The Terry Jones Collection Review
It's not exactly surprising that the man behind Erik The Viking would find himself as a historian with a very popular touch later in life. In recent years, Terry Jones has popped up on cable-and-satellite-only channels, BBC4 and BBC2 proper to describes the lives of our ancestors, what various ancient tribes might have contributed to our current lives and, as this boxset begins, how the things that we think of as being very modern actually have their roots in the inventions of several hundred, if not thousand, years ago. And throughout it all is Terry Jones, draped in whatever garb he can find in his dressing-up box, pretending to be a citizen of Rome and pratfalling with a flock of sheep. Jones always looks very happy. The sheep, with an understanding of Jones' description of condoms made from their bladders, look rather worried.
The first disc begins with War And Conflict, a look at how weaponry has changed through the ages, from his explaining how the boomerang was not only used in warfare but also as to how it actually works on to some very simple bows and arrows. Only it's never quite as simple as Terry first makes out, proving his point with a bow made of some old twine and a bit of branch that, some minutes before, was still attached to a tree. His arrow barely makes far enough away from him so as not to actually cause him damage. In a strong wind, it would, King Harold-a-like, come back and poke him in the eye. Still, moving quickly on, Jones follows the evolution of field arms, how arrows changed the course of war in Europe, how gunpowder was invented in China and how these combined in rifles, bombs and Molotov cocktails. Always finding something of interest, Jones discovers a similarity between the earliest cannons and church bells and learns how the tank dated from much earlier than he, and I would assume most of us, had previously considered.
Sex And Love...well it's not quite so much about love as it is about sex. Terry Jones begins this episode by gazing through rows of lipsticks in a beauty salon on his way to explaining how the Egyptians invented many of the beauty products that we have today, including perfume, sunblock, foundation, blusher and lipstick. As a man, two of those words mean absolutely nothing to be so I can only assume they have some importance in the life of women but rather than dally in this cul-de-sac forever, Terry leads us into things that all of us think about very frequently indeed, being sexuality and sexual attraction. Terry reminds us that not everything we think of as modern is as such. The Karma Sutra was an ancient book that contained pictures of sexual positions but such images were also to be found on the walls of the dozens of brothels in Rome. Roman soldiers, rather than attempting to woo an English girl who was without even a basic grasp of Latin, would simply wait for a brothel to open near there barracks and without needing to say, "Mos vos somnus me commodo?", could produce a brothel token that was legal tender in the Roman empire. Therein, they would use a condom made the bladder of sheep - washed thoroughly, I would assume - as did Casanova many years later. Quite the thing, then, that sheep bladder condoms were reusable given the ten thousand women that he was reputed to have slept with.
In the next episode, City Life, Terry Jones sits in a rather modern location, this time around it's the cockpit of a Boeing 747, to remind us that we are not any more clever than the great inventors and thinkers of the past. As to whether everything that he describes in this episode is specific to life in a city is open to question - us country folk like our clean running water too, you know! - but Terry guides us through the development of several key cities through the centuries, including Rome, London and New York, to describe how metropolitan life has changed. From the tangle of streets in European cities to the grid lines of Manhattan, which were inspired by cities in South America, and on to the taxi cab and its meter, a system of dealing with sewage, the public toilet and street lamps, Terry Jones is our guide as to how reinforced concrete gave us much more than we give it credit and how an ox once fell onto the floor of the Roman senate. "Watch out below!"
On to the second disc and Jones presents his series of Hidden Histories, one episode each on Egypt, Rome and Sex And Love. Given there are two episodes on the subject of sex on these two discs, one might think that there might be a degree of repetition between the two but, unsurprisingly, Terry manages to mine enough material out of the subject of sex for nearly two hours. In this, he's much more fascinated on the manner in which civilisations other than the western ones with which we're familiar celebrated sex. Speaking in a rather disappointed tone, Terry discovers that it was the early Christian church, notably Paul of Tarsus (or simply St Paul), who stamped out pagan sexual customs, adopted others and made the entire business sinful. However, in travelling to India, Terry finds a temple decorated with images of sexuality, which was once claimed to have been deserted until found by the British. Similarly, he describes how different cultures looked at sexuality in very different ways with the Roman civilisation sweeping away what they saw as a weak and unmasculine Greek society. Wasting no time in making their mark, the Romans quickly got down to decorating their buildings with giant erections. Very much later, Kellogg would put a stop to that by inventing Corn Flakes to stop people masturbating. Terry gets to the root of that controversy!
And speaking of the Romans, in his descriptions of life in ancient Egypt and Rome, Terry gets to do what he's been doing very well since the days of Monty Python, dressing up in costumes and talking in a funny voice. Here, it's as Egyptian and Roman peasants who move from their small towns into the major cities in each civilisation, finding things very different as they do so. To be honest, they do sound rather unpleasant places to be. In spite of Rome being described as being a place where the streets were lined with gold such were the riches to be made, it was also a place where livestock roamed the streets, where one million people lived cheek-to-jowl and where the smell and the noise all but drowned out the sound of knives being drawn in the Senate. In spite of that making these Hidden Histories sound a bit grim and dour, Terry makes this very much lighter by looking at the diets, hygiene and working lives of our ancestors, even to why Romans preferred blondes.
That's often what's good or, if you're not in the frame of mind to watch Terry Jones dressed in a skirt, very bad about these six episodes. Like a history teacher who dresses as a farmer to teach his students about crop rotation or who shows home videos of him and his wife during Sex And Relationship classes, Terry Jones is an enthusiastic presenter but anyone in mind for a more serious discussion of history may describe this as yet another example of the dumbing-down of documentaries. Terry may not have all of the answers - he never claims to have - but he knows when to ask the experts in to advise him and, particularly in the Hidden Histories episodes, often lets them have their say as regards their area of expertise. In such moments, the clowning is forgotten about and each episode looks, for a moment or two, to have a tone of seriousness about it. Terry Jones' obvious interest in and enthusiasm for the subject is made clear. However, fifty minutes does feel too long for Terry Jones to dwell on one subject. His Medieval Lives series was very much better with each episode coming in at a trim thirty minutes whereas, in these shows, you sense that by each episode's end, he is scrabbling around for things to say. The series hits something of a low point when he describes the invention of corridors in the Hidden History of Sex and Love. Good, then, and always very watchable but not quite as interesting as he has been elsewhere.
Each of these six episodes last for fifty minutes and they're split evenly over the two discs. All six episodes are anamorphically presented in 1.78:1 and there's little of note about any of them. The presentation of the episodes ensures that the dialogue is always clear between the 2.0 stereo channels with the ambient and audio effects, though scarce, at least audible. On the odd occasion that there's a burst of noise on the soundtrack, such as when Terry guides a tank across a field or when someone who clearly knows what he's doing fires a cannon, the audio copes very well with little breaking up of the soundtrack. The picture isn't very much different. It's always clear as regards seeing what Terry is up to but never what one might describe as being sharp. Granted, they were produced for television but the presentation on DVD is very much on a par with how they would have looked via digital satellite, with perhaps less noise on a very close look but with little between them. There are English subtitles.
There are no extras on this DVD release.