I met the Monty Python member Michael Palin in London in late 2004. Much of this conversation was re-edited for a piece in The Word magazine. What follows is a more complete transcript, touching on his TV travels, the Monty Python ethos and public school sex education…
In Covent Garden, next door but one to Charles Dickens’ old office, you will find the lair of the Nice Python. In a corner chair he sits and twinkles, every inch the Mr Reasonable that his publicity suggests. He combines geniality with a kind of militant moderation. I lost count of the times he said “On the other hand” before looping back upon whatever argument he had just advanced.
Yet he has been a revolutionary in his day. The Monty Python team were more profoundly subversive than were The Rolling Stones, for they reached inside the psyche of Middle England. They did not rebel directly, but they softened the edges of reality, rendering it absurd. Rebellions can be contained. But once the concept of reality is lost you’re in a different world. Britain was fundamentally changed by those days of dead parrots and lumberjack transvestites.
Nowadays we know Michael Palin as the self-deprecating Englishman who travels the world for his TV series. He seems to like people and they like him. “In most parts of the world,” he says, “especially the poorer places, people are pleased to see you. They are quite proud of where they live. This is our place! They don’t seem to think, Well he earns this much and I earn this much so what should I be feeding him?”
At 61 his outlook is sunny. He can even praise the South Bank complex that he sees from Waterloo Bridge. “It just looks right, somehow.” Now I have just walked underneath it, and know its labyrinthine passages are a horrible Clockwork Orange place of homelessness and sickening smells. But the Nice Python’s optimism is catching. This afternoon at least, everything in Covent Garden is lovely.
Paul Du Noyer: Does travel broaden the mind, as they say?
Michael Palin: Travel asks more questions than gives you answers. But there is a certain sort of payback in that you come back home and feel a visceral sense of belonging. It’s odd. I think of myself as someone who travels the world and I’m very lightly chauvinistic yet I’m very glad to get back home. And that’s a gut feeling because my upbringing, my culture, all the things I think about a lot are English. On the other hand going abroad makes you me less dependent on these things. You think, it’s not that important which party you support, Labour or Conservatives, it’s not that important which football team you support, or which school your father went to or you went to. There’s more out there. Yet you come back and these same little tentacles of home entwine themselves around your leg, saying, “It is important.” I look at these endless tables in the newspapers with a guilty interest in how my school performs, Shrewsbury School, one of the top public schools. My children don’t go to public school and their children probably won’t, yet I want to see, because that’s part of who I am and what I am. I like to think that travel makes me a better man.
In what way?
You have to go with an open unprejudiced mind. Political systems interest me less than people, I’m just fascinated by people whoever they are, whether it’s on the train from Sheffield to London or someone you see in a queue for the cinema or someone who lives in a village in the Himalayas. In that way the world offers very much the same experience. If you travel because you’re deeply unhappy and want to get away from something in yourself, you’re running from whatever it is, it sounds quite romantic but actually that’s quite depressing because you go full of yourself. In the Himalayas, Buddhism is all about shedding the self and you have to do that. I’ve always been a great fan of the travel writer Norman Lewis, just a bloke from Essex who used to go around the world and wrote some great books and I always remember him saying, ‘The way I do it is not to be noticed, I like to go into a room and observe and then go out without anyone having seen me.’ I know it sounds ridiculous because I bring a big television crew but that is basically what I think about travel. I don’t want to change anyone, I don’t want to hammer on about any message, I just want to go and have a look without anyone noticing me. That’s the principle behind the programmes that we do, and people can’t grasp this because we have the full weight of television. We don’t actually have 500 people and limousines, just 7 or 8 of us and we go about our business quietly, we don’t ask people to perform, we watch what they’re doing.
