In Conversation with Michael Palin
From Idler 37, 2006
Tom Hodgkinson meets the amiable comedy genius turned world traveller and self-confessed man without direction.
WE APPROACHED Michael Palin as we’d seen him being interviewed saying that he’d lived in the same small house since 1968. Despite his fame and fortune, he’d never bothered to move. He had also just performed a one-man show in the West End called Forty Years Without a Proper Job. So it seemed he might have some wisdom to impart for those of us pursuing the idle life. We met Palin in his office near Covent Garden.
IDLER: How often do you come into the office?
PAILIN: It varies, sometimes twice a week. I like the location here. Covent Garden is up there… Holborn and east London is not so far away and you can walk down to Waterloo Bridge.
IDLER: So you’ve just had your show, Forty Years Without A Proper Job, and you’ve said recently on a TV interview that your life has happened rather than being planned, that you had no burning ambition. It seems that this idea has been on your mind.
PALIN: The title of the show came from a practical consideration. This show was going to be just about my life, so I thought, are there any themes to it all? The fact is I’ve never really had a job. I’ve never signed a contract longer than six to eight weeks. So I thought, well, that gets me out of appearing to be an expert on anything, or having to declare a direction to my life. It really is pretty close to how my life has been. Very fortunately I’ve managed to avoid the issue of getting a proper job or deciding what I am best at or I’m good at. It goes back to my father – he had been brought up in two world wars and through the recession of the 1930s. It was a rough time, so after that the children were jolly well going to be comfortable and secure and follow a certain pattern, and part of that was having a proper job. I remember worrying throughout my education, as my particular talents lay not in any practical direction: I was not good at maths or mechanics or chemistry. The only thing I really wanted to do was to be an airline pilot for a bit, but then I realised that for that you needed maths… all the other things were to do with internal ambition and imagination. I’ve always had a rather busy, productive imagination and that led more to things that you couldn’t quantify as being useful such as writing and acting. Those were the areas where whatever talent I had, lay, so it was hard to reconcile this with my father’s desire for me to get a proper job. But then I learned that my father, who was an engineer, had never wanted to be an engineer. He had wanted to be a church chorister, or church organist. He loved church music. He really wanted to be at Cambridge or somewhere like that and sing in the choir and his father said “no, you’ve got a get a proper job.”
IDLER: And he passed that down to you, he hadn’t looked back and thought, that was a mistake?
PALIN: Well, we didn’t really talk about things like that. He didn’t say, “here’s an irony, lad! There I am, trying to get you a proper job, and all I would have liked to been was this.” He steadily maintained that he was a working man, he went to work, he came back at the evening at the same time and all that… so yes, I thought it would be a good title.
IDLER: It seems that musicians and pop stars, often, are actually motivated by the fact that they don’t want to get out of bed before lunchtime. That comes first. You sit in your bedsit all day on the dole and that gets you out onto a different path. Were you actually consciously motivated to do things that weren’t jobs?
PALIN: I was always insatiably curious about people and life, and I read a lot. The motivation was really just to try and reconcile the need to work with some particular talent and inclination. I had a fairly secure upbringing. Although my father didn’t have much money, he did send me to a private preparatory school, and then I went away to Shrewsbury school. They provided a sort of structure. I thought that during that period something would come along, like puberty, but in terms of work, a desire to be an executive or work on a bank. You would wake up one morning and think, yes, this is what I have to do. But it never happened. I always enjoyed acting, which is a dangerously subversive talent in a way. You look at schoolmasters who are doing a perfectly good job and you become fascinated by the way they touch their left ear when they talk, or the way their trousers are very very very wrinkled around the crotch and things like that. These were the thoughts that came into my mind… I knew there was financial imperative. My father had given up half his income to send me to school. So there was no question that he would support me. And just by a series of really lucky encounters I ended up doing two things: one was working with Terry Jones, who I’d met at Oxford. He’d left a year before me, and was writing a thing called The Love Show, a theatrical documentary about sex through the ages. He said, would I help him write it. It was an interesting project but paid very little. Then, quite out of the blue, a friend’s girlfriend knew a journalist who was writing a new comedy pop show called Now! on TWW in Wales. Would I like to audition as a presenter? Without telling my father, I went up and I got this job. It was 1965 and it just involved introducing a lot of pop groups and doing rather bad jokes.
IDLER: So that was a fantastic time for music.
