Michael Palin: interview

Michael Palin is off around the world - again. But we managed to pin him down long enough to talk about his diaries, which reveal for the first time the inner workings of a comedy legend. He opens up to Time Out about drinking, 'Spamalot' and working with the Pythons

  • Michael Palin: interview

    Michael Palin

  • It’s April 2006, and Michael Palin is a busy man. In a matter of days he will depart these shores on another of his mammoth trips, this time to Eastern Europe. Before he goes, he has to squeeze in all the publicity for his new book, ‘Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years’ (because he won’t be around when it comes out), and do the reading for the audio book. We meet at his office in Covent Garden and, despite his obvious weariness, he’s warm and friendly, though nervous about how the diaries will be received. He needn’t be. Palin’s steady eye, contemplative bent and instinct for honest appraisal make him the perfect chronicler of a frequently insane period which saw him, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam become the most celebrated comedians in the world.

    When you started keeping a diary in the late 1960s, did you have a literary model in mind?

    Not at all. I mean, I love reading other people’s diaries, especially someone like Virginia Woolf’s – such a formidable woman that it’s a revelation when she shows you a more vulnerable side of herself. But mine was just a record of the day. I’d just had my first child and I wanted to chart that, and keep track of who I met at the BBC and what sort of shows I might be doing. In the early diaries there’s almost as much about commercials that we did as there is about ‘Monty Python’. It was very important when a commercial came along. You’d earn more in an afternoon than you did for a whole week of ‘Python’.

    They could reasonably have been published at any point in the last 20 years. Why did you decide to do it now?

    I needed to be persuaded by others that it might be a good idea. To be honest, myself, I always felt: Put it off: later, later… Part of it was that there’s such a huge amount of them – what you have there is just a selection – and I didn’t fancy the actual culling job. And how do you deal with people who are still around whose faces you’d never dare say anything to, and then the diaries come out…? Cath Du Prez, who used to be my assistant here in the office and who’s married to John Du Prez who co-wrote ‘Spamalot’, took on the task of transcribing them – they were all hand-written. And as she went through them she grew more and more insistent that I should publish them. Also, I just thought: if I delay much longer, I won’t be able to enjoy them with the people who were around at that time, the people I grew up with, the people the diaries are about.

    Presumably the other Pythons have seen them by now?

    No, no. This is interesting. At the moment, as we speak [April], they haven’t. We’re still doing tidy-ups, little edits.

    What worries you most about the possible response?

    I wonder if people will regard them as betrayals of confidence. For instance, I’ve not talked to Terry Jones for years about what happened to our relationship around the time of ‘Ripping Yarns’. [Originally a joint venture with Jones, it became more of a Palin star vehicle at the BBC’s insistence and the pair had a brief falling out.] Terry and I remain very good mates and did lots of things after that. So it’ll be interesting to see. The diary is really intended as a record of what went on without wearing prejudices on the sleeve too much. But prejudices invariably come through. I hope that everyone sees it as just my view, not as the truth. There’s nothing I really feel worried about in the sense that I think I shouldn’t have written it.

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