You need an open mind wherever you go. You can go to the mid West of America and say ‘God, what’s happening in the world with these neo-cons in the mid West and these States that always vote for Bush, how could I go there?’ But that’s a dangerous thing to say, that’s cutting yourself off from part of the world. And you go there and you find the people are sweet and lovely and look after you extremely well, and only at the end of the evening do they say George Bush is the greatest President there has ever been and you have to say quietly I don’t agree and leave. So I’m trying not to be too judgmental.
Do you find that people are the same everywhere?
I do, I’m trying to avoid the Coca-Cola cliché of everyone linking arms and teaching the world to sing, but certain things unite people. Families, communities, children, education, food, shelter… Children are a big thing, send them to school, hope they’ll have a better life than you did. Sport, that world is pretty much all over the world. Sadly there are some things that unite the world that leave you pretty depressed. When I did Around The World In 80 Days one thing that seemed to unite East and West was Samantha Fox, you’d go to remote border posts on the edge of the desert and there on the wall would be pictures of two people, Princess Di and Samantha Fox and they’d ask me if I knew Samantha Fox and after a while I’d just say Yes because it made things easier.
I generally found there are few places in the world where you can feel unwanted or alien if you have the right attitude. But one of those places is Los Angeles, where everyone lives behind bars. But in most parts of the world especially the poorer places people are pleased to see you and are quite proud of where they live. This is our place! They don’t seem to think, ‘Well he earns this much and I earn this much so what should I be feeding him?’
Do you take pride in Britain?
I take pride in the pluralism and diversity of the country. We’re one of the most tolerant places I’ve ever been, and the world is a pretty intolerant place. You can give or take some aggression on the edges but we’ve got a reasonable sense of proportion here. We’re not terrified of things and we’re not unduly over-elated about things. We accept what goes on and we don’t imagine we’re the top country in the world, apart from a few sad people who still think we’re fighting Hitler. Humour is quite important. There is a long cultural tradition of dissent, which has been allowed through our history. Neither side has won, we’ve always had two sides completely expressed. Within very small areas there are local differences in traditions, feelings, you can have Newcastle supporters hating Sunderland supporters when they’re only a few miles apart and the way a Newcastle accent is different from Leeds or Liverpool, that diversity in a small country is quite a strength.
What about our public transport?
I’m the president of Transport 2000, which is largely a sinecure now. I generally support their aims. I think public transport is pretty grim, but the one thing that’s gone through the whole period I’ve been involved is the rise of the motor car, the private vehicle over public transport, it’s just a fact of life, people want to drive their own cars, the car advertising industry is absolutely huge, look at television. So long as people are in love with cars the roads are going to get more clogged, air gets more polluted, we all get more aggressive and angry because that’s what cars tend to do to you and public transport has a pretty tough job of trying to be successful and efficient.
It’s not been very well run. The rail industry has been a real disaster the last 20 years, largely because governments never take transport as a real priority; if you look at transport ministers they come and go within weeks. It’s a step down, there’s Transport and there’s Northern Ireland, that’s where you were sent as a minister, you’re not on the way up. We had John Prescott’s great Ten Year Plan. Where’s that gone? Now it’s backs to the wall, desperately trying to save the railways by injecting huge amounts of money. But things have changed in that people can now see that the private car is a mixed blessing and if you’re going to get stuck in 15-mile jam on your way to work it’s worth investigating the alternative.
The railway system, though it’s been traumatised, is carrying many more people than it was in the 1980s and in some areas it’s improving. I think what Ken Livingstone has done in London with the congestion charge has been extremely successful. I know the shops go on about ‘Oh dear, less people going to the shops’ but before there was moaning about traffic everywhere, pollution, you can’t have it both ways. I’d rather have the centre of London the way it is since congestion charging. Things are happening, but they’re happening in the traditional British way where you have to get a total fuck up and reluctantly agree to sort it out, the complete opposite of the French or American way where people have this vision of the future and they invest in it, and you can see the results if you go to Germany or Switzerland and everything works like clockwork. That’s just our way of doing things. I’m more hopeful that I was.
What do you think of TV now?
