He’s one-sixth of the original Monty Python British comedy troupe from the 1960s and ‘70s who still have a devoted band of cult-like followers around the world — they can reel off entire lines of dialogue from the BBC’s skits programme Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Python films such as Life of Brian and The Holy Grail. He’s been an actor, an activist, won a Bafta award for A Fish Called Wanda, made and presented documentaries on travel and art, written travelogues, novels and children’s books and published his diaries. He has been honoured by the Queen and the National Geographical Society, has trains and school houses named after him and, like his fellow Python members, also has an interplanetary body named after him — his is called ‘Asteroid 9621 Michaelpalin.’ And he has been unofficially dubbed ‘The Nicest Man in Britain.’ Eos sat down with Michael Palin over coffee on the sidelines of the Lahore Literary Festival where he had been invited to speak in February. Somewhere in the distance, a Python-cult member lurked holding a stuffed ex-parrot.
Michael Palin talks about the importance of comedy, the act of writing and what he likes about Pakistan …
You do realise that most people’s reference to you here is from Monty Python. Does that surprise you?
Michael Palin: It does surprise me a lot. If you’d said to me most people in Pakistan — or [even] people in Pakistan know you! — that‘s quite a surprise. People who weren’t born at the time, know you from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which I don’t associate with Pakistan … although there is a wonderful rumour: I’m told by BBC that Pakistan [Television] were one of the first broadcasters to buy Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and they were very cross. They said there had been 13 episodes and there had been no clowns, no one on a horse, no acrobats, no jugglers, we want our money back. [I burst out laughing] This is actually true, which is a very Pythonic situation. I was surprised to hear I was so popular here, but I’m pleased, very pleased indeed.
How do you feel about still being identified as a comedian, despite all the other significant things you have done?
MP: Well, I don’t mind. I’m quite proud of Monty Python and what we did. And I’m proud because of the way we did it. It wasn’t something we had to do in order to make money, it wasn’t made by a commercial company, it was made by a public broadcaster and we were allowed a lot of freedom and we managed to, in some chaotic way, make something that people remember, something that reflected our own feelings. We were very much in control of the show, even though we were paid very little. I’m pleased about that. And I don’t feel I’ve left all that now that I’ve grown up. [Chuckles]
Are you actually the “nicest man in Britain” as you’ve been dubbed?
MP: I don’t know where this scurrilous rumour comes from. I deny it completely. I can get plenty of people, including my dear wife who I’ve been married to for 50 years, to say ‘Course he’s not nice, he’s a brute.’
When I read that characterisation I was trying to square that with quite an absurdist sense of humour …
MP: I think an absurdist sense of humour gives you a sense of proportion and it actually gives you a sort of sanity, to be able to be able to be in touch with your imaginative side, your insane, absurdist side. For me it’s a good balance. Possibly some of the Pythons are more driven, doing stuff more out of anger with the world, but my way of looking at it is that a certain sense of the ridiculous is very important, that it actually keeps me quite grounded really.
Your Python series and the Python films brought in a lot of elements such as wordplay, history, philosophy etc — normally one wouldn’t assume that sort of thing would work with a mass television audience. You have to know, for example, who Proust is to understand the Proust skit …
MP: [Laughs] You don’t have to know anything about him, you just have to know that his book is so long that nobody’s read it, and everyone claims they have!
Or even the absurdist things such as the Spanish Inquisition skits or the sort of thesaurus wordplay that comes in during the Cheese-Shop or the Dead Parrot sketch …
MP: Well, we were all victims of a very sort of expensive education, if you like. All of us went to Oxford or Cambridge and we were taught all our lives about the virtue of knowledge and degrees and that sort of thing. So I think a lot of us, because our mind was somewhere else such as in acting or perhaps in seeing the absurd side of life, so none of us became absolute specialists on our subjects. We did know lots of different subjects, so Python’s a bit of a potpourri of all sorts of bits of knowledge and, yes, there are things definitely where you’re being deliberately obscure, but it’s a man-on-one-leg-dressed-as-a-chicken obscure and that makes it palatable for the general audience.
I’m wondering if you were consciously putting all this stuff in there or did it just flow naturally?
MP: We were sort of writing for television to start with, not for films, and we were all exploring how we could, if you like, make a comment on the conventional nature of television, which we were brought up on, you know: the voice of the announcer, the general, slightly patronising, educational tone of a lot of BBC programmes was a bit of a target.