PALIN: Yes, we used to get groups there like John Mayall, Eric Clapton, the Small Faces, Georgie Fame, Alan Price…
IDLER: I saw O Lucky Man the other day… a great film…
PALIN: Yes, a mess, but a mess you have to see. At that time it did seem that you were liberated from whatever had gone before. I was a provincial boy, born and brought up in Sheffield, so to come to London just at the time of The Beatles and Twiggy and Mary Quant… it was the place to be. There was a feeling that there were opportunities to do something new and fresh. Although, the old hierarchies were still there. The BBC, which I ended up working for, on The Frost Report and eventually Monty Python, was run in quite a conventional way, by mainly men. It harped back to an ideal age of the Reithian twenties or thirties. Things were changing on one level but not on another. What was really happening was that young people coming out of university ad art school especially, felt that they could do anything. But at the same time, people at the top level were saying, “not so fast, we’re still in control.” So there was a conflict there that made things work better, for us.
IDLER: If you imagine yourself at that age now, do you think things are less exciting.. are prospects better or worse for idlers today?
PALIN: Aaaah… It’s terribly hard as I don’t really know what’s in the mind of a young person… but I think that in a sense, when we did Monty Python there were far more restrictions against that form of expression, that sort of free-form comedy. You could be inventive but you’d go out late at night; if you got too popular you’d get censored for saying “bum” or “shit”… now there’s a feeling that everything is permitted, apart from racial jokes. You can say what you want and that’s left people a bit bewildered. There was such an establishment when we were writing Python in the late sixties, and the Army and the Church and a very male-dominated traditional society was still in place. So we could have lots of jokes at their expense. We had censorship, the Lord Chamberlain had instructions on nudity on television. We were naughty, cheeky, mischievous little boys able to carry our naughty, mischievous ways into early middle age. I think the fact that Python is still popular among kids of ten, eleven, twelve is because they see something in it which is till outside the general run of comedy. Why that is I’m not quite sure, except that Python was a mish-mash: bits of film, animation, satire, pure silliness. The films were really well made, great credit to Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones for making them look so good. With Life of Brian, we always knew we’d have some problems because of the subject matter. The most serious act of censorship was when the head of EMI, who had financed the film-and we already had people in Tunisia building sets-suddenly read the script. “Who’s tricked me into this? We can’t do this, absolutely not.” Refused to touch it. And that’s when George Harrison came in. It was something like five million pounds, and someone said to George, “why did you do it?” and George said, “well, I just wanted to see it.” A very good reason, and of course, being a Beatle, he had a lot of money.
IDLER: I’ve been reading Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin books, the sixties underground heroes, and they always cite the Beatles as an influence. They pulled off this trick of being massive and also underground at the same time. And I suppose Python was quite similar… the hippies also liked the Beatles’ non-hierarchical way of working, as a family rather than climbing up a ladder.
PALIN: We both had a certain wariness of the world outside trying to market us or pull us in a certain direction, and for both Beatles and Python, the work that they did was only the important thing. If you were successful that was great, but it was about the work. You didn’t bring in consultants to tell you what you should do, you didn’t do audience research, as people do now. There were no showings for potential audiences saying what they liked. You did your own thing. The peer group was the little group you were working with. No one every got in the way of that, all the decisions were taken by the group. So I think the reason why pop groups liked Python and why Abbie Hoffman liked the Beatles was that we seemed to embody an artistic freedom, a creative freedom. A creative freedom that was also successful… you could see the Beatles going round the world being screamed at. It was like a very benign revolution. There were people of sixteen, seventeen, eighteen who should have been at school going to airports shouting, “we love you, yeah yeah yeah!” And The Beatles weren’t manipulative. The sense people got of them being free spirits was true. And I suppose there was a certain amount of that in Python as well.
IDLER: There were no precedents… I suppose today that all comedy groups are going to have Monty Python at the back of their heads as a model, and every band certainly thinks about the Beatles.