I grew up in the 50s when television was something new, almost entirely BBC run and it was like an old benign teacher telling you what was good and bad, educating and informing. Then ITV came along and as soon as television had adverts in that lowered your general respect for television. It had to. You could be watching something very exciting and suddenly, Oh they’re advertising Brillo pads or whatever. That was the beginning of the change and television is now becoming an entertainment service. I remember when I was young and we had our first television, when it wasn’t on my father covered it with a special cloth, almost as if it wasn’t there, then removed it when we wanted to watch The Army Game or the News. It was rationed out.
Now television is everywhere, you see it in gyms, in bars. It’s basically just pumping stuff out, there are endless channels and I think we’re at the half way point between the old respectful idea of television as shaping society and improving it and the idea of education being an irrelevance. Most channels exist because people want to advertise cars or Brillo Pads or underarm deodorant. I think that’s fair enough, but television is becoming something that is just on the screen. It’s completely changed from the day when it was this little shrine in the room that you used sparingly when you tune into the world. Maybe that’s the way it’s going to be, and we should demystify it and not get so het up about it.
Then again I am a great supporter of the BBC and something I’ve learned from travelling is that the BBC does have a very good reputation around the world. And more so recently. Despite the fact that Bush and Blair went into the war together, the BBC is trusted whereas CNN is seen as a tool of America. To have one channel that doesn’t survive by selling goods is very important. It can stand outside the consumer process and there is more chance of getting the truth from the BBC than there is from a company that is dependent on adverts and company profits.
Was there a golden age for comedy? Monty Python seemed like a TV equivalent of the earlier revolution that overtook pop music.
We certainly didn’t feel at the time there was something revolutionary. But we did feel we could say something that had not been said before. At that time television was still ossified in that 50s way, still quite serious. There was a way to behave on television and Python came in at a time when television was beginning to become a cliché. Up to that time it had been to the post war generation wonderful to see these things on the box: royal weddings, the Cup Final, things like that. Beyond that television didn’t offer you very much, it wasn’t naughty or mischievous. I think the first thing was That Was The Week That Was. I watched that and saw Bernard Levin hectoring the audience…
The doors were suddenly open and we came along at a time when you could play around with TV, say it had become very boring, the presenters, the style of chat shows, game shows, whatever had become dull and bland let’s mess around with it. No one had done that before apart from Spike Milligan and TW3. We messed around with the form of TV. Now everyone does that but at that time anything you did was seen as risky; we didn’t feel at the time that Python was breaking barriers but we did want to do something different. The reason we got together was we’d all worked in shows like Marty Feldman, the Two Ronnies, David Frost, we’d seen TV beginning to become challenging but still respectful. Then Python pushed it and we got it off our chests.
I remember very well when we did the early Pythons I had no idea how many people would pick up on it. I’d wake up in a cold sweat and think, ‘The six of us doing it are the only ones who will find it funny’; it was a while before it spread to a wider audience. No one had been as naughty and mischievous with TV before. We came along and said it’s not that important and that’s why Python was memorable. We were the first people to have a go at TV itself. Someone would turn the TV off in the middle, or we’d run the credits at the beginning. They were really worried about this. Once at the end we went to black, that little light you see when the TV is going off and they said, ‘You can’t do that, people all over the country are going to be switching their sets off.’ Stuff Chris Morris does, which I find is very much in the tradition of Python but he’s working in an already opened market.
Is Ripping Yarns your tribute to stuff you grew up reading? You seem affectionate towards that world, rather than savage.
I’m rather fond of it, really. I was brought up on things like Tiger and Roy of the Rovers and in a sense it’s odd to say but especially the Northern stories define a part of my childhood, they define where I came from. It’s saying things have moved on but I miss that time when you had tales of local life and there was an innocence to them, the pluck and heroism and so on. So part of the appeal is nostalgic and part of it is the Python spirit that a lot of these stories were intolerably racist and aggressive and conservative, so there was something you could play around with and muck it up. But in making them I felt great affection for a lot of the characters. Whereas Python was just tearing television apart and throwing the piece up in the air, Ripping Yarns was the opposite: starting with criticism but going back to a certain level of innocence and a not altogether critical view of that world. They did define the way people were in a pre-cynical age.
