Out of all the comedy legends the up-and-coming John Cleese rubbed shoulders with in the late 1960s, there was none he found funnier than the far less well-known MICHAEL PALIN. In fact, Cleese’s desire to work with Palin was the core of what became Monty Python.
The youngest Python has remained eternally-youthful looking. He played most of the meek and mild characters on the Flying Cirucs — the shopkeepers, the accountants, the milkmen. Ones that were particularly hilarious when playing against Cleese’s towering monstrosities and other more grotesque characters, though he could also do a bit of grotesque himself (see Ken Shabby). He excelled at smarmy game-show hosts and sunny young optimists, like Reg Pither, the cheerful bicyclist of the only Python episode that told a single story all the way through, season three’s “Cycling Tour.” His overall aura of amiability has earned him, out of all six Pythons, the title of “The Nice One.”
And therein lies a problem. How am I going to rip one of the “nicest men in Britain” a new one over his crappy projects? I’m not, of course. Like his Python writing partner Terry Jones, Palin is not responsible for anything that can be considered truly wretched. He has maintained a high standard, so even his “Worst Project” below will merely receive a gentle “it wasn’t for me.”
He’s done a lot of stuff for British TV (documentaries on railroads and art history, and the teleplay for an autobiographical TV movie called East of Ipswich) that has received glowing reviews across the pond, but didn’t get much play stateside. In fact, one of his early projects with Jones, a six-episode mini-series called The Complete and Utter History of Britain (London Weekend Television, 1969), is almost entirely lost, as it was common practice among British TV networks to erase shows already broadcast in order to re-use the videotape. Very thrifty, but tons of classic stuff exists only in the memories of those who saw them the first time. Re-runs did not exist. By a stroke of cosmic luck, this policy ended at the BBC just a few weeks before Monty Python’s Flying Circus went into production. I shudder to imagine what almost happened.
None of the Pythons came to Flying Circus in mid-1969 as a TV rookie. Even at the tender age of 26, Palin had already hosted a pop music show (Now!, only broadcast in Wales — his first post-college gig), written for the esteemed Daily Show of his era (The Frost Report) and several other comedy/variety shows, co-created, co-wrote, and starred in a cutting-edge children’s show (Do Not Adjust Your Set) that adults loved as well (especially Cleese and Chapman), and was given free reign with kindred spirit and Chaucer expert T. Jones to write The Complete and Utter History…
The Complete and Utter History of Britain put Palin’s Oxford history degree and already-solid TV resume to good use by wondering what it would look like if television were around to cover all of British history. (Just reading about it in one of my Python books as a high-schooler inspired me to create a similar video project for history class — what if CNN covered World War One? The result shamelessly ripped off Python but also, I’m proud to say, had some original bits of anarchic comedy and also lots of factual info about WWI. Like The Complete and Utter History…its current status is “mostly lost.”) The Complete and Utter History… was a watershed moment for Jones and Palin, who chafed in small supporting parts and were dismayed to see their writing botched by actors and a director who just didn’t “get it.” Maintaining creative control by writing and performing became one of the underlying philosophies of Monty Python. The less-than-stellar result also led directly to the formation of the Python team. When the credits of last episode rolled, John Cleese, who had an open offer from the BBC to do a series, called up Palin and said bluntly, “I just saw Complete and Utter History. Since you obviously won’t be doing any more of those…let’s do something together.” The rest is history…
And when Python was winding down, some members approached a solo career with trepidation. Others leaped at it. Palin was one of the latter.
BEST PROJECT: Around The World In 80 Days
Broadcast by the BBC, 1989.
Like his fellow Pythons, Palin is proud to call himself a dabbler in many areas of arts & entertainment. In the early 80s, in between penning children’s books, screenplays, and accepting acting gigs, he indulged in a bit of TV hosting. The series Great Railway Journeys of the World had a different host for each episode. Palin hosted episode four, “Confessions of a Train Spotter,” which detailed a typical British rail journey from London to Scotland. The episode was such a success, Palin was kept in the back of the BBC’s collective mind for possible future hosting work. At some point, someone at the BBC got a brilliant idea, and when their first three choices (including the late, great travel presenter Alan Whicker) declined the challenge, Palin stepped up to the plate: He and a tiny camera crew would attempt to recreate Jules Vernes’ famous fictional wager: circumnavigate the entire world in eighty days or less. (Obviously, air travel was forbidden.) You would think with modern vehicles and communication, it would be a piece of cake. In reality, it was immensely challenging. Not counting cruise ships swanning around the Caribbean or Mexican coast, the days of passenger ocean liners are long gone.
