Michael Palin interview - Mustard comedy magazine
Michael Palin caricature

Mustard interview

Michael Palin

Since writing and performing in the finest comedy team of all time, this ex-Python has starred in numerous movies and TV shows, won a BAFTA and found a whole new fan base with his travel series.

~ 6,300 words ~

Originally published in Mustard #02

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Michael Palin in Monty Python's Meaning of Life

Michael Palin in Monty Python's Meaning of Life © Universal  |  Art: DM

You've had an extremely long and successful career. Was it luck, timing or lust for glory?

(laughs) I think it was largely luck and good timing: there was never any planning. I'm a habitual list keeper, but when it comes to major life decisions, I don't have any lists to help, so just followed my instincts. I guess it all started because I enjoyed acting and comedy; and, therefore, tended to mix with people who were going to become writers rather than bank managers. So, generally speaking, it was just meeting the right people at the right time and having the right sort of abilities which guided me on to the things I've done.

Of all the roles you've had – sketch writer, novelist, screenwriter, actor, presenter – which is most you?

I don't see them as separate careers so much as splinters off a main block of wood. I was just living my life in the way I do without having to be a totally different person all the time. So the thing I'm most proud of, in a way, is the travel series. I spent longer on that than anything else and there was only meant to be one of them in the first place. We went our own way with our own small team, resisted attempts to glamorise or overdramatise them, and they worked. An instinct for simple, clear, reasonably honest kind of television has kept us ahead of the game all the time and I'm quite pleased about that. People go on about how television should be doing this or that and focus on award ceremonies and things, but in the end it's what you do that counts and I'm really happy to be judged on how the travel series turned out.

Can you remember when you first became interested in comedy?

Probably at school, when I was able to mimic the masters and make people laugh. From as early as I can remember, I enjoyed laughter and seeing people laugh, and I felt it was a nicer, more comfortable world when people were happy.

My earliest friends at school were people who laughed a lot. School is a place you make jokes all the time. I remember, early on, just liking observation – not jokes, so much; just watching the way people were. I think I was able to distil the way teachers behaved and then break the boredom with a bit of comedy. That was wonderful – I liked the fact I could make people laugh, and it's sort of gone on from there.

So do you think your famous ‘niceness' would have been crushed out of you if you'd gone into a different career?

Well, I don't know. I think niceness is neither here nor there – it's a journalistic thing I've been lumbered with – but I think I was just… an agreeable sort of person, never very confrontational. I never joined a gang. I was the sort of person there on the sidelines, going along with things I probably shouldn't have – I always just liked getting along with people. You learn more about people that way. I also think that, if you've got that actor/performer thing in your genes, then you tend to see people as an audience rather than an enemy. (laughs)

I enjoy seeing people laugh and feel it's a nicer, more comfortable world when people are happy.

'60s TV was a hotbed for new comedy, were you given free rein to push boundaries and try new ideas?

Well, we had a patron, director Humphrey Barclay, who began with I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, so he had a kind of street cred, and he encouraged talent. Terry Jones and Eric were doing Do Not Adjust Your Set for him and they said: “We've got this friend, Michael Palin. We want him to come on the show too”. I don't think Humphrey was too keen, but they kept on at him until he gave in, so some very good friends I had there. Eventually, he helped Terry and me get Complete and Utter History of Britain off the ground.

There was a lot of experimentation and new kinds of shows during that period. There was an inheritance from Beyond The Fringe, the success of that kind of review-show humour. Suddenly the studios sought people who'd written and performed at university, who'd never been near a TV studio before.

Through the Oxford–Cambridge mix there was Do Not Adjust Your Set, Broaden Your Mind, and I did a show called How to Irritate People. I was hired on that as an actor by John Cleese, Graham Chapman and David Frost. It was about annoying waiters, embarrassing wives who get you to tell a story and then interrupt you just as you get to the punchline, that sort of thing. That's where the Dead Parrot sketch came from, because originally it was about an annoying mechanic of mine.

