Byline: Graham Keal
LAST time I interviewed Terry Jones was in London in 1985, when virtually all the Pythons -including animator Terry Gilliam -attended the Press launch for the first release of Monty Python on video.
Only Eric Idle, then working in America, was missing. Terry,I distinctly recall, was the witty one of the bunch. John Cleese was serious and almost silent, the late Graham Chapman played it straight,Michael Palin was amiable and Terry was quick-witted and funny -a surprisingly rare attribute for comedians, who generally like to nurture their wit and save it for their performances.
So, talking toTerry again as he publicises his amusingly instructive new BBC2 series and matching book,Medieval Lives,I remind him of his sparkling form nearly 20 years ago.He's pleased and sceptical at the same time: ``Good lord.Really?No! Strange!'' Then he laughs.``Well that's good news. I don't think of myself like that.''
But Terry's sense of humour as well as his sense of history is much in evidence in Medieval Lives,an eight-part series on medieval archetypes which sets out to replace our well-worn assumptions and inaccurate cliches of downtrodden peasants,distressed damsels and chivalrous knights,as well as having a bit of fun.
Monk,minstrel,philosopher,outlaw and king make up the rest of the set.
Programme one,The Peasant,opens with Terry in full yokel gear,doffing his hat to a passing aristocrat on horseback and being almost drowned in mud for his pains. How awful was that?
``It was actually rather wonderful, the shower of mud,''grins Terry,not quite the reaction I was expecting.Wonderful? ``Well, it just worked so well,I couldn't believe it. It really hit the spot. There were actually about three of them throwing buckets of the stuff and they just timed it absolutely right.''
Aah, timing, the essential ingredient of slapstick comedy,as well as every other sort. The essential ingredient of the shower of slime was less predictable,cocoa powder. ``There was a lot of discussion about what we should put in the mix. They were originally going to use ordinary mud and I said, `well,I don't think mud will stick'.Mud can be very gritty and lumpy and it doesn't stay on you when it hits you. So they used powder and paste and cocoa.''
Chocolate slime showers apart,Terry's programme shows how your average medieval peasant was a lot better off than we generally assume. Famine or plague could make life miserable but peasants were required to donate,at most, 60 days' labour per year as their ``feudal burden'' tot heir lord. The rest of their time was their own to work the 10 or 20 acres the lord allowed them,and the Church decreed 80 Holy Days,or holidays,per year.Today, the tax burden is greater,and we get eight Holy Days per year.
At Cosmeston Medieval Village,near Cardiff,Terry inspects typical peasant housing -it's actually quite decent -and discovers that although the diet was basic at least the absence of Mars Bars meant they had no tooth decay. Records also show Welsh women could divorce a husband for having bad breath. Terry doesn't know whether men could do likewise.
Terry was born in Colwyn Bay. His Dad was Welsh,mum was from Bolton and although the family moved to Surrey when he was five and he now lives in south London,he still considers himself a Welshman and misses the land of his father: ``I've spent the whole of my time down here saying, `oh,it's not like Wales' and regretting having left Wales,as if I've had my roots taken away from me.
``I remember a lot about Colwyn Bay.I've got very distinct memories of the donkey path through Eiris Park... we used to take my brother to school and then I'd go down to the beach with my mum. Of course,it's all changed now,but the Dolwen Road where we lived had fields opposite us and there was no tarmac on the road. …