'It's time to give Python one last shake up' | Michael Palin speaks to Jay Richardson

'It's time to give Python one last shake up'

Michael Palin speaks to Jay Richardson

Michael Palin will be touring the UK with his first one-man stage show, Travelling To Work, from September, coinciding with publication of his third volume of diaries of the same name, and after his reunion with the rest of the non-deceased Monty Python team for a series of shows at London's O2 Arena. He has also just recorded new material with Terry Jones for a DVD release of the surviving episodes of the pair's pre-Python sketch show, The Complete and Utter History of Britain, aka The New (In) Complete Complete and Utter History of Britain.

No sooner have you got the old gang back together for one last job, than you're embarking on your first one-man show. Why?

It's actually just coincidence. The decision to do Python at the O2 was taken quite spontaneously in, I think, September, October of last year. Sort of took everybody by surprise but we agreed to do it and it's steamed ahead. I'd been working on the edit of my third volume of diaries all year and it was always going to come out in the autumn. And I decided that with these diaries, what I'd like to do, instead of just going to book festivals every now and then, was a month's worth of touring round the country to introduce them, talking about travel and all the other things I was doing over those ten years. An extension of the one-night stands I've done before but in a proper, organised tour shape.

Where does your wanderlust come from?

I've always had a romantic side to my desire to travel and a very strong imagination. I just like new, different places and you can find the exotic anywhere. It might be just an hour from home, it's a question of how you look at things. If something's new to me, it only has to be a small village, a mountain, a waterfall, I find that immensely exciting.

In the old days, the North Pole, the South Pole, Everest all that, there were barriers to be broken. Now, it's more a question of finding your own personal relationship to these places. I still feel in the spirit of the old explorers. But I'm not trying to plant a British flag, I'm just trying to make life a little bit more exciting.

You've chronicled your travelling and comedy so extensively, will there be any surprises in the show?

Yes, because the three journeys I made between 1988 and 1998, they all have books written about them based on the travel diaries I kept. But what I did find, especially in Around The World in 80 Days, was a private diary of my own thoughts. And that's quite revealing, because from very early on, like day three, you can see this slight trace of panic creeping in. I'd done a railway journey and various send-ups of presenters on Monty Python. But this was for real!

There was genuine doubt there: worries about my adequacy as an interviewer; the fact that I wasn't always that interested in the people I was interviewing; that I could never think of the best question to ask until afterwards. It's quite revealing because, despite all that, or even perhaps because of my amateurishness, the series seemed to work and that was certainly a surprise at the time.

In places where nobody knows you, have you ever used a Python character to ingratiate yourself with the locals or a border guard?

I never, ever use humour with border guards, that's absolutely fatal. Anyone in uniform anywhere, don't try jokes with them. Otherwise, I'm not averse to doing a silly walk every now and then. People like physical humour and a bit of slapstick works everywhere.

Could Python have emerged from anywhere other than post-war Britain?

No. It came from the universities, that strong tradition of comedy revues and all that stuff. It was post-Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Beyond The Fringe, David Frost, all very, very British in their outlook. And the BBC was probably the only broadcasting company in the world that would have let the Pythons loose on Saturday night with 13 shows, without us being able to tell them what we were going to do. '13 shows. That's all'. That combination was very much a British way of looking at the world. And a British way of looking at itself. Of all the countries in the world, we're one of the best at laughing at ourselves.

After a lifetime in comedy, do you trust your instincts as to what's funny? You've said that you weren't impressed by the script for A Fish Called Wanda at first. And none of the Pythons thought much of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life initially.

The diaries remind you of what you actually felt at a particular time. When I read Wanda, I thought a lot of the dialogue given to Kevin Kline was so hard and cruel it was a pity, because there was a lot of gentler humour in there. Sometimes, something like that produces an immediate, knee-jerk reaction. Later, when I read it again, I realised: 'Hey, this is good!' It shocked me because it was different, I hadn't seen anything like it. And of course, when Kevin played it, it was absolutely brilliant. Comedy has to relax you enough to laugh but shock you enough with the novelty of that laugh.

