I’ve been taking my sweet time transcribing the Michael Palin interview I did for bFM the other week.
I note Matt Nippert, announcing with some glee he’s “scooped me” by posting his transcript sooner. I’m glad he finally recognised Palin as worthy of a bit more space – in his 1200 word Listener interview, Matt rather presumptuously claims 700 for himself. Ah, the hubris of youth. ;)
However, if you’re interested, as I was, in what the great man himself (I’m referring to Palin here) had to say, read on…
You've been doing the travel thing for a while... do you find people now know you for that, rather than Monty Python?
Well it’s kind of odd because Python, well the television we made in 1969, so we’re talking a long, long way back, up til about 1980, has a whole new audience now, so oddly enough you get quite young teenagers and people even younger who know the Holy Grail, and know the Life of Brian, whereas the travel programmes seem to appeal to, there are young travellers, but it also seems to appeal to people my age, which is largely a middle-aged audience.
But it’s kind of like the two sort of merge more than I would have expected. People tend to know a bit about both, I suppose it’s because when I travel I use humour quite a lot, and maybe people who like the comedy shows remember that too.
Do you think that the fact the travel programmes appeal to an older audience, are they living vicariously through your adventures?
I think there’s two audiences, one of those who love travel and see this exotic catalog of place to go and sign up the very next morning for a trek here and there, and the much larger audience, as you rightly say, are people who never want to travel, and for whom my programmes only confirm their decision was right, you know, ‘look at him, look what he’s got up to, he’s miserable, he’s coughing, he’s spluttering, he’s having to eat this revolting stuff.' So I think there is a much larger audience of armchair travellers than actual out there physical do it for themselves travellers.
We’ve got a show here, Intrepid Journeys, where we send celebrities to some real hell-holes, some real out of the way places. The fact that you also go, rather than to investigate a beach on the Bahamas, to some of these rough places, is that because you’re a masochist, or the producers are sadists?
I’d have to blame myself, because I come up with the idea of where to go, so I can’t blame the producers for that, although they have a certain sadistic choice of places to take me. No, I think I’m aware that if you want to travel to interesting places, and places that are a little off the map, off the beaten track, then you’re going to have some tough travelling. And that’s fine by me, I’d rather do that, but it is going to be difficult, you know that. I don’t deliberately take it on because it’s difficult and yet, I know that the best way to see places in the world I want to see are not often the easiest places to get to, so it is going to be a bit tough, you’re going to have to make do with much less than you normally have.
We all know with the number of Reality TV shows around at present, how much of it is smoke and mirrors. Are your shows like that, to an extent, when they call ‘cut’ are you suddenly back in your trailer wrapped up in a plush mink duvet?
[Laughs] No, no mink duvet. I think actually the way we do them may not be the most comfortable way, but it’s a democratic communal life we all have, the crew and myself. There’s no one hotel for the star and one hotel for the rest. And that’s part of the reason we get a feeling of things happening spontaneously because that is the way things are happening, and we all depend on each other to be there, ready and alert to get, to capture the sequence as it happens, and that really relies on working very closely together. So we all go on, and we grumble and we all drink together and we all start together in the morning. It’s more like a sort of strange military operation than normal filming. And actually I prefer it that way. I’ve made films in my life when you sit in a lovely caravan, with eighteen different kinds of water to drink during the day, and you get used at six o’clock in the afternoon for one shot. These programmes are full on from the moment you start in the morning to the moment you finish at night, everbody is working, and I think that’s why we get some quite good stuff.
When one gets of a certain age and level of success it is quite easy to take the easy route. What is it in your case that keeps you striving to make things hard for yourself?
It’s not really making things hard. I just value my independence and I value the control I have over the things that I do. And I kind of learnt that on Python really, from the group of six of us, who despite problems from management, producers, people telling us we couldn’t do this, we couldn’t do that, we have to cut this, we have to cut that, in the end most of the correct decisions that I think made Python popular were our own decisions. And you’ve gotta believe in yourself and you’ve got to trust your gut instinct. And my gut instinct is just I want to make sure I avoid cliché, I want to avoid doing exactly the same thing I’ve done before. And I like the adventure side of it. I’m quite cosseted, you know, someone books my airfares and gets me out there, someone gives me schedules to where to go, so I’m not actually struggling all the time, but I do like the feeling of doing something which is in my own style, my own way of doing it and using my own voice.
You must find on these travels you run into people in the most obscure places, who know exactly who you are from your past incarnation?
Actually something happened on this trip. We were on the Annapurna trail, which is a steep trek, about five days, and I got really sick, terrible cold and sore throat, felt just generally grim. And I’m walking up this place and I see a couple of people up the top of the steps, and I felt sure they were either American or Canadian, I could sort of hear their voices drifting down. And I’m feeling really rotten, and as I go by one nudges the other and looks very excited, and that sort of lifted my spirits for a bit, so I gave a little glance and walked on, trying to be casual about it, and I heard her say “My God, it’s Eric Idle!” [laughs] So yes, there are definitely Python moments.
In a wider sense, the legacy of Monty Python, certainly when I was at University, there were some awful clubs full of the geekiest people around who know the sketches from start to finish – is that common around the world?
