MTV began broadcasting Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1987, a life-changing event for the 16-year-old me. The first episode I watched involved Eric Idle going to buy a pet ant, with shop manager Michael Palin trying to convince him to buy toys and accessories for the ant (an ant wheel, an ant swing, “here’s a two-way radio he can play with”, etc.) From then on, I was smitten with Michael Palin.
This infatuation could’ve dead-ended quite quickly; after all, in the pre-internet days, in a small American town, you had few options to learn about or see more of foreign actors from TV shows that were already 15 years old. But I’d started enjoying MP’s particular brand of silliness at exactly the right time. Within a couple of years, he’d have an American hit with A Fish Called Wanda, travel documentaries that would become a global sensation, a very personal film released called American Friends, with at least Brazil and A Private Function (in addition to the Python movies, of course) available to rent at local video stores, old Saturday Night Live appearances popping up on Comedy Central and numerous guest spots on Letterman.
Volume 2 of his diaries (Halfway to Hollywood: 1980-1988) covers the beginning of this bonanza, and is full of much of the wit, charm and warmth that endeared me to Palin to begin with … with fun celebrity anecdotes peppered throughout, such as:
- As he joined friend Lorne Michaels to watch Simon & Garfunkel record: “Paul greets me effusively (or as effusively as Paul ever could be), then goes back to careful concentration on the track. Art Garfunkel sits behind him and nods his great beaky head every now and then – ‘That’s good’ – but Simon is really in control. Art passes some coke on the end of a penknife. I decline, much to Lorne’s comic disapproval.“
- “Peter Cook is not drinking and very funny, but still one of those people who like to take the floor when they talk. HIs eyes have a way of moving fractionally slower than his head.”
- At a strange charity/celebrity competition organized by Prince Edward: “Prince Andrew and Fergie are throwing bread rolls about and as we leave we all have to crunch over a layer of sugar crystals which Andrew emptied over Michael Brandon’s head.”
I particularly enjoyed his entries about George Harrison. He and George were close friends, and yet it’s clear that despite Palin’s own fame and the number of years he worked with Harrison (whose Handmade Films produced several of Palin’s films), Harrison was still … a Beatle. There’s still a sense of Palin being starry-eyed, of a feeling of good fortune to being this close to someone he so admires and reveres.
- “George opts to drive with me from Soho Square to Knightsbridge, but when I can’t find where I’ve left my car, I feel he wishes he hadn’t. A bit like an animal caught in a searchlight is our George when out on the streets and I can see him getting a little twitchy as he and I – a Beatle and a Python – parade up and down before the diners on the pavements of Charlotte Street, looking for my car.”
- “[George] Tells me that at the ‘Beatle Summit’ last week affairs and problems that had been dragging on unresolved were sorted in a day. Yoko had been (pause) ‘very nice’ (this followed by a chuckle) and the only problem had been Paul’s defensiveness for the first hour until he realized that the others weren’t ganging on him after all.”
But as fun as these are to read, they don’t hold near the charm and appeal of the stories that Michael Palin tells of his Monty Python colleagues in Volume 1 of the diaries. And that’s the weak point of Volume 2. While Volume 1 is a riotous joy of Python work, camaraderie and conversation, Volume 2 covers a middle period of Palin’s work that is a lot less interesting to me.
I don’t have much affection for A Private Function and I’ve never seen The Missionary. There is an endless parade of producers, editors and industry types for projects that sometimes work out, but sometimes don’t. And while Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam in particular are still very much a part of Palin’s regular life (they seem to drop in and out of each other’s houses daily or weekly, offering immense emotional and creative support), we see comparatively few Python get-togethers. But when they do happen, the warmth and silliness (“Graham asks if he can vote by proxy and if so can he be his own proxy”) of the team jumps off the page.
But that said, the diaries are still not only a joy, but a comfort – reminding us that the troubled times we live in have been ever thus. Below are some paragraphs I underlined because of how they resonate with the times we live in now:
- “A Sony Walkman II – an amazing miniaturized stereo set with thin, light headphones and a cassette-sized playing machine. If they can make such sound reproduction quality so small now, what of the next ten years? A button perhaps? A pill you swallow which recreates the 8-track wonders of Beethoven’s Ninth from inside your body?”
- Re an IRA bomb that killed nine people at Harrod’s before Christmas: “The awful thing about such attacks is the increasing deadening, demoralizing fact that there are people who take pride an pleasure in killing indiscriminately and there is nothing that can totally be done to prevent them achieving their ends.”
- “For the first time I feel that sense of helplessness before the weight of the Thatcher machine. It’s changing everything that I’ve believed in … and there seems to be no way of stopping it.”
[And, as an ardent Woolfian, I have to point out this exciting entry: “Have been dipping into V Woolf’s extraordinary diaries over the last few days and found a neat phrase – to ‘rout the drowse’. Sounds like street talk, in fact it describes what a good walk does for her create energy.”]
On May 5, 1983, his 40th birthday, Palin wrote, “I have the feeling that, as far as the public is concerned, I am now their Michael Palin and they are quite happy for me to remain their Michael Palin for the rest of my (and their) life.”
And he was right.