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Michael Palin interview: ‘We still are a class act’

It’s been 30 years since the first class traveller last performed comedy. We speak to the youngest member of Monty Python (at 71) about the much-anticipated reunion shows

By Ben Williams. Portrait Andy Gotts
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There have been a few attempts at a Python reunion in the past. What’s changed that means it’s possible now?
‘Python, over the last few years, have been slightly lackadaisical in our forward momentum. There’s a misrepresentation that we were always on the verge of doing a show and then I said “no”, and that was about 15 years ago. But it wasn’t terribly well organised. We hadn’t cracked the problem of: do we play a big stadium and use screens, or do we play small 1,000-seaters where you can actually hear the sketches? How do we deal with the fact that Graham Chapman is not around? Python is six people, so it’s like a six-legged table: take one leg away and it’s a bit wobbly. All of those things were never properly addressed.’

What do you think Graham would make of the reunion?
‘I think he’d find it quite a hoot. Graham loved performing, he was a very good actor. I think he would find it extremely silly.’

Terry Gilliam said recently that he finds it ‘depressing’ that you’re getting back together.
‘[Laughs] Terry has a very melodramatic view of these things. I don’t think it’s depressing. Certainly, once we’ve decided to do the show, we’ve got to look at all the positives of working together – and there are a lot of them! Producing comedy is where we’re at our best, and we still are a class act in that way. There is still much talk of Python and there are still people who look back on it as something they treasured and would like to see again. We all just thought: we can keep equivocating for the rest of our lives – however long that is – or we can just go for it. All of us are getting into our seventies, so it was felt that this may be the last chance we get. So, it was partly greed, but largely it’s to thank people for keeping the faith for Python over all the years and still enjoying it.’

Is nostalgia healthy for comedy?
‘You can’t really argue that it’s nostalgia: something is funny or not funny. That was always the basis of Python. It’s fairly simplistic, but that’s why we chose the sketches that we did. Well, one or two slipped through the net that weren’t so good. But was it funny or wasn’t it funny? Did it make the six of us laugh or didn’t it? Far from being nostalgia, in Python’s case it has actually grown, just because people still find it funny. If it makes them laugh, even stuff that was done 30 or 40 years ago, that’s fine.’

Which sketch are you most looking forward to performing?
‘There’s a number of them. The Argument Sketch is lovely to do. I’m looking forward to doing the Spanish Inquisition on stage for the first time. It’s not been done live and I think it’ll play well as there’s a lot of shouting and silly goings-on in it, it’s not just two people sitting at a desk.’

As the youngest member of Monty Python, do you feel it’s your responsibility to ensure the show is relevant to a younger audience?
‘[Laughs] Well, I’m hoping it’ll address the expectations and demands of the 70 year olds in the audience, yes. They’re only a year younger than me, but I know that 70 year olds are a different breed. I’ll do my best for them. But the 60 year olds and below? I don’t know. We’ll just have to hope that the arena will be infiltrated with care workers who can explain what we’re doing.’

What have been your standout moments from Python over the years?
‘Oh, the sheer joie de vivre of doing the early shows. Those moments when we all got together and read each other the sketches: the first time I heard the Dead Parrot sketch, the first time that I read out the Spanish Inquisition and everybody found it so funny. We were not well known, there were no particular expectations, we were just making each other howl with laughter. Those were some of the best moments.’

You said recently that you thought a lot of Python was ‘crap’.
‘We did an awful lot of Python, not all of it was great, some of it was crap. Undoubtedly there was material that we used specially to fill the television shows, which we had to write very fast. It wasn’t always good enough, and I look back and I groan. But it was usually justified by the three or four good sketches that were always in every single show. Looking at Python and saying, “Everything we touched was gold, everything was brilliant,” is just misleading. When we were doing 13 TV shows in about four months the pressure was on, and things slipped through that weren’t always top quality.’

When Time Out interviewed you back in 1973 you said that you think of Python as ‘something very enjoyable to do, but basically it’s a job’. Do you still feel that way?
‘It’s very interesting that I said that then, because we weren’t “legendary famous comedians” and all this rubbish that was said about us later. It was just work for us. It wasn’t even particularly well-paid work, and we were doing lots of other things in order to bring in the money. Nowadays, because it’s lasted so long and its legacy has become something we never expected, it’s not just another job. It’s a recognition of something that has a lasting quality that I certainly never expected.’

How are you getting along with your fellow Pythons after all these years?
‘I feel very warmly towards all the Pythons. They’re all my mates and have been for an enormously long time. We exasperate each other sometimes with our different ways of looking at the world, but you’ve got five very strong individuals, all with very strong ideas of what they want to do. We are the only five people who know what Python really is all about, and that’s quite something – it’s like being keepers of some strange mystery.’

Monty Python Live (Mostly) – One Down, Five to Go’ is at the O2 Arena, Jul 1-5, 15, 16, 18-20. Tickets available through montypythonlive.com and 08448 560202 ‘

The Last Night of the Pythons’ will be broadcast live to cinemas on Jul 20.

Monty Python Sings (Again)’ is released on Jun 30.

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