PALIN: There was no precedent, but we drew inspiration from certain areas. Spike Milligan’s Q series was influential on the shape the Python shows took. Although Python was off the wall and unstructured there was actually quite a lot of debate in the early days about the form it should take. In the end we came up with the idea of the stream of consciousness, which got us out of all sorts of problems.. we had sketches that didn’t end, suddenly cutting to film… but that was inspired by Spike’s series, he just did silly things. At the BBC at the time someone once had appeared in a costume drama without removing the label saying who they were, and that was one of the great crimes. Spike’s way of dealing with that was to have labels on everyone, the name of the actor plus their take-home pay… that freewheeling approach we liked. But there was no other group quite like it… Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last! The 1948 Show were sort of like that… university-influenced people that would previously been brought up on Smokers’ revue evenings… but they were conventional in their form. Python didn’t have a precedent. I think that the way that six of us interacted, was something you couldn’t have ever worked out, for all the computer modelling, research, auditions. We weren’t the Spice Girls. When we came together the humour just crackled, and on a good day it worked so well that that you felt that these were the only people in the world you wanted to be with. We were very different. Having Gilliam, the American input, the animations, that was important. Graham Chapman was an odd character, rather distant, smoked his pipe, but came out with the most brilliant off-the-wall ideas. Having John Cleese, who looked the perfect establishment character, who absolutely represents authority, be completely zany and silly and able to send himself up… it was all there. But what we felt at the time, was that we would have two or three good years and then someone else would come along and we would do something else. People weren’t expected to last that long.
IDLER: One of the problems I think now is that your chosen pursuit, comedy or writing or whatever it might be, is seen right from the beginning as a career path. Then it just becomes a job going up a ladder. Things should be deprofessionalised, we should bring out the amateur.
PALIN: I absolutely agree with that. Underneath you’re looking for some kind of security, I was very lucky in that early on I made money from comedy, which was the last thing I expected doing. Through Do Not Adjust Your Set I had enough money to get married and get a flat in London. People want to be as free as possible, but you need a certain basis of comfort and security and I did get that fairly early on.
IDLER: When it comes to money have you done things that later you wish you hadn’t done because you did them for the money? Or has the money, though welcome, always been the second priority?
PALIN: Ha ha, the idea is to get paid for something you really want to do! Yes, there were things early on. I did quite a lot of radio commercials just because they paid well and we needed the money. At that time there was no career path. As soon as John wanted to wind Python down we realised that there was no more Python. It was only after a couple of years of doing other things that we got the film together and it revived. So right into the early seventies, we were doing commercials, which I wasn’t particularly proud of, largely because I had a glimpse into that world. Being asked to advertise something which you don’t have any strong feelings about, a dog food or an instant coffee… you were restricted in what you could say: you were generally working to a script that someone else had worked out. Everything seemed wrong about it. Instead of your peer group of five others you would have ten people squeezed into a gallery, saying, “can you do it a bit more Welsh, can you do it in a slightly higher tone, not Welsh but Welsh borders…” You had people putting their oar in for no particular reason other than they were in the advertising business and they wanted to show that at the end of the day that they’d done some work. That’s a terrible problem. And I realised I didn’t like doing these, I was a performing dog. But on the other hand we needed the money and I was grateful to be asked. But they were some of the worst things I ever remember doing. Apart from that I’ve been fortunate in that from early on, I’ve had a considerable say in what I’ve done, as a writer and performer.
IDLER: You say it’s luck, but the existential idea is that doing and choosing are the same thing. So is it pure luck or are you guiding yourself into certain positions?
PALIN: Whatever talent I had lay in acting and in writing. I noticed the comedy in life and the absurdity. Humour was the main reaction to things I saw around me. That was good because the sort of people you met had similar thoughts and tastes, and they were slightly subversive, they weren’t the ones who said that life is terribly serious. I was worried about it at one time, someone at school said “have you seriously thought about your life?” It turned out he’d become a Born Again Christian and I thought, there goes a good friend, but maybe I should be more serious… maybe this flippancy is something I should grow out of. But it carried on and I made certain friends, people like a man called Robert Hewison, who I met at university. He was from London, very bright, really metropolitan, he was hip and I was a hick. But we got together because we had a similar sense of humour, we liked Spike Milligan and all that. I chose him as my friend and vice versa out of all the people I knew at Oxford. He made the vital decision of saying, “let’s not just tell each other jokes, let’s get together a half hour cabaret act and we can make money from this.” And I thought, “make money from laughing?” And I realised that not being serious could be a way of making a living. And by the time that I’d done a review at the Edinburgh Festival, and David Frost had come up and talent-scouted us, I realised even more.. all I’m saying really is that the various connections I’ve made in my life and the people I’ve met have been very very important. Robert pushed me into performing which I would probably would never done because I was sort of shy, Terry Jones led me into writing after I’d left university. I’ve fallen into things because I’ve been there at the right time with the right people. I wouldn’t say I’m a great one at taking the initiative. With the travel programmes, it wasn’t me saying, I want to do travel programmes. It’s just that when someone came to me with the idea of Around the World in Eighty Days, I realised that I loved travelling, and that this was a lovely way of not making a decision of what I really should do in life. And here I am, I’m 62 and I still have no real idea of what I ought to be doing! But travelling and Python gave me some sort of purpose.