So, during that period there were various combinations of people working on the shows. We were all bed-hopping. The studios saw it as the bright, wacky face of comedy. It was very much part of the 60s movement of change, there was a general feeling of moving on, things being tried out. You had The Beatles with their music, theatre and films were going towards more working-class themes, there was kitchen-sink drama on TV; yet, ironically, at the same time, comedy was becoming more middle-class.

Python's comedy albums are underappreciated gems that experimented with the format. Did the Pythons ever consider doing something for radio?

No, I don't think so, the albums were our only ‘sound outlet'. The LPs were a contractual obligation – in fact one of them was called The Contractual Obligation Album. So we did have a slight feeling of having to do them, which isn't always totally productive, and there were definitely little tugs and tensions about who should do what, who should produce the album and all that.

But we really enjoyed being able to go into a studio, without having to dress up, and trying out little snippets of material that very often had been written by individuals rather than the normal group pairings. It was anarchic, where we just went in and mucked about, and sort of tried anything.

The idea was that everything Python produced should have its own value; it shouldn't just be a rip off-of something else. I'm not sure whether we kept that lordly, altruistic view throughout (laughs), but that was the intention.

A key figure in the creation of the albums was André Jacquemin, who had done all our recordings from very early on. He had the dedication, patience and energy for it, and it was always nice to work with him. We didn't have to seek out a studio, we just went to André's mother's house or his own studio in London.

Monty Python members John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones

Pythons John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones in April 1976. © BBC  |  Art: DM

Python was commissioned in a time of experimentation in the BBC. Do you think a show like it could happen now?

I don't see why not. But we were so lucky in that, despite the BBC not really understanding Python, they did commission it, and to BBC1, which was the national channel. And that was at a time when there were only about three or four channels around; BBC2 had only just started. So it immediately gave us potentially huge exposure. And I think that nowadays that's not going to happen.

There's such a fragmented broadcasting pattern out there now, so many channels for new material. So it might be difficult to grab the attention in the way that Python did, and become a sort of national phenomenon. Although we had a small portion of the audience, mostly students, they were very loyal, with everybody gathering round the TV in the student bar at 11 o'clock.

I can't quite see that happening again in quite the same way, but there must be people out there with great imagination who will fashion something like Python, but it just won't get the platform that we had.

Michael Palin in Ripping Yarns

Michael Palin in Ripping Yarns © BBC  |  Art: DM

After Python, how did you end up doing Ripping Yarns with Terry Jones?

BBC producer Terry Hughes wanted me to do a show – he wanted 'Michael Palin does variety'. I said no, but that Terry Jones and I would like to write something.

The series had a bit of an awkward birth. Terry's brother came up with the idea for Boys' Own adventure stories, and we wrote the pilot, 'Tomkinson's School Days'. It went down pretty well, though I remember one critic said it was like “an elongated Python”.

When we got commissioned for a full series, Terry Jones really wanted to direct, but the BBC said no, they wanted a 'proper' director. So Terry said: “Well, let's just write it together, but I'm not going to act in it, I'm going to use the time to go off and do other projects”. It was an example of the inflexibility of the BBC.

We wanted to do a lot of new things with it, do it all on film stock, give it a dramatic feel and use actors like Denholm Elliot, Ian Ogilvy and Roy Kinnear, moving on from Pythons playing all the parts.

It did well when it came out on DVD.

Yes, the BBC had no real interest in releasing it, so a fan called Tim Beddows, who also ran a company called Network, bought the rights. He put together a wonderful set with re-mastered tapes, scripts, a documentary and a short film. They've sold very well, so thank you, Network! The growth of the internet and DVD has been great for keeping older shows alive.

Did Ripping Yarns serve partly as a stepping stone to the more dramatic roles you did later, such as in GBH?

Well, I'd done serious acting before I went to university – three or four plays in an amateur dramatic society in Sheffield, gloomy, miserable things. But I never saw a difference between that type of acting and comedy, except that comedy can be more difficult, because if you didn't get that noise from your audience then you knew it wasn't working, whereas in drama, you don't know if they've all just fallen asleep.