Always Look on the Bright Side was a great song when I first heard it. But we had lots and lots of material coming in when we were writing [The Life of] Brian and it was all good. So it felt as if it was ok, only fine. When you put that song onto men on crosses, and the way it was shot in the film, suddenly, of course, it becomes something far more spectacular and powerful than I imagined when I first heard it. So I'm always learning. And humour has to be something that doesn't conform to a certain standard. I like to feel that I can still be surprised by humour.

It feels a pity that John Cleese has stopped doing question and answer sessions in his one-man shows. Will you be doing them in yours?

Not as such, because it's cumbersome getting mics around. I love Q&A and if I'm doing 500-people maximum, it's great, just sitting down.This will be more of a performance, I'll be doing readings and all that stuff. But I hope that I'll be able to engage with audiences. I'm sure I'll talk to them, they can talk back. Because what I want, especially in the second half, is to try and keep a slightly spontaneous, unstructured area, whatever I want to talk about that night.

At the Scottish shows I might talk more about filming [Monty Python and] The Holy Grail. Whereas in Bristol, it might be talking about the first show I ever got paid for, which was as a DJ on [the comedy pop show] Now. I'd like to feel that I'm giving something different to the audience each time. And if someone wants to shout questions out in the second half, that's fine. I love to keep it open.

You're renowned as a collaborator. Do you harbour any secret lust for glory as a solo performer?

I certainly enjoy the freedom of being on your own and choosing your own material. I've collaborated for most of my comedy writing life with Terry Jones, then we were part of Python and all that. In the same way, when I've done my travels, it's been a collaboration between myself and the five or six members of the crew I travel with, who I've become very close to.

But at some point, it's nice to be able to just get out there and say your own thing, do it your own way. I suppose I feel I can say things on my own in a way that I wouldn't be able to if I was sharing a stage with others. You can be quicker on your feet and invent things faster.

The great thing about this summer is that we'll have plenty of collaboration when we do the O2 shows, then I'll be able to go to the other extreme and have the stage to myself when I'm doing Travelling To Work. But it's to make the shows how I feel I can do them best rather than any lust for glory power grab.

You and Terry Jones wrote and shot The Complete and Utter History of Britain quickly while you were working on other projects. How did it stand up when you revisited it and recorded new links for the DVD release?

Well, I remember it being, on occasion, very funny indeed. Other things worked less well. But the premise of the shows, that there was television broadcasting throughout British history was quite a good one and gave us some rather nice things to do, like medieval adverts and interviews in the showers with the victorious Normans, rather like a soccer game. But not much was left of the shows because London Weekend Television got rid of most of them.

When someone said they'd found a couple of the old recordings, in Australia I think, of course I was pleased. I desperately wanted to see how good was it and what we learned from it. So the process of putting together the various remnants of Complete And Utter History has been very exciting. And of course, you can clean film up now and make it look pretty sharp. I'm really very pleased that we've saved as much of it as we've been able to, because people can see how it fitted in with Python. It was definitely one of the precursors. Elements of our humour there were definitely very strong in The Holy Grail for instance.

Do you ever wonder what would have happened if it had been a success, if you and Terry had declined John's request to work with him and Graham?

Yeah, I do. And that way madness lies because you can think of all sorts of different patterns to your career. All I feel is that actually, the way Python happened, it was almost fated that we should get together. I don't know quite why that is. But in the five years between leaving university and starting to write for the Frost Report and doing Python, all the various members of Python were looking at each other's material.

We admired At Last The 1948 show and particularly John and Graham's sketches and performances. John and Graham had liked Do Not Adjust Your Set, the anarchic quality of the children's show that we'd written. Terry Gilliam had come in to work on that and produced this absolutely mind-boggling and liberating animation. All those things weren't accidental. There was a momentum which had been set up and at some point it had to be fulfilled.

What surprised me most was that we did three series together [before Cleese left], particularly because John was very well known then after The Frost Report, was getting far more offers than anybody else, and could easily have gone off and done things on his own much earlier. It was great that we managed to hold the centrifugal force together for three series, which came as a surprise.