Would you say you’ve had a better time than your children?
I’ve had an amazingly fortunate time. When I think of my parents, who lived through two world wars and a major economic depression, and we worry about house prices. We’ve had it so good. And also coming along in the 60s you really did feel that things were getting better and what you did was fresh and to be celebrated. My children are more questioning. They’re not quite sure where to go. Everything is there, you can say anything, do everything, so much has changed in that way. But I don’t thing it’s a better world for giving you innumerable choices, in fact it might be slightly more difficult.
In the 60s it was like a helter skelter ride, you didn’t know where it was going; there was excessive behaviour and chaos and strikes but at the end of it you came out of it in a comfortable chair in the waiting room saying What next? I feel we’re at the waiting room stage of life at the moment, very comfortable, very nice. Life is much incomparably better than it was when I was young in terms of comforts, ability to travel, the books and music that are available, just the fact that you can now via DVD or CD get any kind of TV programme. When we were young things were dispensable, Python was about the first BBC light entertainment series that was automatically saved after transmission. Before that they just got rid of them. Spike Milligan, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, they just didn’t have room to store them. Now so much is around, we can go back and see anything. It’s wonderful. But what’s happening inside, the spirit of the times, is maybe slightly different.
Do you ever try to pass on wisdom to your children?
Not directly. I do talk to them, they come to me and say, ‘What shall I do about this or that?’ And I have to pretend I’m not confused. Any decision that’s made is very personal, you have to think of them, they’re not you. So I say ‘What do you want to do?’ Think of it from their side. Whereas when I was growing up my father just said ‘You do this, do that.’ I don’t think he ever said ‘Michael, now what do you want to do?’ It was just a list of things not to do – acting, comedy script writing, almost anything I’ve ever done.
What opinions have you jettisoned over the years?
That’s interesting. I’ve jettisoned a certain amount of anger. I’ve become less dogmatic. I think most of the opinions I had in the ’50s and ’60s, such as they were, tended to be very liberal, war was bad, peace is good, old buildings bad, new buildings good, all the things you felt at the time and I wouldn’t grace them with the description ‘opinion’ but I’ve just become aware that there are different sides to things. I’m less instantly judgmental. You could say more confused. I’ve slightly changed my opinion about America, When I was younger it was the promised land, I thought everything about it was the future. Now I’m just more cynical about it, Hollywood especially. I rarely watch Hollywood movies because I can’t take what goes with it, the mindlessness or triumphalism or the phoney happy ending. I think America does brilliant movies like Fargo, smaller movies, but there was a time when I was seduced by Hollywood but now I’m largely repelled by it.
What do you wish you had been told when younger?
I wish I’d been told more about sex rather than have to discover it at a boys’ boarding school. Ha ha! From rumours in the dormitory and all that. I had a very weird introduction to sex and I’ve always rather admired the Italians who as far as I know had a sort of shadowy aunt who tells you about sex at the age of 13, practical advice which might be useful, rather than having some batty old headmaster who’s probably never had sex in his life telling you how to avoid gonorrhoea by means of models on his desk. It was so utterly confusing that you’d come along and sex would only ever seem to be some impossible mathematical theorem that you could never get right; you’d just get little bits of it now and then and gradually piece together what is really a fairly simple thing. I would have loved someone to come along and show me what it was all about, the spirit of it, really, rather than being brought up in a spirit of extreme disapproval of anything to do with sex.
I remember my headmaster telling me in a sex talk that the most wicked thing of all is masturbation, he used the word wicked. I think that’s where times have changed quite a bit but if I had known that masturbation wasn’t wicked and wouldn’t involve physical collapse for the next week and a half I would have been far less anxious!