Having a laugh with Michael Palin

In Conversation

“Hello, is that Jake?” asks a voice at the end of the phone.

“Hi my name’s Jake,” I respond. He already knew that.

When expecting a call from comedian, Python, actor, playwright, novelist and television traveller Michael Palin, a student journalist can be easily flustered. I proceed to repeat back to him the only information that he had given me so far:

“I’m Jake.”

I tell him a bit about The Oxford Student and he asks how I’m doing.

At that point I realise there was no need to be flustered. The voice at the end of the phone is charming, relaxed and happy to talk.

After all, this is someone who has gained a reputation for being Britain’s nicest man.

“This is a horrible slur,” he laughs. “It’s so unfair on all the nice people in Britain, who are incredibly nice. I meet people day-in day-out who are so much nicer than me and it annoys me.” He laughs again – there is always plenty of laughter with Michael Palin.

“I’m sure the The Oxford Student newspaper would dare indulge in perpetrating such clichés.”

He laughs, I laugh. Maybe now we’ll become friends – best friends. He’ll tell me jokes.

Of course, our publication would not dream of spreading clichés, we just think he’s pretty nice. Really nice. All we are saying is that we’d struggle to find someone nicer.

But is Michael Palin a nice man making it in a nasty world?

“Most people want to live their lives and get on with their friends or bring up their children. They don’t want to get into fights all the time. Some people do and thrive on it. If you like shouting at people that’s a form of bullying. You may be good, you may be great, you may even end up as head of some enormous corporation, but you’ll still be a bully.”

Palin has never been CEO of an enormous corporation. “I’ve been lucky that by being agreeable and unconfrontational, I’ve managed to do an awful lot of things I wanted to do, and do them quite well, whether it’s books or films, Monty Python or travel shows. I can’t shed tears over a failed life of being too nice to people.”

His “awful lot of things” includes writing and acting one of the television’s defining comedies and moving from there to present a series of travel programmes. His touring one-man show, The Thirty Years Tour, reflects on his career and is due in Oxford’s New Theatre this Sunday.

“It’s great to do,” says of the tour, “but it means a lot of late nights getting back home and all that.” Aged 72, it would be easy to assume that Palin is winding down, but he became accustomed to the late nights at university with the Oxford Revue.

“The gigs we did in Edinburgh with the Revue didn’t start until 10:30pm. Sometimes they would go on until 1am. But of course we were 22, not 72, so that makes some of the difference.”

Good comedy has some kind of conflict in it, some edge to it.

Palin has chronicled the time in his diaries. The third volume, Travelling To Work, was published in paperback in September. He admits that his pen-and-paper diary is a “throwback”, but sees value in that. “When you write a diary, you’re writing for yourself. You can write whatever you want: however moody you feel, however elated you feel, however embarrassed you feel, you can put it in a draw and that’s that.

“A diary really comes into its own a few years later when you look back at it and you say, “My God, I thought this was really boring but it’s actually really interesting.” You know, “I had an egg for breakfast and now we know that eggs kill you. A whole country eating eggs! No wonder we’re all so miserable!” A diary is an antidote to hindsight.”

Palin’s diaries begin after his time at Oxford with the start of Monty Python, but he feels that his experience at university was a vital springboard for his career in comedy, as he made his way from “a shy Sheffield boy” to a comedian with the Oxford Revue capable of performing on stage.

At the Revue he met future collaborator and Python, Terry Jones, but it was not Jones who at the greatest impact upon the student Palin.

“The most influential person I met was a guy called Robert Hewison, who is now a writer and a scholar. He was from London, and took me in hand. He was my Henry Higgins to learn about things like what pizza was, and Polish sausage… Useful things in life!” That characteristic hearty laugh again.

“At the same time I met Terry [Jones], who is one of the loveliest, most good-natured people I know, and we ended up writing for the Oxford Revue in 1964. That changed my life because it was the first time that I had the slightest inkling that perhaps I could do writing and acting as a living. They were important times.”

Palin refers to his time with the Revue, as an “apprenticeship in writing and performing comedy,” which his Cambridge counterparts shared in The Footlights.

“[John] Cleese and [Graham] Chapman – all tall people like Peter Cook, Bill Oddie being the exception – went to Cambridge and were rather sort of testy. The people who came from Oxford were short and rather gentle and woolly-minded: Dudley Moore, and Alan Bennett, and myself and Terry.”

Despite their differences, it was this training in writing and performing that provided one aspect of the groundwork for Monty Python’s enduring appeal. “Being writers and performers was very important because it meant you could have much more control of your show. In the end, Python was not completed by a separate group of writers and a separate group of actors. All of us did the writing and all of us did the acting.”

Beyond dramatic training, their high levels of education were central to the comedy. “We had been very well educated, some would say over educated, John [Cleese] was going to be a lawyer, [Graham] Chapman knew about medicine, Terry Jones was brilliant at medieval history. But none of us had seen this through. I’m not trying to make great claims for something like The Life of Brian, but it had a kind of intellectual point to it. We could also play around with what we’d learned, for instance one of my favourite sketches from Python is the ‘Summarise Proust Competition’ which is set in a northern dance hall where contestants have to summarise À la recherche de temps perdu in fifteen seconds.”

Palin also cites the variety of people within the Python group, with the Terry Gilliam’s addition of the surreal. But there was an element of luck in their timing. “It was the end of the Sixties, and suddenly everything that had been fairly established was beginning to change: new voices were being heard and younger people were making money. It was the same in television comedy. People were looking for something which broke the mould. We were lucky, we were some of the first ones to do that. And after that others came along and broke the mould, and now I don’t think there’s a mould at all.”

Were they ever afraid that by breaking the mould they would cause offence? “I think that we knew that there would be certain things that would provoke a reaction. If you write a song called ‘Every Sperm is Sacred’, someone’s going to get a bit upset. But that’s part of comedy. Good comedy has some kind of conflict, some edge to it. In the end, Python was quite good natured. It was essentially intended to be funny – that was the main thing. We weren’t looking at the world and saying we’ve got to make this a better world, or saying we’ve got to show up so-and-so as being very bad. The end goal was to make people laugh.”

It is difficult to avoid the feeling that in today’s society that is so afraid of offending others, Python might not have made it off the ground. “It’s funny because I feel that today you can say much more. We got a terrible caning from the BBC for saying the word ‘masturbating’ in the show. Now modern comedians would start with something like that. What shocked people when we were writing doesn’t shock people in quite the same way now. It’s quite hard to find something to confront and say, “Right, we’re going to have a go at this sacred cow.” You’re not quite sure what the sacred cows are now. I think they’ve morphed into something like big corporations like Amazon and Google – these forces for good (and making money). That means you’ve got to be very careful what you say about people’s right to say what they want to say.”

So what TV does a man who knows the industry like the back of his hand watch? “I don’t watch a lot of telly really. I tend to watch very moody Scandinavian thrillers, or I’m just catching up on all The Sopranos now, which is excellent. That keeps me quiet.”

“The way we watch television is quite different today. You can pick up anything anywhere at any time. So the sense of occasion when a show comes out is not quite the same. Having said that I do think that W1A and 2012 were excellently written. So was The Thick of It.” 

And the silliness has not left the man who gave us the likes of ‘The Spanish Inquisition‘ sketch. “I love Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield and those very silly things. They perpetuate a kind of childlikeness. I haven’t changed my view of the world. I do get more depressed now, but I think that’s age. There’s nothing you can do!”

Michael Palin’s is set to perform his one-man show, The Thirty Years Tour, at Oxford’s New Theatre on Sunday October 18th.