It is unfortunately and regrettably all too common, there are people who know every single line, every single pause, every single intake of breath. And you know, all I can ever say is that I can never remember the sketches…and I wrote them ,well some of them. And it can get a little bit irritating. I remember when John Cleese and I were on stage, fairly early on with Python, doing the dead parrot sketch, and dead parrot does rely on some very good timing, especially in John’s case. Of course as soon as John left a pause, someone in the audience would shout out the next line, and it got him more and more angry, so by the end John was in sort of a turbo-charged Basil Fawlty mood with the audience – so it can have drawbacks, people who think they know it all.
And it’s comedic legacy, what do you think of the current crop of English comedy?
I think there are some very good things that come up, like The Office, which I think is almost on a par with Fawlty Towers, especially in the way I reacted to it. First of all I couldn’t believe it, it seemed so static, nothing happening, same as Fawlty Towers seemed like a very old sitcom, and then you realise just by concentrating on the characters and writing them well, you produce sublime comedy, which can just, you just have these characters being themselves week after week, people can watch it forever. And I like that very much.
I think other programmes try quite hard, but I like the Fast Show, I like those guys very much. Also, there’s a guy called Chris Morris, I don’t know if his programmes have come out here [DC: Brass Eye?] Yeah, Day to Day he started off with, and he worked with Steve Coogan in the first series, who’s also very good. Now that is sharp and very hard hitting in the best sort of way. I think he’s doing another series and I’d watch that, because Chris Morris’ work produces the same sort of outrage the first time you hear it as I felt when John and Graham first read the Dead Mother sketch, you know the guy comes up to the mortuary with his mother in a sack, and I’d think “we can’t do that” and of course after you’ve shown it two or three times it becomes incredibly funny. But Chris morris is fresh and sharp, and unafraid, and that’s the good thing about him.
What do you think Python’s contribution to the current crop has been?
I honestly really don’t know. At one time I began to feel that the Python influence was quite inhibiting because everybody after us was being compared to Python, if they did anything slightly zany or wacky, and I thought it was really tricky and maybe a lot of people were tyriyn gto avoid being like Python just because of that. I suppose all I can do is compare my feelings for something like Spike Milligan and the Goon Show to what people might feel about Python. I felt they were very liberating, they pushed back the boundaries of radio comedy, they did stupid things like sort of, a long one-minute take of someone going up some stairs just to get a gag at the end. They broke the rules, and I suppose in a sense Python broke the rules so it just gave encouragement to people writing comedy to say well we could do something that completely hasn’t been done yet, let’s try it, it’s a different form of comedy, let’s have a go.
Anything can be funny, but it’s not necessarily so...
Haha yeah. Everything is funny, it’s just a question of whether you let it be your own sense of humour or whether it be imposed upon you by committees or producers, or whatever. The great thing about Python, it was us, it was just what made the six of us laugh.
Getting back to the travel, one thing that stood out in Himalaya was the influence of the events of September 11, at least in your mind. Was it very noticeable?
Much less than I expected. We started right on the Afghan border, not far from the Tora Bora mountains where the Islamic radical groups were gathering after the Afghan war, and you could see all the evidence of change in Afghanistan and all that. I had the feeling that despite the fact we were there just after the Iraq war, there was not a great deal of personal animosity, there was animosity towards governments, and particularly towards the Americans, the British slightly less so but it was definitely there. But to us as individuals, the normal rules of hospitality applied, and they looked after us very well, and I have the feeling that a lot of what concerns people there is not a concerted attempt to destroy the West, it’s their own problems, their own country, their own tribal relations and all that. A lot of the issues are local issues, or issues between Afghanistan and Pakistan. So the idea that somehow there’s a world conspiracy out there to destroy us didn’t seem to be very clear to me. To what I could see there were a lot of people preoccupied entirely in their own affairs, but of course there’s a lot of disaffected young people, very poor, and they are being taught a very hard line sort of Islamic belief. Which the right person, with the right sort of charisma can, I should think, come along, manipulate and could use to quite seriously unpleasant ends.
Do you foresee that happening?
I’m an optimist. I feel that actually the forces for communication in the world are much greater than the forces for keeping people apart. People are still travelling, people are still curious about other countries, people are still learning, reading more about other countries. I think one thing after September 11, people are suddenly starting to read about Islam and the Muslim world is being discussed endlessly, we now know more Muslims, you hear them talking on television and the radio, so people are actually learning something, which I think is very important, which is that we must learn to live together, and not be sort of hoodwinked into thinking there is an enemy out there which we’ve somehow go to destroy, it’s not as simple as that.
You quote Kipling regarding the Khyber Pass, “such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world”, did you really feel like that when you were there?
Yeah… This applies to the grand trunk road, which was the road that was built hundreds of years ago to cross the Indian empire, of whoever it was then, the Mughals I suppose. And yeah, you still see it. A lot of the Afghans who fled after the war, to the camps in Pakistan are now going back in large numbers. And the other thing is you realise, and the Afghans are great traders, and a lot of people in the tribal areas, I mean there’s a lot of money made from drugs and arms smuggling and all of that, but the Afghans are great traders, and they can’t wait to get Kabul up and running, they can’t wait for some peace and security cos they like sort of doing deals, and buying and selling, and a lot of the Afghans were going back, so there’s a huge number of vehicles going from Pakistan back into Afghanistan.
And you really do feel as you sit up there on the Khyber Pass, as there’s a stream of people going one way, and trucks coming the other way, it’s kind of timeless, and what’s happened in the last ten or fifteen years might have been a sort of serious crisis for the area, but it’s had many crises like that before, and essentially life has to go on, and you feel that road, that river of life represents life going on.