I won’t spoil how long it took, but I will say Palin and his crew cut it damn close: London to Venice to Cairo to Dubai to Bombay to Singapore to Hong Kong to Tokyo to Los Angeles to New York back to London, and lots in between. By ferry, by car, by train, by dhow, by container ship (with side trips via camel, dogsled, and hot air balloon)…Palin is a genial, inquisitive, and informative tour guide, and we share his discoveries, frustrations, and friends made along the way. Spread over seven episodes, I don’t know if I’ve ever had seven more enjoyable hours of television viewing.
I must not have been the only one to think so, because soon Palin travel shows became a cottage industry for the BBC, and they all make for compelling viewing. 1992’s Pole To Pole went in the opposite direction, North Pole to South Pole along the 30-degree line of longitude (covering the most land). Scandinavia and Russia, the Baltic region, and the heart of Africa were the areas on display here, in what comes very close re-capturing the magic of the original 80 Days, but this journey took five and a half months. Full Circle (1997) took even longer (delaying re-shoots on Fierce Creatures, see the Cleese entry) and went around the entire Pacific Rim, starting in the Bering Strait and working its way down the eastern coast of Asia, then up the western coasts of South and North America. Full Circle concluded an epic television trilogy. His subsequent shows — Hemingway Adventure (1999, covering the locations associated with Ernest Hemingway), Sahara (2002), Himalaya (2004), New Europe (2007, covering the former Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe), and Brazil (2012) are by no means any less worthy, but their scope is more limited, and the sense of challenge is somewhat lessened. But try ’em all, and read his exhaustive accounts online at his website.
His travel shows have been such a resounding success, Palin may be the one Python who has truly broken free of his association with the group (if you ask him, he’ll probably say differently). He is known to a whole new audience as the kindly, witty globetrotter who shows up on TV screens every few years with a new adventure. His personal website is called Palin’s Travels (and yes, the Holy Bee subscribes to his newsletter), and he has recently concluded a three-year term as president of the Royal Geographical Society. The Python background, the roaring success as a travel host, and the whole “nice” thing (his charity work and activism could fill another much less interesting blog entry) have made Palin something of a national treasure, along the lines of the Crown Jewels or Stephen Fry.
WORST PROJECT: Hemingway’s Chair
Published by St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998
Interesting characters involved in a compelling story are what make a good book. Sadly, I have to say that Hemingway’s Chair offers neither. A postal employee who’s so comically dull he could have been played by Palin in an old Flying Circus sketch has his comfortable job threatened by a new technocratic postmaster. The lead character’s obsession with Ernest Hemingway and Hemingway’s action-oriented lifestyle make him decide not to take the threat lying down.
The book’s quintessential Englishness (Hemingway fixation aside) can’t be counted as a true flaw, but a lot of its themes and characters may ring uninteresting or incomprehensible to American readers, at least when not at the service of a tightly-paced narrative, which this certainly is not. English social problems of the late 80s-90s (Thatcherism, the EU, globalization & modernization) might be compelling in the right project (see below), but Palin does not make it gel very well here.
SHOULD PROBABLY AVOID: I’m very happy I didn’t have to name Palin’s 1991 film American Friends “Worst Project,” saving me the guilt associated with slandering a perfectly pleasant little film, as I did with Terry Jones’ The Wind in the Willows. The film was a long-gestating labor of love for Palin, based on a line he found in his great-grandfather’s diary from the 1860s. Edward Palin was an Oxford don, and while on vacation encountered two women on a hike in the Alps. After spending pleasant afternoon together, they parted ways, and Great-Grandfather Palin noted his regret at leaving their company for the very cloistered world of an Oxford academic. At the bottom of the page, in different ink and dated years later, was a footnote stating that he had eventually married one of the women and lived happily ever after.
Palin spun a single sentence into an entire love story, set in the Alps and the stuffy, morally-upstanding Victorian-era Oxford University, where the dons were not allowed to marry. He plays his own great-grandfather (here called “Francis Ashby”), complete with a heroic set of muttonchop sideburns. His dalliance with the two women (he finds himself attracted to both for different reasons) when they unexpectedly turn up at Oxford ruffles some stuffed-shirt feathers among his fellow staff. He ultimately chooses love (i.e., the younger, hotter one) over career. The End.
It’s slight, it’s slow, and in an adjective that’s come to haunt Palin, it’s Nice. Its nap-inducing pace and setting might be just what some people are looking for on a rainy afternoon. There are no sharp edges, no twists, and just the mildest of conflict (in the form of Alfred Molina, typically great as a rival professor). It’s the Anti-Mamet. You know what? I can’t even in good conscience tell you to avoid it. Forget I said anything. You might just be charmed (if you can find it — it’s currently unavailable on U.S. DVD). I guess Palin’s niceness rubs off on mean-spirited bloggers.