I think an absurdist sense of humour gives you a sense of proportion and it actually gives you a sort of sanity, to be able to be in touch with your imaginative side, your insane, absurdist side. For me it’s a good balance. Possibly some of the Pythons are more driven, doing stuff more out of anger with the world, but my way of looking at it is that a certain sense of the ridiculous is very important, that it actually keeps me quite grounded really.
So instead of Proust and his importance for world literature, we would have a north of England comedian compering a show where people have to summarise Proust in 15 seconds. It was a wonderfully silly idea and once we got this little idea, everything flowed. I mean, the idea of having a terrible prop which was like a thermometer marked with all the various [Proust books], it was completely ridiculous. But it was very therapeutic — I must admit I’ve tried to read Proust throughout my life. I really enjoy the first 40 pages [laughs]. It’s one of my favourite sketches about arcane knowledge, about Education with a capital ‘E’.
Is it difficult to be taken seriously with anything else if you’re a comedian? I’m asking this because a lot of comedians claim this in Pakistan at least.
MP: Depends really what kind of comedian you are. I don’t think it is difficult to be taken seriously. Someone like Spike Milligan, who was as pretty way out as you get with his comedy, his anarchy and his subversive output, yet Spike had a pretty strong environmental commitment and to his poetry too, he would be quite serious about that. He would want to be taken seriously, and he was. I think it depends on how you do it, people can detect if you’re a fraud or doing something just to get publicity. I think if you really are interested in something and you really mean it, it’s up to you to make the case that it’s important to you. But it’s dangerous to take yourself too seriously, that is where the trap lies.
But even now, comedy films for example, never get the kind of recognition that other dramatic films do, perhaps because people think comedy films don’t have the gravitas …
MP: Yes! I think people are wary of comedy. Some people, especially establishments, think we’re laughing at them, their desire to organise things in a rather bureaucratic way. And we are. So some people are very uncomfortable with comedy, they are much more comfortable with things they can discuss seriously and theorise about. Their definition of gravitas is something that is essentially unfunny. It doesn’t allow for a sense of humour or a sense of recognition of yourself as slightly pretentious sometimes.
You’ve written novels, books for children, theatre screenplays, travel books – which do you enjoy the most and what is the most difficult to do?
MP: They’re all really difficult. I love writing, I even keep a diary where in the morning I record what I did the day before, but I find it getting harder and harder. But writing good comedy, I enjoy that. Writing down things that you know — or if they’re performed well — will make people laugh a lot, that’s great. To get travel writing done right is hard because there are so many travel writers and to get your own voice there is difficult but it’s important I think. I always keep notebooks, I always have things I want to say, but will it all line up in the right way when you come to do a book? So none of it is easy but that’s what I enjoy about it. Acting I find quite easy on the whole. That’s a skill you’ve either got or haven’t got but writing you have to really, really work at. There are so many good writers, so many writers who are better than you, who write with such beautiful precision and eloquence. And I think, why can’t I do that? I really want to do that. It’s an on-going challenge.
Earlier on, you co-wrote a lot of sketches with [fellow Python] Terry Jones. How does that work? Do you prefer that or writing by yourself?
MP: It worked because we’d both get excited about ideas. You’ve got somebody you can measure material with, get their reactions — it’s got to be someone you like and respect and all that, so you’re not writing in diametrically opposite directions, but there’s enough difference to make the combination important. Terry and I used to write quite a lot together and then, interestingly enough, we started to have families and Terry lived in South London and I lived in North London and so much of the day was spent travelling, we ended up writing separately. We’d write large chunks and then get together and discuss it. In the end I found that quite good. It was nice to write more than a line at a time, to develop characters, to get a flow to it and then discuss it. That lasted quite a while but now I like writing on my own.
This is not your first visit to Pakistan. And you’ve said previously that your series on the Himalayas was one of your favourite ones …
MP: People ask you ‘favourites’, I call it ‘the F-word’, because it’s so incredibly difficult. But of all the places I’ve been, yes…what I mean is that it was a sort of entity in itself. It had the object of going along the Himalayas, from West to East, and it had all the elements of different cultures, different religions, different sets of politics, all interwined quite nicely, with a background of generally pretty spectacular visuals. So that’s why it was a favourite, it was all compact.