But Ripping Yarns was a transition from doing wacky experimental comedy to more storytelling-based work, and I got more out of playing characters than just delivering one-liners. Ripping Yarns was slightly less jagged and a little more thoughtful.

In terms of the acting, yes, I thought I might be pushed a lot more than I had been before. But, in fact, I was wrong, because the fragmented performances in Python – when you've got just a minute-and-a-half to create a believable character different to the one you played three minutes earlier – that's much more difficult than you think.

As Terry Jones always points out as a criticism, in Ripping Yarns I ended up playing the central characters who weren't really the funny ones, so I didn't really get the chance to play as full a comic performance as I might have done.

It can be quite physically demanding, acting in a Gilliam movie. Blood and shit are never far away.

Michael Palin in Time Bandits

Michael Palin in Time Bandits © Handmade Films  |  Art: DM

What led to working with Terry Gilliam again on Time Bandits?

Terry and I had already collaborated on Jabberwocky, with me acting and him directing. Then, with Time Bandits, Terry came over – he lived very close by, still does – and said: “I've got this idea” and showed me this one-page outline for the film, which I loved. He said, “will you help me write it? You're good with characters and that's what I need help with.”

So Terry Gilliam handled the storyline, which I find a chore, and I had great fun writing characters in all the different time periods; Napoleon, Robin Hood, Agamemnon, etc.

There was talk for quite a while about a possible Time Bandits sequel. Were you involved in that?

No, I'd heard about it, but that was about all. It was one of those ideas floating about, like scraps of paper which occasionally lands on someone's desk, and they say, “Hey we're going to really do this”.

But I don't think we've got to the really-going-to-do-this stage yet.

Michael Palin with Jonathan Pryce in Terry Gilliam's Brazil

"It's not my fault that Buttle's heart condition didn't appear on Tuttle's file!"
With Jonathan Pryce in Terry Gilliam's Brazil © Universal  |  Art: DM

You then went on to play Jack Lint in Gilliam's dystopian masterpiece, Brazil. Where did you find the darkness to create this character?

Terry loved the idea of getting someone with my nice-guy image to play the character. We both felt that real evil isn't people with scars on their faces, tattoos and narrow eyes. We thought it was a more original way of showing the face of a real torturer, who's quite accepted in everyday life and completely charming.

I mean, I didn't base it on the Nazis, but certainly the more I've read since then, the more I see the similarities. These people who had immaculate taste and wore fine suits, yet were the most incredibly cruel people. And, at the same time, very affectionate to their own children and family.

That kind of cruelty, that you can't see on the surface, is more insidious. This character was a man at the top of his profession, pretty much unassailable, who had charm and got on with people, who had his trophy wife and trophy kids and all that.

Apparently De Niro wanted that part, but Gilliam said it was yours and he had to choose another. That's quite something, to say you beat De Niro to a part…

Ha! Yes, I suppose that can't have happened many times! I believe the story is true, at least Terry tells me it is. He safeguarded the role for me because we had such a strong idea in our minds of how I could play it. And De Niro was brilliant in the role of the heroic character, the 'goodie', which was quite an unusual part for him too.

But I think, better than beating him to a role, the greatest thing of all is to be able to say I've been shot in the head by De Niro. Along with the fish-slapping dance, I want that on my gravestone: 'shot by Robert De Niro'.

Along with the fish-slapping dance, I want that on my gravestone: 'shot by Robert De Niro'.

Any chance you'll team up with Terry Gilliam again to co-write or perform in one of his movies?

I've had many happy filming experiences with Terry Gilliam, and he's one of the most inventive and original film-makers of our generation. But it can be quite a physically demanding experience, acting in a Gilliam movie – blood and shit are never far away. But he does produce work which is unique and different and challenging, and I like that.

Since Brazil, we've gone our own ways, but always keep in touch and have long harboured a wish to collaborate on a film of the novel Water Music, which is a great picaresque tale about Mungo Park's explorations in Africa by the American author TC Boyle [who also wrote The Road to Wellville and The Tortilla Curtain].

