Given the choice, most householders would prefer not to have their refuse cleared by the Monty Python team. They would worry about John Cleese giving lectures on the correct way to spill the contents over their front gardens and Michael Palin setting up controlled explosions in the street's dustbins. Yet in 1962 parts of Cobham, Surrey, were having their bins emptied by one-sixth of the Pythons: to wit, Terry Jones. Fortunately for the peace of mind of the locals, the then student was doing a vacation job as a dustman and the comic anarchy of the Flying Circus was still seven years away.
"It changed my perception about houses," he says. "I would look at a house in a particular way." As non-dustmen, we focus on the front door. A dustmen, however, has a different approach: "You look at the side door in the fence which you go through to get the bins in the back yard. There are various types of side door or maybe there isn't one at all." If you are staggering under the weight of a heavy bin, such minor details become major factors.
This was in the dawn of dustbin collection, long before the days of the wheelie bin, which is (a) wheeled not carried and (b) emptied by the hoist on the back of the dustcart. Terry has no memories of struggling under the weight of the cylindrical metal bins on his shoulders. This might be because he looks as if he is - or was before the more gentle labour of acting, writing and directing took its toll - a powerfully built Welshman. But there was another reason: "There wasn't so much rubbish. With old-age pensioners in their small houses and flats, there would just be ash, potato peelings and tins of cat food. I was struck by the difference between people's rubbish. The richer you were, the more colourful your rubbish; it had more colour printing." Terry has just bought a few cupboards and a filing cabinet; he is guiltily aware that he now has a garage full of cardboard and bubble-wrap.
"It gave me a great respect for dustmen. They were doing a bloody hard job. It was a tough life and they were underpaid but there was a good spirit, a camaraderie, and you felt an integral part of a team. It has made me quite interested in refuse."
This interest surfaced not in any Python sketches but in a Discovery Channel documentary in which he filmed Fresh Kills, a 2,200-acre landfill site in Staten Island, New York City. "Miles of garbage. They will have to monitor this toxic, useless land for ever, like nuclear waste." And they'll have to keep an eye on Palin's explosions.
Barbarians by Terry Jones, the book of his BBC2 series, is out nowReuse content