Jones was always the member of Monty Python to whom I paid, if not the least attention, then perhaps the greatest measure of taking for granted, at least during the Python years.
I came to them through Live at the Hollywood Bowl first, a movie in which other members have greater roles to play. Then the TV series, in which John Cleese’s size, Eric Idle’s speed, Graham Chapman’s fury, Michael Palin’s virtuosity, and above all, Terry Gilliam’s animation, overshadowed what I later learned to understand and appreciate — his sheer solidity and perfect comic timing. In a show, and movies, that were often scattergun and slipshod, he simple never was. He was the bedrock that made everything else believable. I had to develop my own sensibilities before I could see it.
It wasn’t until later years, when I expanded my viewing beyond Python and began to follow the members into the next phase of their careers, that I grew to love his work. Chapman never really took off before he died. Cleese rarely ventured beyond the stiff, bureaucratic, repressed anger that made him famous, and that he did so brilliantly. Idle has turned into exactly the kind of oily, showbiz lounge lizard he used to skewer, incapable of doing more than finding new ways to hump the dwindling Python corpse. Palin is a fabulous actor, but I have no interest in his travel shows. Gilliam became one of my absolute favourite directors, and then not so much. But Jones…
Somewhere along the way — after loving Ripping Yarns; and discovering Do Not Adjust Your Set and The Complete and Utter History of Britain; and watching Erik the Viking and Personal Services; and reading his utterly brilliant books about Chaucer; and devouring his historical documentaries…… I realised that I didn’t just enjoy Terry Jones. I didn’t even just love his work.
Author, director, historian, actor: Terry Jones was the ex-Python I wished I could be– a humanitarian polymath with a love of discovery and performance that was as infectious as it was always perfectly pitched.
It was saddening three years ago when he announced he was suffering from primary progressive aphasia, the same condition that played such an enormous part in my father’s descent into dementia and death, with a roughly similar time line. Having watched the increasingly sad spectacle of various Monty Python reunion performances over the last few years, it was there in his speech and movement, even before it was announced. The sprightly, bouncing bundle of infectious energy was slow and uncertain, even beyond the effects of aging visible in his peers. This day was inevitable, but it is still deeply saddening to have it arrive.
There are so many ways to commemorate the wonderful career he gifted us: I’m going to pull out my copy of Chaucer’s Knight and re-read it, for one. But I’m going to leave this little reminiscence with, I think, my favourite Jones Python moment.
If she weighs the same as a duck……?