Is that any closer to happening?

No, no it isn't! (laughs) I think the furthest we got with that was about ten years ago, when I was out in Santa Barbara visiting John Cleese. John and Alice had met TC Boyle, and they'd got me his number. I remember standing by the shores of the Pacific, ringing him up, him answering and then the line immediately going dead – one of those awful embarrassing things. I called back and I got as far saying, “Hey, we're in town and we'd love to meet. Terry Gilliam and I are great fans”. He seemed quite pleased, but the timing never worked out and that was that: we never got together.

Then I went off doing x-number of travel programmes, Terry was pursuing Don Quixote – still is – and making other films along the way. But it's still something I think would be wonderful, because the book is absolutely suited to Terry's inventiveness, and has the scope and scale of a great picture.

When Terry and I get together we, in a sort of dewy-eyed way, say: “Oh, that would have been great”. I think that'll probably be the writing on the gravestone of that idea: “Oh, it would have been great”.

Michael Palin in A Fish Called Wanda

Michael Palin in A Fish Called Wanda © MGM Studios  |  Art: DM

How did making Fish Called Wanda compare with the follow-up, Fierce Creatures?

When we made Wanda, there were no expectations. Nobody knew if the Anglo-American combination would work. Nobody knew if having a 70-year old director who'd had a stroke would work. It was a small-scale, low-budget movie. In the first week, we realised we had something that was really working, and because we had space it gave everyone a chance to shine, to give really strong, original performances.

[Palin drew on his father's stutter for Ken, including making it less pronounced around people he trusts and worse around people he's uncomfortable with. He won a Best Supporting Actor BAFTA for the film and went on to found the London Centre for Stammering Children.]

Wanda was very successful and John was under a lot of pressure to do a sequel. He didn't want to do that, but he did want to keep the four central actors together. So we did Fierce Creatures, but it was six years later and things had changed. It fell into the old problem of more money and more resources, but with more expectations and more interference.

We got sucked into this big-budget showpiece film and the comedy got a little overwhelmed. We ended up waiting for a leopard to climb onto a stool, for a tiger to eat a carcass and be 'chewing, not nipping'. But it was the acting in front of the cage that was important.

I mean, there were still some very funny sequences. The scene where the lemurs drop on John in bed is wonderful. That would be great in any movie, that was hysterical. But overall, there wasn't the chance for the characters to develop. Wanda was small enough to have a good feeling amongst the director and actors. Fierce Creatures got sort of swollen.

Has your view of Python, Brazil, Wanda, etc. changed over the years? Do you ever rewatch them?

I don't watch them a lot, but things come up. Life of Brian was on television recently and I watched that again. I find – and this is a big generalisation – that as time goes by, something good sort of gets better. When something first goes out you're terribly involved, you've just gone through the editing process of selecting the good, throwing away what was bad, thinking about each take very self-consciously, looking at the same take five times.

Then, when you've chosen your take and the music's put on and so forth and it goes into the film, you sometimes think 'oh dear, did we do right or did we do wrong?'. In the first few weeks, or even years, I do tend to be very critical of it; but as time goes by, I see the thing as a whole and perhaps get less personally involved – I just see it as the piece of work we all did and then I can enjoy it more. And in most cases, things have got better and I enjoy them more now that I'm less self-conscious about them.

Life of Brian stands out for me because it's very insightful as well as being extremely funny.

We thought quite hard and carefully about Life of Brian because of the subject matter, because it was about religion. We were all grown-up enough to know that you could get into difficult areas if it was just seen to be jokes about the Bible and Christ falling off donkeys. In the end we realised that what this was about, more than anything, was authoritarianism and the mindless agreement with what certain people might have said.

It became very much about 'think for yourself' – and once we had that, we had a sort of intellectual stance for the film. And the comedy was pretty high, there's not a single scene in there that doesn't work. It was well performed and well directed and all the elements came together to make something quite thought-provoking and relevant and satirical and quite funny. That was the achievement of Brian, I think.

