Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Jones/Palin relationship

In the last ten days, two stalwarts of the British entertainment industry - Terry Jones and Nicholas Parsons - have departed the stage for the last time. Jones was a multi-talented writer, comedian and director, one of the key creators of the Monty Python shows and films. Parsons was an actor but became better known for presenting radio and TV shows, most particularly, Just a Minute which he hosted for over 50 years without missing an episode. As far as I know, neither men were diarists (certainly there are no published diaries by either of them). However, Terry Jones is a ubiquitous presence in Michael Palin’s diaries (for example, one entry reads, ‘Another meeting about the Jones/Palin relationship’. As it happens, Palin received a Special Recognition Award last night at the British Television Awards, and dedicated it to Terry Jones. Palin’s diaries also include at least one mention of Parsons - when Palin took part in Just a Minute as a panellist.

the son of a bank clerk, was born in 1942 in the seaside town of Colwyn Bay, on the north coast of Wales. He attended the Royal Grammar School in Guildford, and then read English at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he performed in the Oxford Revue with Michael Palin. He went on to perform in, and write for, many TV shows, not least Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with Palin and others) which ran for 45 episodes between 1969 and 1974. He also co-directed and directed several Monty Python films. Also with Palin, he co-wrote the comedy anthology series Ripping Yarns (1976-1979). Jones authored several medieval history works, and he presented television documentaries on the subject; he also wrote books for children. He died on 21 January aged 77, leaving behind two children by his first wife, Alison Telfer, and one by his second wife, Anna Söderström.  Further information is readily available at Wikipedia, IMDB, or from the many obituaries (BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Daily Mail).

Although there are no indications that Jones was ever a diarist, he figures prominently in the published diaries of his life-long friend Michael Palin. Palin has published three volumes of diaries - see Cleese, also in a bikini for more on Palin and his diaries. The following extracts all come from the first volume, Diaries 1969–1979: The Python Years. Some pages of this can be previewed at Googlebooks.

7 June 1970
‘Terry and I had to spend the morning working on another of our small-earning sidelines. This time it was a rewrite of a film called ‘How to Use a Cheque Book’ for the Midland Bank.’

18 June 1970
‘General election day. [. . .] The morning’s work interrupted by the delivery of a large amount of dung. We were sitting writing at Terry’s marble-topped table under a tree sheltering us from the sun. All rather Mediterranean. Suddenly the dung-carriers appeared. Fat, ruddy-faced, highly conversational and relentlessly cheerful, they carried their steaming goodies and deposited them at the far end of Terry’s garden. As they passed I gleaned that they had come from Reading, that they had started loading at 5 pm, that one of them was about to go on holiday to Selsey Bill - his first holiday for seven years. After about twenty-five tubfuls they were gone, but at least they had left a sketch behind.’

2 October 1972
‘Arrived back after rushes at about 7.45. There was a call waiting for Terry from Midhurst - it was Nigel to say that their mother had been taken to hospital. Terry was immediately on to BEA to book a plane back to England. He was in a rush and a hurry, but seemed to be in control. Al came upstairs and broke down and cried for just a moment - there was no flight back to London tonight from anywhere in Germany.

Thomas [Woitkewitsch] was fortunately here to help, and he started to ring charter flights and private air-hire firms. The irony of the situation was that we had all been invited to Alfred’s to watch an Anglo-Dutch comedy show which Thomas had produced. As Terry phoned Chichester Hospital from Alfred’s bedroom, the strident shouts from the telly grew louder and more disconcerting. I sat and talked to Graham in the neutral room. He had spoken to the ward sister and she had told both Graham and Terry that her chances of recovery were minimal. Graham argued clearly and reasonably, and yet still sympathetically, that it was not worth Terry’s while trying to charter a plane to London in order to see his unconscious mother.

It was about 10.00 when I saw Terry in his room. He was sitting in a wicker chair, he seemed composed, reflective and rather distant. I clasped him around the shoulders. He said he was happy just to ‘sit and think about her’. Graham and I left, and went next door to the Klosterl, for a meal with Alfred, Thomas and Justus [our cameraman]. Not a great meal. Back to the hotel at about 11.30.

A note from A1 was stuck in my door. ‘Terry’s mother died at 9.20. He has gone to sleep with the aid of a sleeping pill.’

For a moment I felt a strange stifling surge of sadness. My eyes welled with tears and for a few moments the news hit me really hard.’

26 September 1973
Terry and I went up to the Flask in Hampstead and had a good airclearing talk about the future. We both feel now (c.f. flight to Calgary three months ago) that another series of Python for the BBC - with John writing a regulation three and a half minutes per show - is not worth doing, certainly at present, if at all. I was not encouraged enough by the material we wrote for the record to believe that Python has vast untapped resources. I think we may be straining to keep up our standards and, without John, the strain could be too great. On the other hand, Terry and I do have another direction to go in, with a play in commission and another on the stocks. We work fast and economically, and still pretty successfully together. Python it seems is being forced to continue, rather than continuing from the genuine enthusiasm and excitement of the six people who created it.’

