Interview with Michael in The Scotsman
Published Date: 19 September 2009
By Chitra Ramaswamy
Michael Palin has been many things to many people in his 66 years. As the youngest member of Monty Python, he's played a lumberjack, a cheese shop proprietor, and the foil to John Cleese's sputtering, long-legged rage.
He has been a writer, penning the award-winning Ripping Yarns, and an actor, getting chips stuffed up his nose in A Fish Called Wanda. Then Palin became the plummy BBC traveller, the loveable Englishman trotting around the world, from pole to pole, or most recently across Eastern Europe, his face becoming more of a weather-beaten and laughter lined map with each journey. Which one, I wonder as I ring the bell of his Soho offices, will Palin be today?
First impressions suggest the traveller. Palin pads into a Spartan room upstairs, all crinkly eyes and avuncular enquiries about my journey from Edinburgh (as a lifelong trainspotter he's delighted that I came by rail). The reason he became a travel presenter in the first place was because of a train journey he took to Kyle of Lochalsh in the early 1980s for the BBC. "I thought, great, I'd love to go to the Himalayas or the Amazon. They said, "actually, we're sending you to Crewe", he roars with laughter. "I came up with the idea to start from my house and go as far north as we could." Yes, it's definitely Palin the plucky traveller who is winning out today. Plus, he's wearing one of his faded blue shirts that anyone who has watched his televised journeys will instantly recognise. He likes the comfort of a well-worn blue shirt when he's on the other side of the world, far from the North London home he's shared with his wife for nearly 40 years.
As he pours the tea, milk first, Palin tells me that out of everything he has done he is most proud of his travel series. I soon discover that until he got that blue shirt on his back he didn't really know what he was doing with his life. "Suddenly I was being myself," he says. "I'd got over playing a character. People accepted who I was and if I was incompetent and useless they felt quite endeared to me. There is nothing better than playing a scene with John Cleese or Maggie Smith. It's electric. But I don't think I'm the sort of person who needs to have an outer ego in order to produce something. I realised that through the travel programmes. I can be me and people seem quite happy with that."
He still can't see why though. "I don't think I'm very interesting," he continues. "I can make people laugh but there are wonderful characters like the Attenboroughs who know so much and convey it so beautifully. Why do people want to watch me?" This has always been Palin's question. In the 1980s, which are chronicled in his second volume of diaries Halfway to Hollywood, he never believed his own hype even though Hollywood was beckoning. Seeing himself as a jack of all trades led by masters such as Cleese or Terry Gilliam, he always felt a bit too, well, easy-going. In the diaries there is a telling moment in 1987 when Palin, after another "comfortable and loquacious session" with Cleese, scribbles down what he said to him: "The difference between us, Mikey, is that you seem to be able to enjoy things."
Palin laughs when I remind him of it. "I always felt John was the man with all the potential and I was someone who took life more easily," he says, adding that he's meeting Cleese for a drink "and a natter" after our interview. "I found it very easy to make friends and I loved company. I was always happy to be led. Without the John Cleeses and the Terry Joneses I would probably have drifted around sitting in cafes a lot." And even when the Pythons were being courted by the big studios throughout the 1980s, invited to play the Hollywood Bowl, and thrown flashy parties in LA by Martin Scorsese and Steve Martin, Palin's head was never turned. His diaries reveal him to be the bemused one at celebrity dos, slightly out of his depth and most comfortable at home with his wife and three children, smelling roast beef in the oven or out running on Hampstead Heath. Helen, his wife of 43 years, and their children, are credited with keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground, but equally when Johnny Cash, a Beatle, or Jack Lemmon said he was fabulous, Palin didn't really believe them anyway. And the only snatch of Palin the Python I get is after he talks about the impact of the culture of greed in the 1980s on the present. "We were told we could fly anywhere we wanted and where have we gone? Up to the sun and got burnt." He colours at his seriousness. "That's going to sound very portentous," he notes. "You'd better put a large fart at the end of it."