A friend was telling me recently that he'd met a verger who adored Life of Brian. Do you think that's an indication of how much things have changed since that infamous TV debate?

Well, even at the time there were people representing the Church who were very complimentary about the film. I remember the vicar of St John's Wood church told his flock that there were lessons to be learnt from it that shouldn't be dismissed. As ever, it's the noisy ones, like the Bishop of Suffolk with his ridiculous brandishing of the cross and 'thirty pieces of silver' jibe, who got the publicity, but I don't know if they were the majority.

So yes, things have changed, but I still feel making jokes about religion is extremely tricky, and I would take my hat off – well, I wouldn't; I would probably dive for cover – if anyone wanted to write a comedy about the Sunni and the Shia. It's highly potent.

What we were doing, in a quite innocent way really, was saying that religion is a matter for personal belief, for individuals. The area for debate is how it's interpreted by the church, and the power that these authorities assume. We weren't attacking religious faith itself, but rather the way it had been appropriated by people who were using it for their own ends.

Have you seen The Book of Mormon?

Yes! I thought it was absolutely terrific, a musical for our time. Wonderfully sparky and provocative and irreverent, and it all held together. Despite the fact that you're listening to songs about things like cliterectomies, it had a feeling of being there to entertain. It would embarrass or shock sometimes, but it elevated beyond that because it's such a jolly, joyful show.

That was also true for Python, we were branded as 'angry young men', but we were there to entertain people. You were supposed to come out of a Python show feeling not just that the world was a ghastly place which we should try and mend wherever we can, but that there was pleasure and joy in laughing together at the absurdity of it.

Michael Palin in Brazil

Michael Palin in Brazil © Universal  |  Art: DM

You were the sole Python to turn down the proposed tour in 1999...

We'd just got back from Aspen and it'd been a huge success and great fun. On the back of that, Eric really wanted to do more and he had two alternatives: the first was a movie. Eric had this really good idea about a Crusade, where we were knights of the Round Table, but we'd play it as our own ages, all 70-year olds. But you need people to organise it and cost it.

The second idea was to tour with a stage show, with us doing all the classic sketches, and that's the one that started moving. I didn't really like that it was being run from America, I felt a little detached, not engaged. John was also not keen on it being run by Eric's lawyers. It seems to me that there was a danger of the stage show being less good than the original shows.

So there were unresolved issues, plus I had the Hemingway project, which I knew would take time, but mainly I was worried that without Graham Chapman it wouldn't be the same.

Fifteen years later, you did the O2 reunion. What changed your mind?

Well, Python had got itself into quite a mess over the last few years. John got stung by this enormous divorce settlement, £15 million or something, so he obviously needed money. Terry Jones, as was reported in a lot of papers, has his huge mortgage payments. And then there was the court case last year [where Holy Grail producer Mark Forstater won a larger share of earnings from Spamalot], which cost us a lot of money for the rather complicated legal processes. So there really was nothing left in the kitty.

There were also various people telling us that Python is an international brand, but it's not being sold as such, and that we were rather undervaluing what we've got. Then Jim Beach, who manages Queen, said, “Look, why don't you do a few nights at the O2, people would love it and then you can pay all your debts”. It was no question, everyone said yes.

It was also partly to do with the timing of us all being available. There's always been that feeling that we should, at some point before we all die, get together and do something again. The enjoyment of acting together has never diminished. When we did a read through of the stage show, it was great. The timing was all there, everyone was doing their bit.

And finally, there was my strong feeling that we couldn't have Python without Graham Chapman, and that we shouldn't cast someone as Graham. But with the technology now, using big screens and video clips, we're able to integrate Graham into the show. He will actually be in sketches, up on the screen. So that was another reason that I overcame my resistance of 10 years.

Were some Pythons a bit more up for it than others? Terry Gilliam seemed to be grumbling a bit that it was buggering up his filming schedule.

