mon 19/04/2021

theartsdesk Q&A: Author-actor Michael Palin | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Author-actor Michael Palin

theartsdesk Q&A: Author-actor Michael Palin

Michael Palin on the second volume of his diaries and 40 years of Python

Michael Palin (b 1943) has had - is having - an amazing multi-pronged career. One of the original members of the Monty Python team, he has subsequently reinvented himself as a prolific author, a film and television actor and, more recently, a hugely popular and successful travel show presenter and writer. Palin has a lot to celebrate these next few weeks with the publication of the second volume of his diaries, Halfway to Hollywood, and, next month, Python's 40th birthday (can it really be possible?) Tomorrow Palin is giving a public interview in Ely Cathedral for the Cambridge Film Festival; on 15 October he will be honoured, along with his four surviving fellow Pythons, at New York's Ziegfeld Theater. In the meantime, this tireless globetrotter discourses, over tea in Turin, on all of the above.

SHEILA JOHNSTON: Have you been surprised by the enduring cult of Python?

MICHAEL PALIN: Most people, the real fans, know the work better than we do. In fact a few years back we were filming Life of Brian in Africa and someone found this book, a kind of fanzine: 60 Things you never knew about Python. So we did the quiz and none of us could get more than about 25.

But I like the fact, as we all do, that Python is still appreciated and there's a whole new generation coming up watching Python. So it's not like talking about it to a group of old people like us who remember the old days. There are new people watching it, and that fascinates me. In 20 years' time there'll be some Monty Python convention somewhere and we'll all be dead but people will be talking about us. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm very proud of a lot of what we did and pleased that it has jumped down the generations.

Equally, I think we got out of Python at about the right time. It was beginning to run down, we were beginning to repeat ourselves and that was a weakness in a way. And then I got into other things that I feel equally passionately about.

Do you still get much feedback today from people about the shows?

They do write letters and they like things that surprise me greatly. For example, the Spanish Inquisition sketch which so many people know. I remember when we filmed it being very unhappy because we had a very short time on our recording night to put the show together. We had about one and a half hours and in that time we had to sometimes play six or seven different characters and get fully dressed up, and so there was a lot of rushing about. When we were filming that scene, just as I got up Hazel, our costume person, put this great hat on me and I couldn't see a thing. I'd come out there and say, "No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" while trying to push this hat up that kept coming right down over my eyes. We never had time to do a retake. And yet it has become one of the more popular sketches.

Do you have a favourite sketch of your own?

The fish-slapping dance. It's not verbal and it's not particularly clever in any way. There's just something about it which sums up Python. I don't know exactly what it is. Possibly the fact that we're wearing pith helmets and long shorts - the British colonial outfits and all that. Partly because it's to do with fish and partly because the dance is very silly. I slap John [Cleese] with little pilchards and he gets very angry. He doesn't like people slapping him with pilchards. Who does? John, particularly. Then there are moments in it, like when John hits me with the fish and, instead of just hitting me, he does this wonderful sort of military precision thing. He holds the fish up like he was aiming a rifle and then goes thwack! Little touches like that. It always makes me laugh whenever I see it.

Do you find that different cultures laugh at different things in Python? And do they get all the jokes?

I don't know. I've never done a test like that, though you hear little rumours. The first non-English-speaking country to take Python was the former Yugoslavia, which bought it very, very quickly, and it was a big success there. Although they were a Communist country, [the then-President] Tito was quite open and would let people watch it. The Japanese bought it and apparently for a while - Spike Milligan told me this - it was more popular there than golf. And that's saying something in Japan. The translation must have been very odd because the Japanese name for Python, literally transcribed, was Gay Boys Dragon Show, so what they were getting out of it I really don't know. And Spamalot - which is not Python, but is based on Holy Grail - did very well in Germany, which has surprised us all because we always used to be very rude about the German sense of humour.

spamalot_GermanyHave you had many difficulties with Internet piracy and copyright infringement?

I don't think so particularly. We have a manager who says, "Someone wants to do Monty Python in Siberia on a unicycle, can he have the rights?" and we say, "Yeah." We don't go into it in great detail. But theoretically everything that happens with Python gets passed by us.

The internet has been a great extension to Python enjoyment: people can post little things and tribute pieces and that gets the name around and then presumably people go off and buy a DVD. But there was so much on YouTube for which we got absolutely no money at all. So now we have a Monty Python Channel on YouTube. I don't know quite how it works, but it means that we can control some of the content that goes out there and we have material of our own that we can put on our own site for the first time, though I think you have to pay to view it.

Are you recognised in the street, and are you bothered by it?

