Another Irreplaceable Terry


I never got to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus until it was too late: my parents’ dislike of it and their control of the television kept me from the show until the last, Cleese-less series. Friday mornings used to be hell as I would have to negotiate all the catch-phrases that everybody else in my year picked up the previous night, and which I just didn’t understand: lumberjacks, spam, I was totally isolated among my peers.

In the end, I got the films and the Hollywood Bowl album. I remember people trying to persuade me not to go into the cinema when I wanted to watch Life of Brian and being wiling to argue if they challenged my directly, which never happened.

Partly because of this, but more because I was already committed to The Goon Show, I was never the Monty Python fan everybody else of my generation seemed to be. I wouldn’t ever call them derivative of Spike Milligan, but if it hadn’t been for the Goons, I think it would have been another twenty years before people like the Pythons could have broken through.

But whatever you say, they were six bloody funny men, and by being television instead of radio, they changed the world more thoroughly and more wide-rangingly that Milligan, Secombe and Sellars. Now there are just four of them left because Terry Jones has been released from the prison of dementia, and I am glad to think that his mind has now been unshackled, and sad to think that all his work is now only of the past.

Thank you for everything, Terry.

Future Perfect – if only


Back in 1990, ITV broadcast a documentary about Frank Hampson, creator of Dan Dare, co-creator of the Eagle, a figure then even more forgotten than he is today. The programme, running 45 minutes without adverts, was titled Future Perfect, and I knew nothing of it until it was repeated, late one night, in the middle of the decade.

Properly alerted to some of its contents, I videoed it at the start of a new tape, and kept it, though for many years I was unable to watch it due to the absence of a videoplayer on which to play it (the absence on a television set to watch it upon was also a stumbling block).

But, just as I did with that lovely play, The Cricket Match, adapted from A E Housman’s brilliant England, Their England, last year I had it transferred to DVD, and after many other commitments and issues, this evening I have finally won the time to rewatch it.

The documentary is far from perfect. It represents Frank Hampson’s life and career on Dan Dare fairly accurately, but in far more simplistic terms than any of the books about him have done, and it leans heavily towards crediting Marcus Morris as Eagle‘s creator, to the extent of implying that Morris had Hampson create his most famous character to order (though that may be my distinct Hampson prejudice making me over-sensitive).

It also suffers from the flaws of the time in not being sufficiently serious, a relic of the standard it’s-only-a-comic attitude that can’t somehow pretend to fully respect its material. There’s suitably ‘spacy’ music, and the talking heads that provide a lot of the air-time (meticulously identified every time they speak, as if the viewers are continually joining the episode late) may well be enthusiasts, and intelligent with it, but are still somewhat dismissable as serious opinion-makers: ex-Python Terry Jones, Queen guitarist Brian May, ex-Coronation Street actor Geoffrey Hughes. Phil Redmond, creator of Grange Hill and Brookside is the exception.

Even the choice of Tom Baker as narrator was a slight nod to the eccentricity of a comic being worth talking about.

More important are those closest to the actuality of the strip: Hampson’s son Peter, the (facial) model for ‘Flamer’ Spry, Marcus Morris’s three daughters, a copy of their biography about their father prominently displayed. But best of all, extensive participation by Greta Tomlinson, one of Frank Hampson’s original assistants.

There were even footage from Arthur C Clarke, the short-lived scientific consultant for the series, laying claim to inventing the name Treen, and a filmed interview with Frank Hampson himself, talking clearly and intelligently long after, though not comfortably, if his body-language – arms wrapped tightly around himself, legs crossed to the point of being entwined – is anything to go by.

And we kept cutting to pages and pages of Dan Dare art, Eagle covers and picked-out panels, though the same images kept returning, suggesting that there was not much variety available to the makers.

One part that clearly felt flat was the use of Chris Donald, founder of the then incredibly popular Viz comic, to provide a contradictory opinion. Eagle was an intrinsic part of everything Viz rebelled against, and Donald could have made some useful points (even if he was wrong-headed on some aspects of what ‘Dan Dare’ was) but he was clearly not allowed to speak his mind, so his contributions were incredibly diffused, to the point where they became pointless: the programme may as well have gone for all-out hagiography if it couldn’t stomach a true counter-opinion.

But there were three moments in the programme that I recalled, and for which this documentary is worth the retaining. Geoffrey Hughes’ presence was predicated on his recent casting as Digby in a proposed live-action TV series, from which some precious pilot footage, with and without blue-screen projections, was excerpted. It probably wouldn’t have worked, and the money wasn’t there to make it anyway, but Hughes’ eyes sparkled at having had even that amount of chance, and everybody involved were red-hot Dan Dare fans, so it’s a real shame because it really wasn’t updated.

And there was footage from an old Pathe newsreel feature, both colour and sepia black and white, about Frank Hampson at work, with eight year old Peter, and Max Dunlop in Dan’s spacesuit and, most uncanny of all, Robert Hampson in his Sir Hubert Guest uniform. We know Sir Hubert was based on ‘Pop’ Hampson, we’ve seen pictures of him posing that show us just how closely, and accurately, Hampson based the Controller on his Dad. But to see Sir Hubert walking around, in the flesh, was still not entirely canny, even this far on.

But the moment that moved me, and which perhaps spoke most eloquently, and silently, of those days, of what was being created and what it meant to those involved, came in the documentary’s third part. We were taken to the Bakehouse, in Southport, the first Frank Hampson studio, which still exists. Greta Tomlinson was taken too, went inside, looked around it in its much-changed state, identifying things we could not see, but she only too clearly could, her Home Counties, very matronly voice string and firm,until she started talking of the days in there, the sharing, the laughter, and her voice sped up to say it all, and she abruptly asked them to cut it there.

I’m glad to have the film available again, though perhaps having watched it now, I might never need to see it again. There is another VHS tape, somewhere in this flat, that I must find and have transferred, the watching of which is long overdue.

But the title of this DVD is nothing but ironic, given what we know of Frank Hampson’s life as a consequence of his genius. Dan’s future was, in comparison to our present, perfect, but neither we nor Frank Hampson lived in Dan Dare’s universe. If only we had.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus


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.