WORTH CHECKING OUT: Like all the Pythons, Palin is a writer at heart. A creature of pen and ink and scribbling down ideas and thoughts that might get spun into a lucrative and fulfilling project, or might get filed away in voluminous forgotten archives. (A picture I once saw of the workroom in the attic of Palin’s North London home featured several old-fashioned filing cabinets.) In 1969, he desperately wanted to quit smoking. To keep his hands busy, and to fill idle moments that might lead to a nicotine fix, he began jotting down daily events. Soon there was hardly a morning that Palin did not spend an hour or so at his desk describing the events of the day before. Long after the nicotine cravings faded, diary-keeping hardened into an obsessive habit. The eventual result was a set of journals that filled notebook after notebook, which in turn filled shelf after shelf. The start of the diary by total serendipity coincided with the start of Python. The Palin Diary was well-known among the other Pythons, and eventually Python fans, who eagerly awaited their inevitable publication. The wait ended in 2007, with Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years. Chronicling the origins, TV success, film success, and ultimate fragmentation of the Python team, the meticulously edited-down Volume One of the Palin diaries also details the beginnings of his equally successful solo career, including the post-Python BBC TV show Ripping Yarns (1976-79).
Ripping Yarns, scripted by Palin and Jones, affectionately parodied the “boys’ adventure” juvenile novels popular early 20th-century. Each episode told a different self-contained story, concerning intrepid jungle exploration, daring escapes from prison camp, fog-shrouded murder mysteries on the moors, and several others in a similar vein, with Palin in the lead role for each outing. As with a lot of his material, the enjoyment comes from the precise period detail and the more low-key, character-based humor. They were well-received (and still easily found on Netflix and Amazon), but Palin insisted on the highest production values, so they were extravagantly expensive. This explains why there are only nine episodes spread over three years. (Reading the Palin diaries where he gently breaks it to Terry Jones that Ripping Yarns is really a “Palin” project, rather than a “Palin-Jones” project, is kind of poignant, but the happy ending is that it kick-started Jones’ own remarkable solo career.)
The second volume of his diaries, Diaries 1980-1988: Halfway To Hollywood, came out in 2010. I’ll rip myself off by re-posting what I wrote about it in my original review: Halfway To Hollywood is full of behind-the-scenes tidbits for the hardcore Python-head, written as they happened. Along with all the little everyday details a husband, father, home-owner, and businessman has to deal with, we get to read about the almost-simultaneous production of the final Python film (The Meaning of Life) and Palin’s solo film The Missionary (which he also wrote and produced), which drove him nearly to the end of his endurance. He had deep reservations about the screenplay for A Fish Called Wanda, and ever after its enormous success, didn’t seem to feel a lot of affection for the popular film. Palin chronicles almost a decade’s worth of other writing and acting work, some ill-fated, some successful, all of it work. That’s what comes across most forcefully in a diary format. Palin kept himself busy.
Palin’s script for The Missionary is a close cousin to American Friends (and Ripping Yarns) in that it is a character-driven period comedy of manners, but unlike American Friends, The Missionary has sharp satirical teeth and a bit of saucy sexiness. As a conflicted Anglican vicar ministering — in more ways than one — to the “fallen women” of London’s East End in the early 1900s, Palin gives what is possibly the greatest leading performance of his career, ably supported by British acting greats like Maggie Smith, Trevor Howard, and Denholm Elliott. The film got respectable reviews and some art-house play in the bigger U.S. cities. It was a prestige picture, one that Palin was justifiably very proud of, and — as I’ve indicated in the title of this section — “worth checking out.”
Terry Gilliam once remarked that Palin was the one true actor out of all the Pythons. “The rest of us are just caricaturists.” Although he has eschewed acting-only roles lately in favor of his travel documentaries and more personal projects, Palin has given quite a few good performances in other people’s television and cinematic films, from the mid-70s to the early 90s, most notably in playwright Alan Bennett’s first foray into screenwriting, A Private Function (1984). We’ve already discussed A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures in the Cleese entry, and he plays eerily against his Nice Guy image in Gilliam’s Brazil. As the chipper Jack Lint, best friend to the protagonist, it seems at first to be a typical Palin role. Gradually, the curtain gets pulled back as Lint dons his blood-splattered smock, and…now’s a good time to go watch Brazil if you haven’t seen it yet. Finally, he shows he can do dramatic heavy lifting, with a very nuanced and psychologically-complex performance in the political satire/thriller G.B.H, a 1991 mini-series that, unlike poor Hemingway’s Chair, proves that late 80s-90s English social issues can be riveting.