I was born before Partition as you know and I’m quite interested in the whole idea of Partition — whether it should have happened, why it should’ve happened, the fact that now it has happened and Pakistanis have made a success of it in very difficult circumstances, so there’s lots of small edges to it. You have a young country and it’s interesting to me it’s not become pompous like us…
How many times have you been to Lahore? Have you been anywhere else other than in the North?
MP: This is only the second time to Lahore. And I’ve never been to southern Pakistan, so I must be very, very careful saying that I know about Pakistan. I have a feeling about Pakistan from what I’ve seen, which I kind of like you know. There’s lots going on, lots of things to deal with. I was born before Partition as you know and I’m quite interested in the whole idea of Partition — whether it should have happened, why it should’ve happened, the fact that now it has happened and Pakistanis have made a success of it in very difficult circumstances, so there’s lots of small edges to it. You have a young country and it’s interesting to me it’s not become pompous like us…
MP: Apart from the Punjab Club [laughs]. I stayed there for two hours. There were so many things you couldn’t do, it was like a Python sketch.
You’ve also been a very ardent campaigner for sustainability, both in terms of urban transport and indigenous rights. Do you have any thoughts with respect to that on what’s going on for example in Lahore at the moment, where there’s a fight going on about a massive urban transport project …
MP: Yes, someone just told me that. I’m just aware that there are people doing some very stupid things all over the world. And building horrible environments too. I can’t solve it, one has only a small voice. I do belong in London to various conservation groups to save heritage and what they do is they use the legal process to stop something if they think something’s a bad scheme or knocking down something that should be preserved. There are various other things happening in London which I am wary of — local parks are being used increasingly for commercial events and the local councils are saying we need the money to pay for care homes, housing and all that sort of thing. And what happens is a quarter of a park gets boarded off for a month and they have a big concert, make a lot of money and for the next month you’ve got this big scar on the grass and a mess and all that. And I just think, hang on, what are parks for? They are for the local people, and should be free to enjoy. How does it make sense? You have more people living in the area, more need for somewhere to relax and unwind, to take the exercise we’re all told to do and yet we close the parks for months in the year just to make money…
A lot of cities around the world are grappling with this concept of the ‘developed world city’ where things are geared towards tourism and presentation and the local people or the people who would most use the public spaces are denied that right…
MP: I find it very, very hard to pin down where this comes from, these attitudes. Many of the city planners, architects are very good, they have very good ideas about what should or shouldn’t be done. But the prevailing idea is to put the maximum number of people in boxes and just use them for their labour. It’s very depressing. It clearly doesn’t take into consideration that there should be any human quirkiness. The great shame is when damage is done to a city, it is never replaced.
The argument used is that there is capital coming in and this will help people to earn more and raise their standards of living etc.
MP: I know. But where do you draw the line? How much money do people want to make? In London now there are huge areas of residential development on the Thames for people who just go back home, spend a few hours and go out again. It’s not a place to bring up children, there’s no sort of street life really, but the developers love it, they are able to sell off huge chunks, often to people living outside the country. There are still pockets where the old London survives, but if you’re not careful that becomes a tourist idea: ‘See old London.’ To see real street life you have to come to somewhere like this [Lahore] or Calcutta. It’s an absolute mess but there’s life going on there, there’s people around, they have a certain ownership.
We can’t end without me asking you this question — I’m going to steer clear of the ‘F-word’ but of all the things that you wrote from Python, what would be the one you enjoyed the most?
MP: I was really pleased with … there was a scene in Life of Brian where we had to deal with the crucifixion. How could we make this funny, how do we look at this? And I sort of developed a way of looking at it in a kind of bleak way of life going on. What would be going through the minds of people being sent for crucifixion, what sorts of people would be there.
There’s a scene there where I play a young centurion who is sending people to this awful death — ‘Crucifixion? One cross each. First door on the left, one cross each.’ I enjoyed writing it because he was sort of a very modern character, I felt [he was] the son of a very nice liberal family who live outside Rome, he’s very concerned about the issues of injustice in the world and that sort of thing and yet he’s in the army and he’s sent out to this dreadful province to send people off to this horrible death. So he’s a very vulnerable man, he’s about to crack up. Life of Brian was one of the best things we did. I’m pleased because it was actually about something, it had something to say, which was completely misinterpreted by some people as being blasphemous, without seeing themselves in it.
The interviewer is the Editor Magazines Dawn. He tweets @hyzaidi
Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2017