You make it sound rather frightening, but it doesn't worry me. Sometimes you can't go anywhere, an airport or art gallery, without someone coming up. But they're generally friendly, generally complimentary, and if you did these programmes and nobody ever approached you you'd be worried. So one has to just accept it and it's fine, so long as they don't ask me to do my silly walk. It hasn't changed my life that much. I still live in the same house I've lived in for 40 years and I still travel on public transport. I don't have any problem with that. The problem comes when you believe in your own fame to such an extent that you have to put on dark glasses and rush into blacked-out limousines to go everywhere.

But is your face familiar, even in the far-flung spots you visit on your travels?

We were filming once in a very, very remote island up in the Bering Strait between Russia and America, right on the international date line. There were only about 70 or 80 Inuit living there. We filmed all day and they got out this sealskin boat at the end of it to take us to the Alaskan coast. As we were getting in, a sort of deputation of the elders shuffled down towards us and I thought there was going to be a nose-rubbing ceremony or something. Then one of them looks at me from under his cap and says, "Aren't you the guy from Monty Python and the Holy Grail?" They'd seen the film the night before on satellite television. But I'm not recognised much. That's the joy of doing these travel shows. It's a great pleasure to go to a country where no-one has a clue who you are, like Pakistan and much of India, and so I can observe them, which is what I like to do as a traveller. I don't want them looking at me.

Do you like to watch yourself on screen?

I love to see people reacting to our movies. Television is different because you don't watch people watching television. But with the movies you can see an audience sat there and you can see the laughter, hear the laughter, and that's very gratifying. When you make television, you just see the ratings. People will say, "We know all the sketches, they're the funniest thing ever," but you've never heard them actually laughing or know what they are laughing at.

Do you watch new comedy shows and how has comedy changed since Python?

I don't watch a lot of comedy now, not for any particular reason. Maybe I have other preferences. I'd rather watch sport or documentary, or just read a book. I like what used to be called arthouse films - Bergman, Fellini. And now I look for small films from Europe or Africa, from little countries which have nothing going for them. Suddenly you find this beautiful film about something you'd never seen or really understood before. I try to catch them even though they're only on for about three days.

We don't see you acting much in movies these days. Is that by choice?

Michael_Palin_in_The_MissionaryWell, I prefer real life actually. I don't have to work in order to support my family and so I've always done things out of passion. There is very little that I've taken on just for the money, though I think most of my choices have been reasonably wise because I have managed to do things that also generate some income, like the travel programmes and books. And the Python DVDs are huge sellers now too, so they keep ticking over.

I suppose I could have made a fortune from a Hollywood movie. But all the Hollywood scripts I've had have not been very good. If something really, really good came along, yeah, I would love to do it. But it won't. And I would have been terrified working there, and certainly quite bored. Though I do get a lot of offers. I had a wonderful time doing A Fish Called Wanda, Time Bandits, A Private Function and the Python films. But they are big projects involving a lot of people and you make certain compromises with your time and your energy. I don't know if I could do another Terry Gilliam film. It's physically very, very arduous. The last one was Brazil. I think he's a genius, a brilliant, brilliant film-maker, but it is quite hard work. If he asked me, I'd be very touched. But he hasn't asked me.

The travel programmes are much more personal. I've got a small group of people, we set our own agenda, we work from first thing in the morning to last thing at night and no time is wasted sitting waiting for the sun to come out or for the set to be lit. We get right down to work. I enjoy that more than I do making movies.

What was the most challenging assignment you have worked on? In Pole To Pole, you tell some funny stories about roughing it on your travels, but do you ever get fed up with that?

I love my creature comforts. We don't always rough it, we just don't film the four-star hotel. The thing is that the very best material you get is in the most uncomfortable places. So sometimes you have to suffer a bit. The series on New Europe was very different from the others because the Himalaya and the Sahara, for instance, and the North Pole, are quite escapist. People are seeing you go to somewhere that they'll probably never go themselves. It's rather exotic and there are these wonderful landscapes and the people wear colourful costumes and aren't like us.

Michael-Palins_New_EuropeWhen you go to Eastern Europe, the people are our neighbours. They're very, very similar to us culturally and they have the same ideas politically. There's a lot of shared history and you find it much more difficult to sum up than when you're going across the Himalaya. Then you say, "They're Buddhists and they have to ring the bells, and all that," and you don't have to go into too much detail. I found it very difficult in New Europe because we were taking on too many countries, 20 countries. Each one had a story and each one wanted to be different and distinctive and it was impossible to put that across in the time that we had.

Do you think the travel show market is becoming oversaturated?

Any journey which takes you to interesting places and tells a good story is fine. Different people doing different journeys is fine. Stephen Fry does one journey, Paul Merton does another. My preferences are to go with someone like Bruce Parry who did a series last year about the Amazon, because he gets into the heart of it and lives with these tribes for a month - I know that's only a short time but he really does have a rapport with people and reflects their way of life. That's very important because we all should remember that other people may be very different from ourselves. But the more we know of them, the safer the world is.

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