You were the dominant voice in turning down a Python live tour in 1999, after the 30-year anniversary reunion in Aspen. And you said that you'd rather make another film than do a stage show. So what's changed?

It's ironic that the ten year period of the diaries ends in 1998 when we go to the Aspen Comedy Festival and Python is given a lifetime award, we're all feted and the idea of doing another stage tour comes to a head. The diary doesn't actually conclude with me turning it down. But in 1999 I did say I didn't feel I could do it because I was doing a series on Hemingway.

I was worried that a tour without Graham, within ten years of his death, we would miss him as a writer and a performer, audiences would miss him, what would we do? Do we bring in another performer, do we get somebody else to do his lines? The other thing was there were differences of opinion about how the show should be presented. Eric was quite keen to play big theatres and use modern technology and all that. John and I wanted to keep it to a smaller show where we could actually play the sketches and people could hear them, it wouldn't be the crowd chanting the lines after you.

What happened 15 years later was Python was short of money. Individual Pythons wanted the money but also Python itself had a court case. We don't know at the moment how much damages are going to have to be paid to Mark Forstater. [producer of the Holy Grail, who successfully sued the group last year for a bigger share of profits from the film's spin-off musical, Spamalot]. Probably not a huge amount but we don't know, so a lot of money is at the moment held on account. And I think we all felt, and lots of other people felt, that Python needed to sell itself better in the world.

So when Jim Beach, who was a friend of Eric's at Cambridge and a friend of John's and had done some work for Python was called in to discuss what we could do, he said: 'Look, why don't you do the O2 for a couple of nights and you can pay off your debts'. Everyone said 'Yeah, great!' Partly because we saw that this was audacious but also because Jim is the manager of Queen, so he knows how these things are done. It was a big vision really, which we hadn't had before, at just the right time. We all felt it was time to give Python one last shake up, what with us all getting into our 70s.

Your classic sketches have aged better than most comedy groups. But even taking into account that you famously played the Hollywood Bowl, are you concerned that fans will simply be laughing in expectation and you'll be drowned out in the O2?

I really don't know. Until we step out onto the stage on the evening of July 1, none of us knows how the audience will respond. We will rehearse the material as if at the Hollywood Bowl or at Drury Lane. We want them to hear it, listen and then laugh. Whether there's going to be such huge yells of recognition and chanting along with the sketches we just don't know, which makes it quite exciting and makes me feel a little apprehensive about the whole thing.

My hope is that people like the sketches, therefore they'll listen to them. I've been to the O2 and heard Leonard Cohen, a solo performer singing some dark, dour ditty very, very quietly, and hold the place in the palm of his hand. So I hope audiences will cheer and yell when they should cheer and yell, and listen when we hope they'll listen, that's all I can say.

Are the new songs strictly new songs or are they off-cuts that have existed for years?

Well, Eric has written two or three new songs and added the odd line to existing ones. So some will be freshened up, others will be exactly as they were before. There will be quite a lot of music linking the various items because all of us are playing a lot of characters – I think I'm playing 15 – so you've got to get on and off and do changes and get back on again, and there's got to be somebody to entertain while we're changing. So there will be a lot of music and dance routines.

As the Python who plays the greatest variety of characters, do you curse your versatility?

Yeah. But it's nice to be versatile, I enjoy all that. We start rehearsal in June. I feel slightly overloaded with material but on the other hand, you want to give everything a go. We'll see, that's the great thing about Python when we get together - we're very flexible, we can adapt, we can shift things around. But basically, we'll just go for the script as we have it at the moment.

John has said that he isn't physically able to do the Silly Walks anymore. Will you be shouting as Gumby?

Well, I don't know. I shouldn't really give these things away till you see them. I shall be doing a bit of yelling. But I've got to curb it because my voice tends to go. You might see me shouting something else.

Python used to pass unwanted sketches to The Two Ronnies. Is there a trove of unused material that could still see the light of day, even if it's not necessarily Python performing it?