(laughs) No, I don't think Terry G wanted to do it really. He doesn't get as much out of it. He does all the design so brilliantly, because he has this marvellous eye for images, but acting is something that he's never really been comfortable with. Although I think Terry's brilliant in the parts he's played, I think of him in the jailer sketch in Life of Brian; “We've got lumps of it round the back”.

But I don't think he sees this as top of his priorities, and you know, he's got lots of other things on. But he's never in any way tried to stop it happening, he's gone along with it, and you'll see a lot of him on stage.

Have you missed writing and performing comedy?

Not particularly, no. I'm very happy where I am at the moment. I could go back to writing comedy tomorrow, I suppose, if I came up with the right thing to do. I feel very fulfilled that we did Python and the rest. From university at 21 years old right up till 1982, when we did the last Python film, I was writing and performing comedy most of the time. There were the university sketches, then Do Not Adjust Your Set, then Python, then Ripping Yarns, so I feel I've covered the ground, done a lot of different comedy in different ways.

I don't feel frustrated, I don't feel as though there's something I want to do in comedy that I've never done. I think that nearly 20 years of mainstream comedy was enough. But comedy has always been part of my life and work since then, whether its been travel shows or films like Fish Called Wanda, so I don't think I've missed anything. I've done it and a lot of other things besides.

Is there any comedy that you enjoy watching these days? And has anybody taken the baton from Python?

Well, I don't really know. I think it's unfair to judge people on whether they're the new Python. But certainly there are comedians I like, I think Paul Whitehouse is really talented and I'm a great fan of The Fast Show – they had a sort of joy in what they were doing, which is very much Python's way of doing it. Python was a very happy show. People say it was dark and gloomy and we did nasty things, but it was very happy at the end.

Whereas something like The Office, which I think was brilliantly done, is turning inwards and looking at ourselves in a very morose way.

At the end, you can love the way its been done and the way the characters are, but it makes you feel very uncomfortable about yourself and the way you are. I suppose I go for the more escapist stuff.

And I don't really know stuff like The Mighty Boosh and all that, so I'm absolutely not an authority on comedy.


Part II: Question Tag

As is Mustard tradition, we have a few questions from our other interviewees:

Graham Linehan caricature Graham Linehan:
What makes the perfect sketch?

A good beginning, middle and end! (laughs)

A sketch is really like a short story. It's got to engage you very early on, you've got to like where you are and the people you're with and they've got to carry you through and deliver you somewhere at the end where you never expected to be.

I think that's rather a complicated way of saying it. It's essentially about grabbing your audience and beguiling them, and making them want to come with you on the journey wherever you're taking them.

Sam Bain caricature Sam Bain:
What's your favourite contemporary comedy (since The Fast Show)?

I honestly don't watch a lot of television, because I've just got so many other things to do. When I do, I actually tend to be quite gloomy, I like the dark Scandinavian dramas like The Killing and The Bridge, the last series of which was really good. And not a laugh in them really, which is quite refreshing (laughs).

I think perhaps if you write comedy then you're looking for something on the other side, the darker side. Or perhaps it's sheer laziness; I haven't picked up on enough comedy shows.

Actually, I did see Twenty Twelve, which I really enjoyed because it was delightfully well observed, and it didn't punch you in the gut too much. I'm looking forward to the one they're doing about the BBC.

Stewart Lee Stewart Lee:
Whose idea was Python's Confuse A Cat sketch, which was for me the best one?

As I remember it, that sketch was written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman, who were a two-man writing team within the group (as were Terry Jones and I; Eric Idle wrote on his own and Terry Gilliam, of course, animated on his own).

Caricatures: AW


What did you think of Charles Edward's portrayal of you in Holy Flying Circus?

I thought 'poor bloke, having to do the dullest of the Pythons' (laughs). I thought he did it wonderfully, he was absolutely terrific. Later my wife and I went to see him on stage in The King's Speech in the West End. It was a great production, really very good, and we invited him out afterwards for a bite to eat. My wife Helen said it was really odd, sitting at the table in the middle of two Michael Palins. There were certain things which were very similar, not purely physical – and let's face it, he's a good-looking guy, which I was very flattered by – but in the way he did things and looked at the world, that was very sort of Palin-esque, which was rather weird.