IDLER: So you found your gift, but it’s been the processes and living itself rather than the achievements and goals that have characterised your life?
PALIN: Yes, I still regard it as something wonderful, to be alive now, to be in London, whatever… I’m wary of people who appear to have changed, who say, “I’m not the person I was at eighteen.” I’m the person I was at eighteen, I’m the person I was at seven. I can feel that connection, and that combination of apprehension about what lay ahead but intense curiosity about what lay ahead. I like to hope that my reactions now are still as fresh as they always used to be.
IDLER: You said recently that you have contemporaries who have made a lot of money and gone on to buy second houses in the country and burdened themselves with all these problems, but that you’ve decided to stay in the same house you’ve always been.
PALIN: Well, I realised when I heard that on the interview that there I was talking about people who have other houses and my wife said, “what are you saying? We’ve got three houses.” I still live in the same house that we bought in 1968. And we’ve bought the house on either side. They’re actually quite small houses, so we have expanded… and they’re in the same street and there are only four houses in the street, so I’ve got to be very, very careful! They are individual houses, one is separate form the other and the other one is knocked through.
IDLER: A bit like the Beatles in Help!
PALIN: A bit like that, so I’ve got to be careful about pointing the finger.
IDLER: I suppose it’s idlerish, in that you bought the next door house, rather than…
PALIN: Yes, there’s been no quantum leap into massive country houses, but I’ve toyed with that. And at one time, I thought this is what you do when you’ve got a bit of money, you buy a second home somewhere out of London.
IDLER: I remember David Gilmour said he suddenly realised what’s the point in having all these houses, it’s just a pain in the arse and you can only live in one.
PALIN: My wife’s been very very important in this. We’ve been together now for forty years, so what she thinks influences me and vice versa, and we’re both reasonably placid, we’re not driven by a great ambition to own lots of things. I did go through a phase where I thought, “I’ve got to get somewhere bigger, I’ve got to get a house in Hampstead.”
IDLER: Because you thought you ought to?
PALIN: Because I could, I suppose. At that time, if you could buy a house with a moat somewhere in Oxfordshire, you did. But we realised that where we were, Gospel Oak in London NW5, was very convenient, we were on the edge of Hampstead Heath, we could park our car right outside our house. As Hunter Davies said, “he is pleasantly wedded to the unfashionable side of the Heath.” But it’s great. I now realise that you can waste an awful lot of time buying things, and I never had that time. I was always doing things, projects that interested me. Being a provincial, and never having felt part of London, I now really value being in the city. I like art, I like the movies. You forget how lucky you are to have cinemas that show films from eastern Europe. I read the other day only 14% of people between 55 and 64 go to the cinema more than once a year. I couldn’t believe it. But outside London there’s no cinemas, you just don’t have them. You have the multiplexes, and probably better to buy the DVD. Where I am I’ve got the Renoir, the Everyman, the Screen… I’m just raving on about London… but I don’t want a lot of clutter now. What’s the point?
IDLER: And the thing that you related that to in the interview, was that instead of spending any free time you’ve got buying things, you either want to be working or staring out of the window… is that true?
PALIN: I enjoy working, but there is a mixture of cowardice and laziness in the choices I make. I would love to write another novel, I wrote one novel, Hemingway’s Chair in 1994, and I haven’t really had the courage to write a second one. I’d like to, but I know that means taking at least six months, saying “no” to everything else, and trying to work out something in your head. My imagination is quite fertile, but I’ve avoided that issue. It’s the same thing with acting on stage. I love appearing on stage, I’m reasonably shy but I have a degree of exhibitionism.
IDLER: Do you feel nervous before you go on stage?
