Michael Palin: interview

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  • In the light of ‘Spamalot’, which some have seen as Eric’s requisitioning of ‘The Holy Grail’, was there a part of you that wanted to use the diaries to remind people that, actually, ‘Python’ was a collective endeavour?

    That’s your devious journalist’s mind! [Laughs] The timing of the diaries’ publication was not geared to ‘Spamalot’. Coincidentally they are out the same month, but we were slotted in before ‘Spamalot’ was decided on. There’s no connection in my mind, and ‘Spamalot’… will be covered in future diaries! We’re all hugely delighted that ‘Spamalot’ is doing so well. Because we’re all beneficiaries! [Laughs] It’s a great show. It’s not ‘Python’ as we would have written it. But then, none of us would get together and write a ‘Python’ stage show. Eric eventually ran out of patience and said, ‘Well, I’ll do it myself then.’ He sent us bits and songs and all that and we said, ‘Yeah, that’s all right, have a go.’ But its success is so enormous that it took us all by surprise, including Eric, and now we’re just proud to be associated with it, rather pathetically.

    Graham Chapman’s drinking was problematic at quite an early stage. Yet it sometimes feels as if you all took a decision not to notice how off the rails he was going.

    We were comedians, for God’s sake! We weren’t there to make moral judgements on each other’s lives. Graham I just knew as someone who was quite aggressively gay and drank a lot. But I didn’t see any huge problems, and he could be wonderful company until he’d had a few. And even when he had had a few, he could be very funny. I think he bit Eric Morecambe’s wife’s leg once at a BBC party. So you’d always be talking about Graham’s behaviour. But it came to a head on the stage tour in ’73, where Graham got terrible stage fright, drank far too much and just didn’t appear for certain sketches. John gave him a real bollocking, which was one of the very rare instances where someone confronted someone else about personal behaviour. And then we got to ‘Holy Grail’ and on the first morning of shooting Graham suddenly found himself shaking uncontrollably with DTs. At that point there were worries that his private life was spilling over into his work. But in the end his performance as Arthur is wonderful – this pained look he has of someone clinging on in an insane world! Whether that’s just Graham trying to remember his lines, which I suspect it is… He gave up booze at New Year 1978. By the time we made ‘Life of Brian’ he was dry, and he gave a terrific performance. He got better and better once he stopped drinking. It took the anger away. It was deeply tragic that he died just as he was about to become a wise old gent.

    Do you remember the special ‘Monty Python’s London Guide’ issue of Time Out that appeared in May 1973?

    Yes I do. It had one of Gilliam’s cartoons on the front – the face with the big teeth. It was one of earliest signs that we were being taken up because Time Out was very much underground at the time – before it became the empire it is today!

    Talking of teeth, you have problems with yours so severe they make Martin Amis’s look insignificant.

    To suddenly find, at 29, that I had this peridontal condition that meant my teeth had to be taken out was a terrible shock. I’ve got these implant things now, but yes, it was an interesting counterpoint to life generally.

    After all the stalling with ‘Python’ in the mid to late ’70s, and Eric’s solo success with ‘Rutland Weekend Television’, it must have been a great feeling when ‘Ripping Yarns’ was so successful.

    Looking at the diaries I was surprised at how difficult the birth pangs of ‘Ripping Yarns’ were in a way. ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’ [the first episode] went down well, but after that it got tricky with different directors, trying to get the style right, wondering whether we should have ‘Python’ people in it or straight actors, and if straight actors, how straight should they be? I still feel that they were about 80 per cent successful. They were never quite right somehow.

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