The Eighties were full of anxieties about whether he was funny, a good presenter, a good actor, writer, father. "I've got such deep feelings of self doubt they couldn't be overcome," he says. "There were certain moments, like when The Missionary (the film written by and starring Palin alongside Maggie Smith] came out in America, and for a week was the number one film in the States ahead of ET. But a week later it started to decline. There was nothing in that decade to suggest I was top of the tree so I was quite happy playing around on the lower branches. I was never deluded into thinking I'd be the greatest film star. There were so many indications to the contrary."
That he can't understand his appeal might seem like an affectation. After all, we're talking here about one sixth of Britain's greatest comedy group and a man whose travel programmes are watched by millions the world over. But he comes across as genuine and surprisingly sweet. I expected Palin to be more arrogant but he's just as endearing as everyone swears he is. Nevertheless, I'm going to resist saying how very nice Palin is because he might throttle me. Everyone always bangs on about him being "the nice Python" and he's sick of it. "Nice means nothing," he groans, rolling his eyes. "Is it someone who doesn't swear and shout? I swear and shout! Nice sounds ineffectual." Actually I think people have confused Palin's so-called niceness with how happy he always seems. For a comedian he is surprisingly devoid of upset and inflated ego. "I agree," he says. "I wish you would tell your fellow journalists that. I have always been fairly contented."
The diaries show Palin was the glue in the Pythons, mild-mannered to the end, and this also seems key to the success of his marriage to Helen. "We've got similar temperaments, which is quite important," he muses. "We always felt we'd be together. I may go home after this and find a letter on the table but it just felt that through good and bad there was no question that we wouldn't be together. It was strained as I spent time away and she had to look after the children but nothing ever broke. I put it down to a placidity in both of us. You know, "let's forget it and have a cup of tea".
Still, anxiety gnaws away at him from time to time and it was travelling that quelled it in the end, though at the cost of his acting and comedy career. Does he regret only getting halfway to Hollywood? "It was very seductive," he admits. "At the start of the Eighties we were doing the Hollywood Bowl, yet by the end I was packing my bags to go around the world for the BBC. The Eighties cover a period of disillusionment with Hollywood. I don't think people realised how complex and difficult and odd and illogical and mad and unhelpful we Pythons could be. I think it worked out the right way. I can't see myself living in Hollywood with Meg Ryan," he says with a smile. "Or Jamie Lee Curtis."
Palin first started keeping a diary in his mid-twenties. He was newly married, his first son had just been born, and he was writing TV scripts with Terry Jones. He decided to start keeping a record of his life but had no idea anyone would be interested. A few months later John Cleese asked him to come on board a show called Bunn Wackett Buzzard Stubble & Boot, a show that would later be entitled Monty Python's Flying Circus.
By the Eighties the Pythons, who celebrate their 40th anniversary at a special Bafta bash in New York next month, were drifting apart. They came back together to make The Meaning of Life but it was tough going. "I was quite surprised that we stayed together as long as we did," says Palin. "It was like a centrifugal force. I think The Meaning of Life exhausted us. It was very hard work. There were endless rewrites and the shooting of it wasn't as happy as it had been in Tunisia for Life of Brian or in Scotland for The Holy Grail. We drifted apart on several occasions."
Nevertheless, when the six of them got together round a table at Cleese's house, the feeling was incomparable. "Not only were we laughing a lot, things were being created so fast and it was like an experiment in a lab suddenly going well," says Palin. "It was usually brief, but when those moments happened you could distill a two-hour session into half a film script or two or three TV shows."
Away from the lab experiments, Palin was experiencing personal tragedy. In 1987 his only sibling, a sister nine years older than him, committed suicide after a lifetime battling depression. Angela had been staying with Palin and his wife on and off during that year and she pops up regularly in the diaries. Her final year was the most time they ever spent together. It must have been very hard for Palin to go back through those entries. "She never seems well in the morning," Palin writes of the day she ended her life, "and, once again, before she leaves, makes it clear that we can never understand how awful she feels."
