligent man, a very likeable man, whose family yesterday disclosed that he is suferring from progressive primary aphasia, a form of dementia.
Why do these things happen to the best and the brightest? Though the tide seems to have rolled back in recent months, this has been a devastating year for the loss of the immensely talented, and it is as bad to hear of someone like Terry Jones being affected in this manner as it would be to hear of his death. There are those who would say that dignity and being a Python are things that should never be placed in the same sentence, and they’re not only those who, like my parents, found nothing of what the Pythons did to be funny. But dammit, I may not have the attachment to Terry and the gang that my generation owns, but he doesn’t deserve this.
Nobody does. But some don’t deserve it more than others.
Memories die. Times fade. I will always remember the sheer, hopeless bemusement of those Friday mornings as Terry and the Pythons moved the world away from me on a weekly basis.