22 January 1976
‘Tomorrow I must be on the ball, for even more important discussions, this time about the professional future, must be raised with Terry as a result of a couple of calls from Jimmy Gilbert who has once again emphasised that he would like the Tomkinson series to be a Michael Palin series, written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones and starring Michael Palin.’

23 January 1976
‘Today, upstairs in Terry’s work-room, I told him of Jimmy’s attitude. TJ looked hurt - but there was a good, healthy fighting spirit there too. TJ feels that Tomkinson may well have been originally my project, but it worked as a team project and Terry is now very angry that the BBC want to break the team by institutionalising a hierarchy into our working relationship - i.e. The Michael Palin Show.

We talked ourselves round in circles. I couldn’t honestly say that I was prepared for TJ to take an entirely equal part in the acting, because this would involve me in a tussle with Jimmy over something I didn’t feel was in my own best interests. We break off for lunch with Jill Foster at Salami’s in Fulham Road.

It certainly seems that 1976 is all-change year. After almost ten years together, Terry and I are exploring and altering our relationship and Jill Foster and Fraser and Dunlop are doing the same. In short, Jill is leaving. She felt stifled at F & D, so now she wants to set up on her own.

We think we’ll stay with Jill, despite the various problems that have cropped up over our Python activities. She’s a good agent for us in many ways - a good talker, not renowned as vicious or hard in the business, but always seems to deliver an efficient, worthy, if not startling, deal.

After lunch we drive down to Terry’s, talking again about the series. A peripatetic day, in fact, both literally and metaphorically. We decide to meet Jimmy together, but he can’t make it until Monday. So I leave about 5.00 - with Terry still reeling slightly under a blow, which he hadn’t after all expected. It’s a rotten situation and rotten to see someone you like and whose friendship is so valuable being given a hard time. But it’s all got to be said and to be gone through.’

26 January 1976
‘Another meeting about the Jones/Palin relationship. This time at the BBC. Meet TJ for a coffee first and he, as I had expected, had taken stock of the situation over the weekend and come to an optimistic conclusion. He would write the series with me and then go off and make a film for children (a project he’s had his thoughts on before) whilst I was filming. He seemed very happy.

However, once in Jimmy’s office, TJ took a rather less accommodating line (quite rightly for, as he said afterwards, there was no point in the meeting if he didn’t try to change JG’s mind with a forceful view of his own).

I didn’t do a lot of talking - I let Terry say all he wanted to say and Jimmy say what he wanted to say. JG was excellent I thought. He held to his position, but was sympathetic to all Terry said so, at the end of one and a half hour’s meeting we were all still friends - and Jimmy adjourned us for a week to think about it. TJ did seem to be less angry than impatient with Jimmy and we went off for a lunch at Tethers.

I’m trying to avoid an utterly basic dissection of our relationship, because I think it’s a relationship that obeys no strict rules, it works without introspection - it’s an extrovert relationship based on writing and often performing jokes together. It’s instinctive and I don’t want to damage it by over-examination. I want (for such is my half-cowardly nature!) to solve this re-adjustment crisis without tears.’

27 January 1976
‘Spoke to Terry, mid-morning. Rather than pursuing the Children’s Film Foundation, TJ has instead revived that most hardy perennial - the Fegg film. He has rung John Goldstone, who reckons that The Nastiest Film in the World’ has distinct possibilities!’

28 January 1976
‘Another gorgeous day of clear, crisp, sharp sunshine. Terry comes up to Julia Street to talk about the Fegg film. We have some nice ideas - Fegg is a brooding and malevolent influence who lives in a corrugated iron extension up against a Gothic castle, near to the world’s prettiest village, where everyone is terribly nice to each other. But the presence of Fegg (whom we see in a sinister, opening buildup sequence letting the air out of someone’s tyres) is too much for them. They advertise for a hero. Scene cuts to a Hostel for Heroes, where unemployed heroes sit around in a sort of collegey atmosphere - occasionally getting jobs.

At the end of our day on Fegg - and with a possible commitment to writing on Fegg until we go to the US - I suddenly feel a touch of panic. Helen, with her usual down-to-earth perspicacity, provoked it by her reaction to the news of the Fegg film. I know she’s right - I am taking on too much. The Fegg film is going to take time and ideas away from what should really be my primary project of the next two years - the BBC series of thirteen. Helen forces me to confront the fact that I am in danger of losing what I am trying to save.’

12 December 1976
‘[. . .] Brief chat with EI, who seems concerned that Terry J should not have too much control of the next Python movie. He does blow hot and cold. It was only a few months ago that Eric wanted TJ to direct his TV series! But now he feels that TJ’s problem is that he doesn’t appreciate compromise.