Yeah, there is, quite a lot of stuff. Less so from Life of Brian, quite a bit from Holy Grail and quite a lot from Meaning of Life. The way things happen nowadays, a bit like The Complete and Utter History of Britain being revived 45 years on, is that people are curious about things. And nowadays, you don't have to put everything into a show, you can do off-cuts if you want to, little bits and pieces here and there, just see how they work. And those who like them, like them, and those who don't can …

But I think there is going to be quite a considerable interest in Python material that's not been in the shows. And for a long while, we were very defensive about that. Why put out your less good material when there's the good stuff out there? Now, I just feel we're all a bit more relaxed. I'm sure some of the vaults will be opened one day.

Are you surprised that British comedy appears to have regressed in regard to taking risks and is more cautious about causing offence? John has said that Python changed comedy but 'in a rather negative way… instead of people taking our stuff to the next stage, they avoided it'. And you've said that you could never make Life of Brian today.

Yes, in a strange way we're much more cautious now, even though we feel we can say anything about anything. Language on television, the F-word and all that, you couldn't say that when we doing Python, not that we actually needed to. But there's a feeling that lots of barriers have been broken since Python.

And yet the big barriers, religion, sex, all those sort of things, they're still not exactly dealt with much. Which is a pity because I'm always looking for comedy which is a little bit more hard-hitting, takes a risk. But then, we're risk averse in lots of things nowadays. I don't think it's just comedians. And there are some brilliant people around, Stewart Lee, and people like that. Yet the way television and radio are run now, executives and number crunchers are far more in control than they used to be because there are so many more channels and they're all fighting each other. This wonderful world of competition restricts originality of output. Everyone's playing it safe because they want to make money.

What did you think of Holy Flying Circus, Tony Roche's dramatisation of your and John's debate about Brian with the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge?

It's funny, that debate is something that people can't quite believe they're seeing nowadays. From being just one appearance on a chatshow, it's now a little item in its own right. I think everybody felt that something rather remarkable happened there, the dynamic changed completely between the comedians and the churchmen. Everyone expected a rather more robust argument, with us probably coming off slightly worse. But the interesting thing was that the churchmen, and I include Muggeridge in that, decided to play it the wrong way, making out that we were just silly people, making a quick buck and all that, taking our 30 pieces of silver.

But they got it completely and utterly wrong. They could not assume that there was a national reverence for the Church and all its works which was going to back up whatever they said. It was a most interesting moment in cultural history, the Church made a complete fool of themselves, they tried to be the comedians. The comedians ended up as the churchmen. So it was remarkable. And Holy Flying Circus, I enjoyed that, I thought it was very funny.

You recently returned to acting in the World War I comedy-drama Wipers Times. Its co-writer, Ian Hislop, says that you never get offered parts these days. Is that true?

It's not entirely true, I have been offered some. But people see that you're doing travels, novels, or whatever, and so you go out of circulation a bit. So it was great that Ian suddenly thought of me for Wipers Times, that was terrific, a very nice thing. And I'm glad it won an award at the Broadcasting Press Guild for best single drama, so it's been noted by a lot of people.

But I actually was offered a very good script called Remember Me, [a supernatural thriller for BBC One] which I filmed in Yorkshire in February and March and that'll be out later in the year. That's quite a chunky bit of acting, the most consistent bit of acting I've done since [Alan Bleasdale's] GBH.

You've joked that Python's live shows might need to hastily be retitled 'Two Down, Four To Go' if the worst happens. So what's on your bucket list?

Certainly more travelling. Probably based in one country or city rather than the long journeys. Some more fiction, I'd really love to write another novel. And if parts like Wipers Times and Remember Me come along, then it'd be very nice to do some acting.

In a sense I feel now, and in the next ten years or whatever I've got, rather like I did in the 1980s and 1990s. I can have a go at lots of things. I'm very lucky, I'm freelance, I'm known for being versatile. Have a go. You might end up flat on the floor but at least you tried.

• Michael Palin's third volume of diaries, Travelling To Work, is published on September 11 (Preorder), with the accompanying 21-date tour beginning on September 7. Schedule here. The New (In) Complete Complete and Utter History of Britain is out now, available from www.networkonair.com.

Published: 8 Apr 2014

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