INTERVIEW: Michael Palin talks about his up-coming solo tour
Why have you decided to embark on your first-ever solo stage tour?
Over the years I’ve done a lot of one-man shows, usually just for one evening either to raise money at a charity event or at a book festival. I’ve really quite enjoyed doing them. It’s a nice format and I like talking to a live audience, and with the diaries [Travelling To Work: Diaries 1988-1998] coming out in September I thought ‘What can we do that’s a little bit different to anything we’ve done before?’ Book publicity is a cutthroat business these days, with everyone trying to get their publicity to out-do someone else’s and all that. I thought ‘The thing I really enjoy is doing a show so rather than a one-night stand here and there let’s do a whole tour’. We’ve put 21 shows together and I can go right round the country and hopefully entertain audiences about the 25 years since we did Around The World In 80 Days. Also, I can talk about the diaries and put that period of the 90s into context and enjoy reminiscing with a live audience. It seems to concentrate the publicity for the diaries and the interest in them and it maximises what I could do to promote them and what I enjoy doing best of all.
The book is your third volume of diaries. Can you tell us a little bit about the content?
It covers ten years from 1988 to 1998 and it begins with my misgivings about having embarked on Around The World In 80 Days. I discovered some little private thoughts I’d written down – not the diaries I use for work or for writing the book – which seem to suggest I was deeply worried about what I’d taken on. We were going to be 80 days away from home, longer than I’d ever been away before, and there was no script. We were going to make it up as we went along and you get the feeling of someone not embarking on what he thought was going to be a legendary breakthrough in travel television but someone who was absolutely terrified. So the book starts there and it ends up, rather ironically, with the decision in 1998 not to do a Monty Python reunion for various reasons, all of which are there in the diaries. In between it’s really the meanderings of someone approaching their 50s – I pass that milestone in 1993 – who never really had a proper job and who was seizing all sorts of opportunities. My first novel [Hemingway’s Chair], for instance, was published in 1994 and in 1995 there was the first – and last – play I ever wrote for the West End [The Weekend]. In amongst all this is some interesting new work like a major acting role in 1991 in the Alan Bleasdale drama GBH and movies like American Friends and Fierce Creatures, John Cleese’s follow-up to A Fish Called Wanda. Then bringing the whole lot together, in an extraordinarily busy decade, were the travel programmes. Around The World In 80 Days turned out to be a great success and lead to two, much longer series in Pole To Pole and Full Circle. They’re the diaries of someone pretty much working flat-out with a sort of added urgency that they were getting on a bit and it was now time to do all the things he could possibly do as a freelance.
You’re still working flat-out now…
Well, yes, I know. That’s the thing – I’m trying to somehow maintain a balance between work and play but I find it very hard to say no.
You’re celebrating nearly 50 years in showbusiness. What are your fondest or most vivid memories?
It’ll be the 50th anniversary next year, yes, and honestly my fondest memory is of Edinburgh in August and September 1964. I appeared in an Oxford University Revue with Terry Jones and others. It was the first time I’d actually been on a stage night after night to perform comedy, some of which I’d written myself, and it was such a great thrill to do that. I realised I could make audiences laugh. These weren’t just friends from university, these were audiences that had come up for the international festival. What happened at the Edinburgh Festival with the Oxford Revue was for me quite life-changing because for the first time I thought ‘Hey, the acting and the humour and all the things I enjoy most in life could possibly make me a living’. My father disagreed profoundly but that was a very important moment for me. I suppose the other great moment was when I’d moved on from comedy into making travel programmes. Around The World In 80 Days did very well and I think the last episode got 12 million viewers. I then said ‘That’s it’ because it was a one-off idea, following Jules Verne, with a competitive element to it and all that. Then two years later because the viewing figures had been so good we thought we could do a follow-up but this time there was no Jules Verne story, we just had to do it ourselves as a way of travelling to places I’d never been before, meeting people and talking to the camera. It was called Pole To Pole and although I thought it was pretty good when I finished it I had no idea how an audience would react. Would they just say ‘Where’s the competition element? He’s just going around the world. He’s having a nice time wandering about’. But then the first audience figures came in and they were something like nine million and I thought ‘This is wonderful’. I’d made it on my own terms as more of a genuine geographical look-at-the-world programme and we still got a huge audience. There was a feeling of ‘Wow, there’s real potential here’. I then went on and made six more series.
You’re an ardent supporter of bookshops. Why do you feel they’re still so important?
Because I think books bring people together. Look at all the book groups there are now. It’s really nice to talk about a book to another human being directly. You can do it online and all that but it’s nice to come to an actual place where you can talk about books. Bookshops have that role within the community. People talk about ideas, their favourite work, ‘Have you got this? Have you got that?’ It’s all conducted with real human beings in a living space. Bookshops don’t have a God-given right to exist. They’ve got to be bright. They’ve got to have ways of selling the books. They’ve got to have a certain character that makes you want to go in, like giving you a nice cup of coffee. But they’re friendly places where you discuss ideas you’ve read in books and that’s really important – not just for the way we are and how we talk to each other, but it’s a very important part of a community to have a place where people come together for whatever reason.
How does writing compare to performing and TV presentation as a discipline?
