I have spent too much of 2020 listening to The Last Word, Radio 4’s weekly obituary show. With middle age, the fear of asking how people are increases daily. Our childhood icons are regularly in the obituary columns. Each one seems like a surprise. You don’t notice the passing of time, just that it has gone and it’s Friday already. “They can’t have been 85,” we say, astounded, forgetting that we are in our 50s so the adults of our childhood must be getting on a bit now. All bets were off after David Bowie died.
Any lyricist who manages to put “pusillanimous” in a song gains my immediate respect. Neil Innes [who died of a heart attack in December, aged 75] found a place for it in Another Day, one of the songs he wrote in the incarnation of Nasty, lead singer of the prefab four, The Rutles. Far more than a pastiche of The Beatles, many of the songs are beautiful, funny and wise in their own right. George Harrison was a fan of theirs and would occasionally warn Innes if he thought a composition came a little too close to being a Beatles song.
Innes also wrote the songs for and appeared in Monty Python and The Holy Grail and performed with Python at the Hollywood Bowl in 1982, singing the utterly lovely How Sweet to be an Idiot with a yellow plastic duck on his head. On The Last Word, Michael Palin talked of the envy he felt seeing the adoration that occurred after Innes performed it and went on, “He’s been described as the seventh Python which I don’t think is terribly helpful, I always saw him as the first Neil Innes.” He said that Innes’s warmth and sincerity always came across, adding that he had “no great ego, he just had great talent”.
The poet Roger McGough remembered him as a polite revolutionary, first seeing him in leather flying jacket with the Mona Lisa painted on the back and wearing a bowler hat on which he had painted an egg running down it.
Innes was also fondly remembered by comedian Arthur Smith on Radio 4 Extra, who said his “generosity and kindness was matched only by his great talent”. He was joined by 4 Extra producer Laura Grimshaw, who spoke of her delight at working with him. She talked of how important he was in her life and how much she adored him. It was tremendously touching and beautifully honest.
I worried that Innes did not receive the acclaim he deserved, but Palin stressed
that Innes was not drawn to fame, he thought any audience above 500 was a waste
Another polymath with relentless curiosity died a few weeks later. John Cleese recalled that the other Pythons would sometimes mock Terry Jones’s endless energy and enthusiasm and remembered one morning when he woke up and got excited by how green the grass was.
Professor Alan Ereira, who worked with Jones on many of his historical projects, also recalled a man who loved being excited by ideas. At one point, his popular historical works saw a 50 per cent increase in people taking up study of medieval history.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
January ended with the death of Nicholas Parsons, whose hosting of Just a Minute into his mid-90s is a remarkable achievement. Sheila Hancock, one of the show’s most brilliant players, said that she would often tell Nicholas that she was a little in love with him, something that delighted him.
After listening to The Last Word it can be tempting to say, “and we will never see
their like again”, but there are still many fascinating, relentlessly curious and intriguingly talented people out there. The problem is making sure that they are discovered too.
The Last Word is on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays at 4pm, repeated on Sundays at 8.30pm.