By Jonathan deBurca Butler
This was what I submitted to The Irish Examiner a week back and it appeared in that paper in more or less the same fashion. My interview with Michael was suppoesed to last for only twenty minutes but ended up being thirty. A very nice man.
When he was a young boy growing up in the pleasant suburb of Ranmoor in Sheffield Michael Palin’s local church often played host to what turned out to be a great many visiting influences.
“I remember a lot of visiting preachers who would sort of drone on like this you know,” he says affecting the deep slur of an old and severe sounding English vicar.
“And some of them spoke like this,” he says in a hilarious delicate falsetto. “And the there were others who had tewwible twouble with their ‘r’s.”
Palin is all the things that people have come to expect of him; gregarious, generous and nice. But more than anything Palin is funny. And he is pretty sure he always has been.
“At school I suppose I had a sense of humour and I could do the voices of the teachers which was also quite helpful,” he says. “So people sort of looked to me to make fun of the whole thing when required. If I think back to it I often did ten minute improvs during the milk break. So I could entertain people, that’s what I sort of enjoyed but when it came to school plays I didn’t take any great part. My father was very much against acting he thought it was a terrible distraction at best and a path to decadence at worst. So my acting was always sort of very clandestine. But I enjoyed playing other characters.”
When Palin talks about Sheffield he does so with great affection. His childhood there was a happy one and he remembers his father, who was an engineer with “a very debilitating stutter”, with respectful warmth.
“Sheffield was physically quite an attractive location,” says Palin. “It was known for iron and steel but on the western side of Sheffield where we lived there were lots of steep valleys and crags, great places for all sorts of exploration and adventure. You really felt you were in quite a remote part of the world.”
Palin eventually moved to Shrewsbury Public School where he was a boarder for four years, an experience that “on the whole [he] liked but sometimes found a bit weird; a bit like a prison camp.”
From Shrewsbury Public School, he moved on to study History at Oxford University where he met his lifelong friend, writing partner and soon to be fellow Python, Terry Jones.
“It was quite early on in my time at Oxford,” recalls Palin. “I had got involved with this group of actors and somebody said ‘oh you must come along and see this play. I know this guy and he gives a wonderful performance’. So we went along and indeed he did. Myself and Terry had a drink after the show and we found we had a lot in common. We acted in some productions together after that but we never wrote at Oxford. He left a year before me and asked would I come and join him when I had finished. That’s how our creative relationship began, with The Frost Report.”
Palin points out that although his work as a comedy writer was enjoyable it could at times be tough going. Jones and he were he calls “journeymen writers who wrote for anyone and everyone from Ken Dodd to The Two Ronnies.” By 1968 Palin had been married to Helen Gibbins for two years and now with their first of what would eventually be three children it was imperative the work kept rolling in.
It was during this period that Jones and Palin met John Cleese, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman who were part of the same writing circle (American Terry Gilliam joined later).
“We took a gamble in the fact that a group of us had the same kind of us interest in comedy and we thought the same way about comedy,” explains Palin. “But most importantly we made each other laugh. That was the group of people that eventually became Monty Python.”
The BBC, although supportive, shoved Python to the end of the Saturday night schedule.
“Probably to protect children from seeing it,” laughs Palin. “But I have to thank them they did allow us to improvise as much as we liked.”
But even after the third series, by which time John Cleese left to concentrate on Fawlty Towers, the surreal comedy show was not making any of its writers a decent living it gradually fell apart.
“It wasn’t really until we came together again for The Holy Grail that things really changed,” says Palin. “And almost at the same time Monty Python broke in America, it became quite big. But it wasn’t until then, which was five years after we started, that I felt this was something that could give us some security.”
The Holy Grail had struggled to get financial backing but it went on to be something of a commercial success. The Life of Brian followed soon after and for Palin this was the most enjoyable (and profitable) of the three Python movies. Although it did famously bring John Cleese and he into conflict with two wise men of the cloth, Mervyn Stockwood, The Bishop of Southwark and ‘philosopher’ Malcolm Muggeridge, on the chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as angry on screen as I was then,” laughs Palin recalling the event. “I was outraged really. It wasn’t as if John and I weren’t ready for questions on religion we had been mugging up on it. We were ready to rebut these wise churchmen and writers and all that. But they took such a childish turn, that basically we were not worth listening to. It was just the way we were dismissed. I think that’s what got me going. John thought it was wonderful.”
On religion Palin says he is an “agnostic with doubts.”
“I can’t just detach myself from all the spirituality that is spread around us,” he says. “It’s part of the history and culture that’s around us. So I can’t just turn around and say that’s all hogwash. But when it comes to being an observer of religion I wouldn’t be a regular church attender. I can certainly see something in it.”
Monty Python finally disbanded after their 1982 movie The Meaning of Life. Palin admits there were at times some problems within the group but “they were usually resolved quite happily” and by the end he feels Python had simply run its course. They are however still good friends and Jones and he meet regularly.
“There’s still a lot of warmth there when we get together,” he says. “We all met in New York about two years ago and it was a good feeling. Everyone is a little wary but then the defences breakdown. We realise we’re the only people who know what it’s like to be a Python.”
Of course, Palin has since gone on to become a travel writer and TV presenter and he does not seem to want to slow down at all.
“It’s the best thing really,” he says without hesitation. “It stops any feelings of complacency. Every time you go off to do a journey, everything is up for grabs. Your whole feeling about the world, your mental state, your physical state, everything is being tested and I find that really beneficial.”