Terry Jones
(Image: Monty Python's Flying Circus)

He wasn’t the Messiah, he was a very naughty….errggghh.

I refer of course to Monty Python, dead at 51 — a consequence of the death of Terry Jones, 77, from a form of rapid dementia.

Jones and the other Terry, Gilliam, were the group’s id. For Gilliam, this was through his cartoons. For Jones, it was his demeanour: compact, roundish, fleshy, Welsh, explosive in manner on and off screen. It contrasted with the Oxbridge bearing (even in comedy) of the four other players — John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Michael Palin.

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Inevitably Jones played the women, or the not-young women, or the screeching Pepperpots (after one such incarnation was used as the mother of our saviour Brian, the term that has entered the general repertoire). Or he performed nude.

Seeing his gleeful nude organist, you just knew he was that one in university revues — the kid who keeps taking his clothes off on stage.

Or, finally, as Mr Creosote, desire and the era made flesh, an exploding wave of vomit triggered by a final after-dinner mint, say it with me, ouaifffer-thin, msieur.

Jones, as his obituaries revealed, would turn out to be the most polymathic of the Pythons, directing their movies, becoming a children’s author, making solid contributions to Chaucer studies, and playing a major role in “rehabilitating” the historical reputation of Richard II.

But of course we’re not mourning one writer/performer. We’re mourning Python, which, though in abeyance for some time, always had the possibility of one last reunion.

Graham Chapman died 30 years ago, but, as subsequent memoirs revealed, Chapman had become a hot Eton mess* from the early ’70s onwards, throwing the occasional gag into Cleese’s later sketches, sobering up to play Brian, and then dying on the eve of Monty Python’s 20th anniversary.

His absence didn’t stop the Pythons from mounting a last, vast season and tour in London, appearing at the O2 Arena in 2014. It was a revival tour in which the audience, Green Day-concert style, shouted out the sketches line-by-line.

These were lines that had, through the ’70s and ’80s been the preserve of nerds and obsessives, of the high-school awkward squad, and uni engineering students, the Masonic greetings of “spam”, “it’s not much of a cheese shop is it”, “it is an ex-parrot”, “my hovercraft is full of eels”, “it’s just a flesh wound” and on and on and on.

Python, like practically all British post-war humour, was a sort of reversing out of the war effort during those five years in which a damp ramshackle class-ridden island became a floating factory for total assault against radical evil.

For its teenage and young adult devotees of the ’70s and on — largely male at first, though that later changed — it was a subaltern’s love song, appealing to those on the B-list, and knowing it. No one on the football team learnt the “Lumberjack Song” by heart (I wonder how that plays now?). 

Into Python went all a century-and-a-half of Britishness: a compendium of jabberwockery, Charley’s Aunt, Stephen Leacock** nonsense newspaper columns, the gang shows and Goons of BBC Radio comedy, and the sort of British analytic philosophy which spends a decade debating the difference between the phrases “nothing matters” and “nothing chatters”, and in which most of the Pythons had been schooled.

As the world became as absurd as high school always was, Python became its concordant bible, consulted when earthly explanation fails.

How did people understand something like, say, the career of Tony Abbott before Python invented the Black Knight (“it’s only a flesh wound!”)?

The dead parrot sketch has been about trying a failed global capitalism and its enthusiasts since 2008 (“nah nah, he’s resting. Global aggregate demand loves kippin’ on its back”).

And Brexit is simply the point at which the map became the territory and a Python sketch was enacted by the entire United Kingdom over a period of three years.

Will it survive, as anything more than memes by the dozen?

Once Python was soooooo good because it irritated your parents, who didn’t get why a cheese shop WOULDN’T HAVE ANY CHEESE! Now, possibly, it bewilders your teenage children.

Farewell Terry, farewell Python, the naughty boys’ messiah, farewell whatever it was, and appropriately I can’t end this obit GIANT PINK FOOT COMES DOWN CREDITS ROLL MARCHING MUSIC PLAYS.

* Chapman didn’t go to Eton. I just needed the English ref.

**said to be Canadian which is ridiculous. There are no Canadian humourists.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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