It’s a lonelier thing. If you’re doing a television series or a television drama or you’re doing some sort of performance there are going to be others around you all the time. You’re like a team, but when you’re writing there’s going to be a certain point where you have to go off on your own and do it yourself. You’ve got to set your own limits and decide exactly how you’re going to do it. The difficult thing I find with writing is that it can go in any direction. I’m thinking of novels really, not the travel books – the travel books are rather different because it’s basically just recording notes I’ve taken. But with novels the book keeps changing and the options seem to be far greater. If you’re doing something on stage it’s: Bang! You’re in front of an audience and you’ve got to do it. With a book there’s more time to contemplate and reflect, which can sometimes be quite troubling and it can make you think ‘Oh dear, perhaps I shouldn’t have done it like this after all’.
What’s your routine when you’re writing?
I very much have a routine. I’m totally freelance and the one-man shows I’ve been doing I tend to call things like 40 Years Without A Proper Job. It’s true; I’ve never signed a contract for longer than the duration of one particular project so I have to keep making sure I know what I’m doing and what I’m planning to do, otherwise you get sidetracked into all sorts of distractions. I have to be very careful about how I apportion my time and I have to know roughly how long it might take to write something. So I am disciplined but I’m not one of those people who get up at five in the morning and work for six hours. I start work at nine and I finish around 5pm, and if you’re freelance you can put in the odd hour around that in order to get it right. Having a balance between work and play and work and family is very important and I try and keep that, and the only way you can do that is by making sure your work itself is ring-fenced – there’s the time you’re doing it and when you’ve finished, stop it, leave it, and go off and enjoy yourself.
How do you celebrate once a book is finished?
It’s a very odd thing but I’m never quite sure when a book is finished. I’m one of these people who always feel there’s something more you can do and there’s something you can improve right up to the end. Right through to the moment when the finished copy comes through the post and on to the desk I’m nervous. I’m probably nervous even at that point, but when the book’s there and you’re holding it in your hand – the finished object that people who buy your book are going to be holding in their hands too – that’s when I know it’s finished or at least I’m thinking ‘There’s nothing more I can do now’. I’ll still be looking through it gingerly and going ‘My god, page 247, I shouldn’t have said that! There’s nothing better than seeing the end product with a nice, bright, clean cover and all that. That’s when I’ll probably go off and celebrate and probably food and drink will be involved.
When you’re on the road what’s the one thing you couldn’t be without?
A notebook and pen, undoubtedly. I’d feel naked if I didn’t have my little black Alwych notebooks made in Glasgow which I’ve taken on all my travels and a pen with which to scribble things down. It has to be done longhand.
Do you get nervous before facing an audience?
I think you’ve got to be nervous before you step out on stage. If it felt like you were just going down to the shops or to see a movie or to buy some socks it wouldn’t be right. The engagement with the audience is not altogether natural. You’re going to be on stage and expecting 1,000 people to sit and listen to you for two hours. When I look at it like that I feel the nerves begin to tingle. Entertaining means that you’ve got to be on the mark, you’ve got to be on the ball. Even if you know people have come along because they want to see you – and that’s very nice – you’ve got to entertain them and make them feel comfortable. I always feel you’ve got to be on top of your game and you should treat each show as a separate show. There’s got to be something that’s fresh and new in every performance and that means you’ve got to feel the energy as you go out there and keep your own energy levels up. Being a little nervous is the price you pay for the price they pay.
You’ve got the Python reunion shows coming up. Do you know yet what formats those shows will take?
We have a script. We had a draft script at the end of last year and that’s been honed down a bit. The format is pretty much a bedrock of our classic sketches: The Lumberjack Song, Nudge Nudge, Argument Clinic and things like that which we know have worked on stage before. There are also a few extras like The Spanish Inquisition, which hasn’t been done on stage before. Woven around that there’s a big production with lights and dancers and songs, which won’t require us to participate because we’ll be off getting changed. I don’t know if I’ll be dancing myself. There may be movement in the lower limbs. We’ll take medical advice on that.
It what ways have you changed since the Python days?
The original spirit in which these sketches were written and the reaction we had to them when they were first written – which was that they were very funny – all comes back. We couldn’t have done these shows if we didn’t believe in the material and if we didn’t think we could make the material funny again. So I don’t feel as though I’ve changed much at all and that’s a bit of a problem because I’m 71 and you can’t quite do all the things you thought you could do. The real change over the years is that we’ve become famous. When we started the shows in 1969 and in fact all through three and a half series right up to 1973 we were not that well-known individually. Certainly there was very little talk about ‘the legendary Pythons’, ‘pushing back the barriers of comedy’ and all that sort of thing. All that has come much later and it makes you feel a little self-conscious. I think we have to try to, if you like, disregard all that stuff about what it all means and the heavy-duty PR and just enjoy ourselves because that is what it will make it work and that’s what people are coming to see. I’ve got to get back to my original Python, my inner Python.
Do you envision ever retiring?
No, I don’t think so. I always think ‘Retire from what?’ My life and work are sort of intricately interwoven. I work at home every day. It’s not a feeling like my father had when he was 65 of ‘Great, I don’t have to go to the office and to meetings any more’. I’ll work until I drop and possibly afterwards, you know? A travel series set in Heaven, perhaps!
You must also have a few more volumes of the diaries to get through?
I think this new volume will almost certainly be the last for a while. The material is there but it’s very important to have a gap, probably around 20 or 25 years, between what you’re describing and when the diaries come out. That way it’s less like a journalistic report and something more reflective, talking about a period that people are beginning to forget. There’ll certainly be a gap but I’m still keeping a diary so there are all these words piling up somewhere which my children or my estate will have to deal with after I’ve gone.
*Travelling To Work: Diaries 1988-1998 will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson on September 11th. The Travelling To Work tour visits Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on Fri 12th September info here: http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/michael-palin-travelling-to-work/theatre-royal-glasgow/