To celebrate the legendary Michael Palin hitting the House this Saturday, we asked ‘professional nerd’ and certified Palin expert Dom Romeo of Stand and Deliver to pull together the threads of Palin’s mind-boggling, craft-crossing career…
Read Pt. 1 below as Romeo reflects upon the origins of Palin’s latest adventure in Brazil, his first hand experience with ‘the nice guy’, and Palin’s relationship with a certain member of The Beatles…
Check in for Pt. 2 of this fitting tribute tomorrow… and a quick reminder – we’ve only got a handful of tix left for this Saturday, get in quick!
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a comedian in possession of a couple of good seasons of sketch or sitcom must be in want of a documentary series.
Bill Bailey (the put-upon Manny Bianco in Black Books) helped save endangered species; Richard Wilson (the cantankerous Victor Meldrew with One Foot In The Grave) drove vintage cars to beautiful villages across Britain’s scenic roads; Stephen Fry flitted across the United States; Griff Rhys Jones (Not the Nine O’Clock News, Alas Smith & Jones) climbed mountains, hurtled down rivers and visited capital cities; Martin Clunes (one of the Men Behaving Badly) became one of dogs’ best friends; and Tony Robinson (The Blackadder’s dogsbody, Baldrick) remains the history go-to guy.
While you could argue Clive James pioneered the funny guy-turned-traveller trick there’s no denying the man who owns the trademark is Michael Palin, the reputedly ‘nice’ member of Monty Python. After Monty Python’s Flying Circus came to an end (four groundbreaking seasons from 1969 to 1974, plus films every few years) he kept us laughing with the gentler, more finely crafted Ripping Yarns. Throughout the ’80s, as he concentrated on film work, he made it – according to the title of his second volume of diaries – Halfway to Hollywood. And then he got the travel bug. Initially a one-off project, Around the World in 80 Days launched a whole new career. Palin the peregrinating Python travelled the world in various directions, telling us about it in his charming, hilarious and informed manner. For each series, he’d write a sumptuously illustrated book. And frequently make personal visits to tell us about each show and book, with in-store appearances to sign copies.
Now Michael Palin’s coming to the Sydney Opera House to talk about more than just the travel shows and books. He’s going to tell us about a fair whack of his career, in a ‘live in conversation’ show called Life of Palin: From Monty Python to Brazil.
“Brazil?” you might wonder. Terry Gilliam’s dystopian fantasy, often compared to 1984 and Brave New World, is a masterpiece and Michael Palin is brilliant in it. But it appeared in 1985. Even by his own reckoning, Palin must have only been about a quarter to a third of the way to Hollywood by that stage.
And then you realise, Brazil also happens to be Palin’s latest documentary series destination. “How can I say I’ve travelled the world if I’ve never been to Brazil?” he asks in the promo.
There’s no reason why a Michael Palin travel documentary can’t be given a title that’s already been applied to another Python’s project. Especially when it’s the most obvious and perfect title for the travel documentary. It’s happened before. The first time round, in fact, way back in 1989.
Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days was inspired in format and title by Jules Verne’s classic novel, in which adventurer Phileas Fogg accepts the challenge to circumnavigate the world in the allotted time for a wager of 20,000 pounds. Fogg has a personal valet, a Frenchman named Jean Passepartout (John ‘Go Everywhere’). Eric Idle played Passepartout opposite Pierce Brosnan’s Phileas Fogg in a television miniseries adaptation of the book. Though rarely, if ever, repeated, Eric Idle’s Around the World in 80 Days was first broadcast in 1989. Just a little before Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days.
Dwelling on Gilliam’s Brazil, it’s worth noting it’s the first of only a few times you see Michael Palin – unofficially ‘Britain’s Nicest Man’ – playing against type. Sure, he’d go on to portray a villain, Ken Pile, in John Cleese’s heist flick, A Fish Called Wanda. He’d even win the BAFTA for ‘Best Actor in a Supporting Role’ for it. But sensitive, stammering animal lover Ken is played for laughs, howling in misery every time he attempts to bump off a witness and ends up killing another one of her dogs instead. We see him distraught at one of the funerals, as choir boys sing Miserere Dominus, miserere Dominus; canis mortus est: “Have pity, Lord, have pity, Lord, the dog is dead.” (Train spotters will agree, a more subtle use of Latin for soliciting laughs than the “people called Romanes, they go the ’ouse” routine in Life of Brian.)
