For anyone interested in British television drama or cinema, this second volume of Michael Palin’s diaries is just as engrossing as the first. Although some reviewers wonder if this book will be about ‘the less exciting stuff that happened in between’ the peak period of Monty Python covered in the first volume and the travel programmes that Palin embarks upon as this volume closes, it is all the more enjoyable and rewarding for its grounding in the reality of solo writing and the production process.1
For visitors to this site, I recommend Palin’s detailed coverage of East of Ipswich (1987)2, from gestation and writing through casting, production, post-production, critical reception and awards nominations (plus Palin’s unusually scathing comment that the London Film Festival were ‘Snobs’ to pass on it).3 I’ve adored East of Ipswich for many years, so I’m delighted to see Palin assert that ‘Nothing I’ve done gives me as much unqualified pleasure’ and that ‘I’ve never felt something done as close to the way I wanted it done as this’.4 Other material relevant to British television drama includes Palin’s script for Number 27 (1988)5 which starred the legendary Joyce Carey, working relationships with Tristram Powell, Charles Sturridge, Innes Lloyd and others, and television’s importance in British filmmaking: with fifteen films made a year and directors like Gavin Millar and Alan Clarke involved, ‘this shabbily-appointed fifth floor at TV Centre is where the British Film Industry exists’.6 Palin details the postponement of Sturridge’s Troubles (1988) after a week of filming with Palin in a major role, after which it was remounted without him.7
Of course, there is much more here than coverage of British television drama. There are later Python entries such as Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album (1980), Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (staged 1980) and Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (1983), plus vital British films either written by, co-written by or co-starring Palin, including Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), The Missionary (1982), A Private Function (1984) and A Fish Called Wanda (1988), plus involvement with several others. Productions result in engaging actorly anecdotes and sometimes more detailed discussion of process than in the first volume, where we learned when and where key Python and Ripping Yarns material was written, but (for me at least, as I’m greedy) could have had more insight into how those ideas emerged. But then, Palin is still playful when describing Python’s impact: for instance, when acting to protect the ‘Lumberjack Song’ against unagreed exploitation, Palin finds it ‘silly’ to ‘pretend’ that this ‘bit of nonsense’ is ‘of great significance – a piece of modern culture’.8
The 1980s is a period of success and variety for Palin the writer, but with hard slog balanced by what Palin feels to be a sense of drift, claiming to be ‘a lazy writer’,9 as he is worn down by struggles to finance projects such as American Friends (1991), and experiences moments of ‘typewriter fright’10 including a lovely moment of writerly self-deprecation in 1980 that could slot alongside Oscar Wilde or Jerome K Jerome: ‘Tried to write a startlingly new and original, brilliantly funny and thought-provoking piece for Python. Did this by staring out of the window, playing with paper clips and shutting my eyes for long periods.’11 Despite the floating of new ideas (including John Cleese’s rumination on a new Python TV series in an impromptu meeting in Hull), Python here moves from a writing job to a business management task, a reference point for critics and fans, or a source of bemusement as real-life people behave more oddly than most Python inventions. The most important legacy is friendship amongst the Pythons, which shines through in collaborations and social meetings, recorded – despite memorable comments on Cleese’s financial motivations and lack of pop culture savvy – with warmth and generosity.
Palin the actor is also introspective, as he craves different kinds of roles – the cancellation of Troubles deprived him of this, but the next volume can pick up his chance to stretch himself as a dramatic actor in Alan Bleasdale’s superlative G.B.H. (1991).12 Although a key face in hugely successful films in the 1980s, Palin (as the volume’s title suggests) settles on writing ‘little’ films as ‘more rewarding’ than ‘doing a “cameo” for some American film’,13 an attitude which is strikingly different from that demonstrated by Eric Idle and John Cleese elsewhere in the diaries. Palin details several Hollywood films which he either rejected or did not get. Indeed, he sees A Fish Called Wanda as ‘one I shall do for money, rather than love’,14 until its efficient organisation and inclusive production process engagingly fire his enthusiasm. The Wanda section is particularly lovely, and even disquiet with Kevin Kline’s intensity is drawn with characteristic affection or wit: ‘even when he’s done the most brilliantly inventive take he stands, shrugs, and looks like a man who’s just been given a tin of contaminated beef’.15 In encounters with everyone from random bypassers to Spike Milligan and Peter Cook and other noted diarists such as Lindsay Anderson and Alan Bennett, Palin’s descriptive powers are increasingly sharp. He is also aware of post-Python comedy trends, including an amused experience of the BBC incorporating alternative comedians (whose early work Palin attends) into the establishment.
The dichotomy underpinning Palin’s career in this period is epitomised by his involvement in It’s a Royal Knockout, a celebrity-crammed event whose legend (or infamy) is such that Danny Baker, in a recent interview with Palin, admitted to having sometimes wondered whether it really happened.16 Having regretfully turned down a part in Chris Menges’ A World Apart (1988) because of the rehearsal dates for Wanda, Palin was instead committed – with other Wanda leads – to It’s a Royal Knockout (1987),17 and his reflection on it is pointed yet wittily observed: ‘it looks as if I shall be wearing huge mouse masks and falling into water rather than playing one of the most important figures in the struggle for South African liberation.’18
Palin often displays the diarist’s skill in combining observation and perspective, describing how he ‘saw through power’ during an airport incident,19 and shifting in consecutive entries from noting the loss of ‘magic’ experienced when meeting actors backstage in their underpants to describing Reagan’s America as ‘power without intelligence, the world bully’.20 He shifts between charming, surreal moments – co-presenting Saturday Night Live with his octogenarian mother or observing security guards chasing cows away from Nigel Mansell’s helicopter – and an engagement with the world around him, with thoughts on privatisation, education, criticism of the Thatcher government’s assault on the unions, and comments on transport acted upon through involvement with Transport 2000. Most powerfully, he documents the impact of his sister’s struggles with depression, demonstrating sensitivity and unearthing a powerful universal truth: ‘I’ve a lot to learn about my family. It seems that they have to die before I can really find anything out.’21
Both volumes so far have been informative, entertaining, surprising and thoughtful, and are typically Palinesque: a superb achievement marked by understatement and skill.
Michael Palin, Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-1988 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009) is available now in hardback.
Originally posted: 4 January 2010.
13 January 2022: belatedly disagreed with the placement of some of the punctuation around endnotes so amended.
- Alfred Hickling, The Guardian, 17 October 2009. [↩]
- Screen Two:‘East of Ipswich’, tx. BBC2, 1 February 1987. [↩]
- Palin, p. 435. [↩]
- Palin, pp. 447, 425 [↩]
- BBC, 23 October 1988 [↩]
- Palin, p. 416 [↩]
- Adaptation of the novel by J.G. Farrell. A dispute over the cinematography escalated. The remounted version was ultimately transmitted on ITV in two parts, 1 and 8 May 1988. [↩]
- Palin, p. 419 [↩]
- Palin, p. 435 [↩]
- Palin, p. 15 [↩]
- Palin, p. 17 [↩]
- 7 episodes, Channel 4, 6 June-18 July 1991. [↩]
- Palin, p. 460 [↩]
- Palin, p. 474 [↩]
- Palin, p. 507 [↩]
- The Danny Baker Show, BBC Radio 5 Live, 21 November 2009. [↩]
- BBC, 15 June 1987. [↩]
- Palin, p. 488. [↩]
- Palin, p. 418. [↩]
- Palin, p. 417. [↩]
- Palin, p. 545 [↩]