Our chat was inconclusive, but I can see that the direction of the film will be a difficult issue looming up.’

29 November 1978, Stirling
‘[. . .] To Grant’s Bookshop in Stirling for my first signing session. [. . .] John Lennie, the Methuen rep for Scotland, drives me to Edinburgh.

Terry J arrives. He and I go for a nostalgic walk up to the Royal Mile. We nose around the Cranston Street Hall in the traditional manner. TJ remembers the thrill of seeing the feet of a forming queue through a small window down in the toilets . . . That was fifteen yean ago.

We find ourselves in a wonderful, small, grubby, friendly bar in Young Street - the Oxford Bar. This is the glorious opposite of all the carpeted ‘lounges’ where drinks are now taken. It’s small and gossipy and quite uncompromising with regard to comfort and decor . . . definitely a new ‘must’ when visiting Edinburgh.’

21 April 1979
‘Talk with TJ on the phone. Last Wednesday night he was attacked by an old gent in Soho who asked him where Charing Cross Station was. When he told him, the old man called our director ‘a lying bastard’ and belaboured him with his stick. TJ’s head was cut and bleeding. A ‘passer-by’, who TJ thinks may have been a plainclothes man from the Metropolitan force, leapt on the old bloke and hauled him off to the nick. Apparently he had just attacked someone else further up the street.’


Whereas one might consider Jones a heavyweight of British entertainment, Nicholas Parsons was more of a lightweight, though a long-lived and much-loved one. He was born in 1923, and grew up in Grantham, Lincolnshire. He attended St Paul’s School, London; and, with the war over, opted for acting as a career. He appeared in the West End, and toured with repertory theatres, but also ventured into film. In the 1950s and 1960s, he became well known to TV audiences as the straight man to comedian Arthur Haynes. During the late 1960s, he created and presented a satirical programme on BBC Radio 4 called Listen to This Space, which helped him earn the Radio Personality of the Year Award in 1967. From 1971 to 1983, he fronted the Anglia quiz show Sale of the Century. In 1967, he began presenting the radio panel show Just a Minute, and hosted every episode through to 2018. In 1994, he published his autobiography, The Straight Man: My Life in Comedy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). He married twice, firstly to Denise Bryer with whom he had two children, and subsequently to Ann Reynolds. He died yesterday, 28 January. Further information is available at Wikipedia, IMDB, and from obituaries (The Guardian, BBC). Here, though is Michael Palin reporting to his diary about the experience of being a panellist on Parsons’ show Just a Minute.

3 October 1975
‘At 5.15 arrived in taxi at the BBC’s Paris studio - which is not in Paris, of course, but in Lower Regent Street - for recording of Just a Minute. A few people from the queue came up and asked me for an autograph - and there was my face on a display board outside. Inside, the peculiarly non-festive air which the BBC (radio especially) has made its own - everything from the colour of the walls and the design of the furniture to the doorman’s uniform and the coffee-serving hatch seems designed to quell any lightness of spirit you may have.

Then I met Clement Freud. He stared at me with those saucer-shaped, heavy-lidded eyes with an expression of such straightforward distaste that for a moment I thought he had just taken cyanide. The producer, John Lloyd - a ray of light in the darkness that was rapidly closing in on me - hurriedly took my arm and led me aside as if to explain something about Clement F. It was just that he had a ‘thing’ about smoking - and for some inexplicable reason I had just taken one of John L’s cigarettes. Still, this blew over.

A depressingly half-full house filed quietly in and at 5.45 the 
contestants - three regulars, Freud, K Williams, the rather forbiddingly authoritative Peter Jones, myself, not exactly in my element any more - and quiz master Nicholas Parsons were introduced to friendly applause and took our places at our desks. The three regulars have been playing the game together for five years - Williams and Freud for eight - and it shows. They are smooth and polished, they know when to ad-lib, when to bend the rules a little, and when to be cross with each other. I buzzed Clement Freud when he was at full tilt and, when asked why, I apologised and said I was testing my buzzer. That’s the only time I saw him smile in my direction.

The game became easier, but I never mastered the technique of microphone-hogging which they all have perfected.

Before I knew it, two shows and about an hour and a half had passed and it was all over. I signed autographs. Peter Jones was very kind to me and complimentary, Freud I never saw again and Nicholas Parsons was the only one to come round to the pub and drink with us. Us being myself, Douglas Adams (who had recommended me to his friend, the producer) and John Lloyd. They seemed to be quite pleased with me and Peter Jones, as he left, said he would see me again on the show. I gather some guests manage it (Barry Took, Katharine Whitehorn) and some don’t (Barry Cryer, Willy Rushton) and at least I wasn’t considered amongst the don’ts.’

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