In the travel series, you've become a kind of unofficial ambassador to the rest of the world. Do you think you represent a classic British archetype?

I don't really see it like that… You do these programmes then sort of listen out for the reactions. It's quite interesting to see. We make them the best way we can, just me, travelling the world, observing and trying to make a bit of sense of it and letting the people I talk to speak for themselves as much as possible. I tend to prefer to be myself, enabling the rest of the world to be seen as it wants to be seen. That's probably quite a British, English thing.

People have said 'you do it rather easily – you let people talk'. And I wonder if that's very English or if it's just me. I think the Brits have a way of approaching foreign travel in a slightly wry way: they don't take it all too seriously, but are capable of being rather adventurous. I think in Europe they have to get something more serious out of it, whereas Americans tend to prefer to have a celebrity do the travelling for them.

I just do things the way I feel most comfortable, and I suppose that is quite English – I don't get wildly overexcited, I eat and drink anything around – if these are British virtues, fair enough.

What's the strangest place you've been recognised by a Python fan?

I suppose it would have to be this island in the middle of the Bering Strait called Little Diomede, which is home to about 500 Inuit. They live a pretty grim existence for most of the year, with the ocean frozen around them, and people have been trying to get them off the island for a long, long time to somewhere more comfortable. Anyway, we spent a day with them [during Full Circle]. They were very nice, and one of them asked me if I was the guy from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

You've written a novel and a travel series about Hemingway. What is it about him you find so engaging?

I came to him through comedy really, because I'd written a novel about someone who wanted to be Hemingway, a meek little man who worked in the post office. It was really to do with the image of Hemingway – this adventurer with great swagger and panache who'd been presented in the public eye as a great womaniser and drinker, the ultimate macho man.

So I used this combination of a post office worker in a little Suffolk town and Hemingway as a complete contrast. But the more I read about Hemingway the more I realised he a very complicated, very interesting man and was himself a bit of an outsider, someone never really comfortable entering fame in America. He had a history of depression, he could be pretty unpleasant company, he was very boastful, a deeply insecure character, yet he wrote some of the great modern books.

I realised there was something in this man that intrigued me. There were two or three levels here, and one of the levels was that Hemingway loved different parts of the world. He didn't feel terribly comfortable at home; he always wanted to be on the move and spent much of his life abroad. So I thought: let's do something about Hemingway the traveller that will also bring out some insights into Hemingway the man. And that's what the series was about. I think the series and also the accompanying book does that really well.

Have you experienced a culture during your travels which, if you hadn't been born British, you'd have liked to belong?

(laughs) That's a very good question. The cultures of South-East Asia interest me, I think because they come from a different background to our own. Buddhism intrigues me with its emphasis on self-awareness and it does seem to be much more of the mind than the body – contemplation rather than competition. I think I could live as a Buddhist, though I'm not sure about the yak butter tea.

You talked at the beginning about to-do lists for life. What else is on your list?

There are lots of things I'd like to do. I'd like to learn another language, to cook well and play the trombone, but time's running out and I've enough books to read and films to see to take me well into my 90s.

I do love films and wouldn't mind making another couple before I shuffle off this mortal coil. Something small-scale, small budget, with a nice team and an intense story.

What would you be doing if the BBC hadn't put the Python team together?

I'd be out of a job! Well, at the time, Terry Jones and I had been working on the Complete and Utter History of Britain, which was a bit of a hit-and-miss series. So I think Terry and I would have continued writing together, more TV shows and maybe even a feature-length film. And we'd have tried to cast John, Graham and Eric in it. And got Terry Gilliam to do the credits.

So if Python hadn't been put together... you'd have put Python together?

(laughs) Well, yes, I suppose that would have been one way of handling it!

Michael Palin

Michael Palin interviewed by Alex Musson
in 2005, 2008 and 2014.


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