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And Now For Something Completely Michael Palin…

Monday, February 25, 2008

The All important BOOK coverWhen I first discovered Monty Python in my teens, the show was already 25 years old. I had no idea that it had become passé to quote old Python sketches, and that endlessly repeating “we are the knights who say Ni!” could very quickly end parties. While I don’t quote the Argument sketch ad nauseam anymore, my reverence for Python still runs very deep. So it was with great pleasure that I set out to read Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, Michael Palin’s personal diaries about his life during the rise of Monty Python.

In the late 1960s, just as Python was rearing its not-at-all-ugly, comic head, Palin decided to keep a daily journal. Journals are always easy things to begin; maintaining them over a lifetime, however, requires a great deal of willpower. But thankfully for us all, Palin stuck to it. Perhaps it was willpower, or perhaps it was all part of some grandiose plan to have material ready to publish when he was older. I mean let’s face it, all he had to do was possess a bit of talent, help found one of the most highly-respected comedy troupes ever, and maintain minor celebrity status for over 30 years. How hard can that be?

The recurring characters in the diaries are his family, including some poignant entries about his father (who suffered from Parkinson’s, and died in the mid-1970s), the Pythons, of course, and various other well-known, and not so well-known personalities that frequented British television screens in the 70s. Luminaries such as George Harrison, Lorne Michaels, and Spike Milligan also drop in from time to time. Harrison, especially, was a huge fan of the Pythons, and was one of the primary financial backers for Life of Brian.

What’s so interesting about the Diaries is that Palin had no idea of the heights Python would reach. His entries document his writing sessions with Terry Jones (with whom he wrote much of his Python material), and then group get-togethers where all the Pythons (Cleese, Chapman, Idle, Jones and Gilliam) would bring their work to the table and choose which sketches were in, and which were out. He recalls at times, rolling around on the floor with laughter – how I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at those meetings!Extras hanging around the set of Olivier's Henry V

One of the things that made Python so successful (aside from the brilliant comedy) was that most of the group were hard workers. (Graham Chapman [aka, the Doctor] had a drinking problem, but was clean by the late 70s). This is in stark contrast to the Saturday Night Live group, of which Palin played host to three times in the late 1970s. Due to the nature of the show, and, I think, due to the nature of American celebrity and fame, SNL was truly anarchic and included a lot of drugs and alcohol, whereas Python was controlled and workmanlike (these were Oxford and Cambridge lads, don’t forget).

Palin’s life wasn’t changed upside-down overnight. When looking back on a person’s career, a few years out of lifetime don’t seem a very long time, but when reading the day-to-day events of someone’s life, one realizes how much actually does happen in a year, and how much things can change. Yes, the Pythons became famous relatively quickly, and in retrospect, it all seems so easy, but to read the Diaries is to learn how much work was involved in creating the shows, then the movies, and how much they had to do to promote the shows, then the movies.

Ultimately, these diaries do not tell the definitive story of Monty Python. They do not even tell the definitive story of Michael Palin, but they give a fabulous and usually enjoyable window into the life of a highly talented performer and writer. Palin has always seemed the ‘nicest’ of the group, a factor that some fans might not care about, but the personal integrity of someone I respect and admire has always been important to me. And Palin shows that he didn’t get caught up in all the trappings of fame. I once heard of a woman who based her opinion of celebrities on whether or not she would want to invite them over to her house for a cup of tea. Not only would I invite Palin over for a cup of tea, but I’d have him stay for the whole evening. I look forward to future diaries – three decades, and counting, to go!

Some extra interesting bits:

-Terry Gilliam had Palin read over a script he was working on in the late-1970s. It was called Brazil. Palin had many doubts over its prospects as a successful film . . .

-As the 1980s came to close, there was talk of making a third Python film (4 if you include And Now For Something Completely Different…, which they did), with the possible subject matter being Word War II. The other possibility was The Meaning of Life . . .

-On the very first Python location shooting for the first series, they stayed at a hotel near Torquay. The manager of the hotel was appallingly rude to everyone; so rude that Cleese and others changed hotels after the first night. Years later, Palin gives high praise to John Cleese’s first solo comedy series, Fawlty Towers . . .

-In one entry, Palin laments that he is almost 30 years old, and has never even travelled outside of England! Oh, the places he would go . . .

3 Comments leave one →
  1. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, February 26, 2008 1:30 am

    Michael Palin was always my favourite, although probably for the fact of his later Pole to Pole and Full Circle series. It’s like, we ‘know’ him better than the other Python people because of them.

    But they also go to show just how talented he is, being able to do something like Python and then produce a highly entertaining travelogue as well.

    I still haven’t seen a bunch of them though (ATW in 80 Days, Hemingway Adventure, Sahara, Himalaya and New Europe.

    Wow — that’s a lot I haven’t seen. Think I’d find them here in Taipei . . .?

  2. Tuesday, February 26, 2008 11:02 am

    They’re all pretty much on par with Pole to Pole and Full Circle – his more recent ones are a bit more polished (or is that Polish in the case of New Europe?) production wise, and he’s now choosing smaller areas to explore, but as always, he makes a great travelling companion.

  3. Tuesday, February 26, 2008 5:36 pm

    A bit more Polish-ed? That’s fantastic!

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