PALIN: Yes. In my experience, if you don’t feel nervous, then you’ve really had it: the concentration goes. It’s not a natural thing, to walk on stage in front of an audience, whether it’s twenty people or two thousand people. Each time it’s a leap in the dark. I’ve never felt, “this is my role in life, I’m rather good at it and people should accept that.” I wish I could feel that comfortable confidence. I don’t: every time I feel, “here we go again.” Like the thing the other night. There were a thousand people there, and although I knew I’d probably be OK, and I had material I’d done before, it just doesn’t feel like that when you’re about to go on. But that’s good. It’s what I mean about still being uncertain about what life really is and what one’s role in life is. I just don’t see it all tied up yet. Around The World in Eighty Days, was great, it came out of the blue, but I wasn’t the only one who was asked. Other people with slightly more structured lives like Alan Whicker and Miles Kington said “no”. They’re probably kicking themselves now. I was happy to take the risk. It struck a chord with me; it wasn’t someone forcing me and it wasn’t someone telling me that I’d make more money doing this, although it has turned out to be quite lucrative. I try not to make a huge difference between work and non-work. It’s rather like the fallacy of holidays. You go on holiday and think you’ll be happy, totally happy, and come back, and God, you’re back into work. But you’ve got to realise that holidays are very hard work and as stressful as any business meeting. But if you can build into your work a little bit of time to do things that you enjoy… so that’s the great thing about having this office. If I’ve got a half hour I can go to the Courtauld Gallery, or I can go over the bridge, or the Portrait Gallery, or on the way here I can just stop and have a coffee and sit… caf?� life I absolutely love, I can do a bit of the old flaneuring knowing that I’m coming to work. You can build in time just to ruminate, and amble, which I think is quite important, at the same time as working rather hard. Because if I didn’t do the work, then I think I might just sit at home, and I would do a lot of displacement activity and I wouldn’t be any freer, wouldn’t have any more time really than I have when I’m working. I wouldn’t be using my mind and brain and seeing things.
IDLER: A conclusion I’ve come to at the Idler is that it starts with retreating from work but it’s really about making work into something that isn’t drudgery and slavery, and then work and life can become one thing.
PAILIN: You can have work which expands your horizons, which can enrich your view your view of the world, or you can have work which controls and restricts and which you can’t wait to get away from. I’m lucky, because I’ve been freelance, and I’ve avoided doing things that I’m not very good at. I am aware sometimes that when I have to go to meetings I don’t want to go to, or I get marketing guff thrown at me, what an awful fate awaits you if you get on the treadmill. Which a lot of people just have to do. Although you don’t absolutely have to…
IDLER: Yes, do we have to? Maybe people are actually freer than they think; we somehow choose to enslave ourselves. I’ve done it. It’s quite difficult to see what the alternatives are. Unless you’re confident and courageous to start with, it’s hard to do your own thing.
PALIN: Although I wonder if it’s easier nowadays. My generation had to get a proper job, and a job for life. So if you could sign up with a company, or one of the professions, then that was the one thing you ought to do. Because of what had gone before, the mass unemployment and so on. But now, it doesn’t seem the same. I don’t know, maybe this is just a London view or maybe I’m looking at my own children who are all doing things they enjoy doing, but now you don’t have to sign up for life. In fact a lot of companies don’t want you for life. So in a way, that might help. You may not like the job, but it’s going to come to an end in six weeks. Certainly my children have built networks of people who do feel that you can change within the work that you’re doing. From what I’ve seen, it’s a better time for people who seek self-realisation, and find what they can do best, and get paid for it, than perhaps it was in the sixties. It’s a more creative time, in music and fashion and design and architecture. Things are much better now. Everyone has loosened up a bit… the other side of it is that we don’t respect, in the same way, the institutions.
IDLER: But some of them have become so enormous, like Tesco’s, that they’re threatening to take over the country.
PALIN: I was thinking more of the Church and the Army, and the way they dominated. But I suppose there are other things. But I’m generally an optimist. Although you do have supermarkets everywhere and all that, you also have, certainly where we live, little shops opening that weren’t there before. Our corner shops are much better now. People go out to restaurants a lot more: my parents would go out once every six months. That’s a good thing because people meet each other. We have lots of Polish delicatessans opening because there are lot of Poles in London but also because people don’t want to go into the West End… I think that it’s a pretty good time to be alive now.
IDLER: The immigrants are bringing a lot of life and fun and interest and variety and also independent places.
PALIN: I like all that. What I just hate is conformity. Whether it was something trivial like having to wear a DJ, one of my pet hates, at formal dinner events so everyone can look the same, or something much bigger like the feeling that you can’t say what you want to say. But it comes back in different ways. Political correctness is very strong. We could say, “miserable fat Belgian bastard”, but now people would feel rather uncomfortable. I’ve got to go now, but it’s very interesting to talk and to ramble. Actually, I’m going to see Robert Hewison, funnily enough. We still keep up.