Jack Lint, Palin’s character in Brazil, is sinister and disturbing. Employed by the nebulous Department of Information Retrieval, Lint coerces confessions from prisoners by means of torture. Actually, no he doesn’t; he just tortures prisoners; a confession isn’t necessarily forthcoming. Maybe it is another example of the satirising of authority figures that underlined so much of Monty Python’s work. That won’t make you feel any less sick to the stomach when the realisation dawns that, ‘nice’ Jack Lint is in fact a card-carrying bastard.
I can tell you from experience Palin’s pleasant temperament is real. I got to meet the thoroughly likeable chap at one of his in-store book signings. There was, as ever, a mass of fans queued to meet him and as each of us inched forward, we were reminded repeatedly: “Michael will only be signing copies of his latest book, and only with his name.”
They were quite clear about that: no pulling out your copy of Monty Python’s Tiny Black Round Thing, the promotional record given away with copies of New Musical Express back in 1974; no asking Michael to dedicate a copy of Bert Fegg’s Nasty Book for Boys and Girls to Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplenden-schlitter-crasscrenbon-fried-digger-dingle-dangle-dongle-dungle-burstein-von-knacker-thrasher-apple-banger-horowitz-ticolensic-grander-knotty-spelltinkle-grandlich-grumblemeyer-spelterwasser-kurstlich-himbleeisen-bahnwagen-gutenabend-bitte-ein-nürnburger-bratwustle-gerspurten-mitz-weimache-luber-hundsfut-gumberaber-shönedanker-kalbsfleisch-mittler-aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm, no matter how cute you assume he might find the fanboy reference to an obscure sketch from the first season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Though armed with ‘the latest book’, I still had to try it on. “This is for my sister,” I announced. “It’s for her birthday. Can you write ‘Happy Birthday Sylvia’?”
“I don’t think so,” Michael replied loudly but not unpleasantly, as much for anyone behind me thinking of pulling the same stunt, as for me. Nicely but firmly: ‘no’.
True to his word, Palin did not write ‘Happy Birthday’. However, between the dedication ‘To Sylvia’ and his signature, he did write ‘Best Wishes’. I’d been to one of his other signings, for one of his other books. When I asked him to sign a book for me, you know what he wrote? ‘To Dom’ followed by his signature. (Actually, it looks more like ‘To Don’, but I knew whom he was referring to, so it doesn’t matter.) Point is, he kept his word with my sister’s book: no ‘happy birthday’; and yet he’d been… there’s only one word for it… nice.
There’s a lovely little clip where Palin proffers Idle a copy of his latest book, offering to sign it. Idle points out an unsigned Michael Palin book will prove the more collectible rarity in the long run. Perhaps Palin has signed thousands of books at hundreds of in-store appearances. Rest assured, he’s been a good bloke at every one of them.
The clip of Palin and Idle is backstage footage from the DVD of the George Harrison tribute, Concert for George. When Harrison died, Palin was the one who pointed out Harrison’s epithet, ‘the quiet Beatle’, was a misnomer; when you knew him, you discovered he was anything but quiet. The Pythons got to know Harrison quite well. In 1969, Monty Python was coming together just as the Beatles were falling apart and Harrison – who relished settling down to an episode of Flying Circus after a horrible day of Beatles business – was certain these comedians took over the spirit that his band once had. A decade later, he founded a film company – Handmade Films – to finance Monty Python’s Life of Brian when the original backers got cold feet. Harrison’s reason was, “I wanted to see the film”.
Handmade would go on to underwrite a number of Python-related films. At one stage Harrison’s business partner, Denis O’Brien, was even their manager. And with Harrison and O’Brien’s personal encouragement, Michael Palin ventured further out on his own. Hence his first film as writer, star and producer, The Missionary, in 1982. It was more-or-less the start of a decade (or so) of excellent acting roles.