"One thing that diaries remind you is that there is no pattern," says Palin. "The night before my sister died we went to see a film together, then for a meal, and had a great time. It makes death all the more extraordinary. There is no good decade and bad decade and diaries remind us of that. Tragedy and comedy, success and failure all happen in the same day. I wanted to keep my thoughts about my sister and the fact that she committed suicide in the diary. Suicide is still seen as an embarrassment and that's sad and wrong. She had a really serious depressive illness but at the same time she could be great fun, you know? One mustn't forget the good things. We were very close, especially in that last year. It's quite hard to read, that." Two years later, Python member Graham Chapman died, as did Palin's mother.
However, the diaries end before that in 1988 when Palin is packing his bags to set off and make the BBC's Around the World in 80 Days, the series that would change his life. His mother is another major figure, a tenacious little woman in her eighties who ended up co-presenting Saturday Night Live with him off the cuff in New York. "Even I was surprised by how unfazed she was," laughs Palin. "She became more and more game in her eighties. By then she didn't have to defer to anybody and she took New York by storm. For me New York was Norman Mailer and the Kennedys, for her it was just a place in America she had never been to, so there was no big deal. I took her on Concorde and she didn't seem impressed. She thought that was how everyone travelled."
Palin's relationship with his father was more complicated. An intelligent man who graduated from Cambridge, he ended up an engineer in a steel factory, had a serious stammer, and never fulfilled his ambitions. He spent a third of his salary to send Palin to the public school he had attended and wasn't thrilled when his only son chose show business over a steady job. "There was a certain amount of disappointment," says Palin. "He loved organ music and choirs and I think he missed out on that because his parents thought it was just the arts and he wouldn't make any money." By the time the Pythons were making The Holy Grail Palin's father had Parkinson's and he never got to see the film. Did he feel proud of his son's huge success in the end? "I think he was... quite pleased that I appeared in the Radio Times and things like that," says Palin after a long pause. "But he never really got the Pythons at all. He was incredibly relieved that I was making money and wasn't dependent on him. That was his great fear. The thought of having to support me after paying for my schooling was unthinkable." Palin's continuing self doubt surely has something to do with all this. Then again, it's precisely what has kept his ego under control, kept him working at different things, and made him so – dare I say it – nice.
He has realised he isn't an escapist traveller because he loves coming home too much. And he's planning to stay put for the first time in decades. Palin the traveller may be who I encountered but this phase appears to be coming to an end too. "It's quite unusual," he confesses. "What's changed is having two grandsons. The last one was born three weeks ago. I'm so fond of them that I don't want to disappear. It sounds terrible when I tell my children who I was quite happy to leave with their mother for five months. But I think it's because I never knew my grandparents. So I'm staying home and oddly enough Helen, who has always been understanding about my wanting to go away, now rather prefers that I stay here."
Palin will keep writing his diary ("I couldn't stop anyway, it would be like having a limb cut off") and he is working on a novel. It's the diaries – the place where he can most be himself – that have outlasted all the other incarnations. And Hollywood may have had its lure but home won out in the end. "Yes, says Palin, his smile making deeper rivers of his wrinkles. "There are anxieties that I write about endlessly in the diaries, about not being able to adjust to a world where anything is possible. I mean Hollywood was possible for a while! Why didn't I go along with it? Well, the other things that were pulling me back were more important. Being at home, being in the same marriage, these things enabled me to go off and travel in the first place. There was an anchor in the sea bed, sometimes with a very long chain. But it was there."
Michael Palin, Halfway to Hollywood, Diaries: 1980-1988, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, priced £9.99.
Michael Palin will be in Glasgow for Conversation Pieces hosted by Alistair Moffat in the main auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, on Tuesday 29 September at 1pm. Tickets cost £5 in advance, £6 on the day. For tickets, visit www.glasgowconcerthalls.com or tel: 0141-353 8000.