Saturday, May 5, 2018

Cleese, also in a bikini

‘The last week has been spent filming in or around London, ending up at our traditional location - Walton-on-Thames - on Friday. It was less hot this time than in the past - I noticed this because for the last shot of the day I had to stand beside a fairly busy road clad in the It’s Man beard and moustache and a bikini. Next to me was John Cleese, also in a bikini.’ Laugh out loud, for this is the very funny Michael Palin, still in his 20s, who would go on to become a household name as a star of the Monty Python television series and films, and later as a travel presenter. Today he’s 75 - happy birthday!

Palin was born on 5 May 1943 in Ranmoor, Sheffield to an engineer and his wife; he had one sister, nine years older. He was educated at Shrewsbury School (like his father), and at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he read modern history. As a child he had shown some talent at acting, and he furthered this interest in Oxford by writing and performing comedy material, not least with Terry Jones. After completing his degree in 1965, he went to work in television, presenting a comedy pop show. The following year he married Helen Gibbons, they would have three children. For the next few years, he wrote many TV scripts, some with Terry Jones, for the likes of Ken Dod, Roy Hudd, and David Frost. He also wrote and appeared, with Eric Idle and Terry Jones, in the prize winning children’s show Do Not Adjust Your Set.

In 1969, Palin joined Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones for a first series of the BBC’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Further series, films and books came thick and fast over the next five years or so, bringing fame to all of them. Thereafter, Palin continued to write for TV and film. In 1982, he wrote and starred in The Missionary, co-starring Maggie Smith, and this was followed by roles in Brazil (1984) and A Fish Called Wanda (1988) for which he won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. From the late 1980s, however, and through to 2012, Palin has focused on presenting travel programmes, notably for the BBC, such as Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole and Full Circle. He has completed eight series, each one accompanied by publication of a travel book. Most recently, he has presented one-off documentaries on art and history topics. He has also written several novels and children’s stories. In 2013, he was awarded the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award. Further biographical information can be found at the Michael Palin website, Wikipedia, Screen Online, The Independent, or the BBC (Desert Island Discs audio recording from 1979).

Palin has been a committed diarist since his mid-20s. His motivation, he says, is simply ‘to keep a record of how I fill the days - Nothing more complicated than that.’ However, between 2006 and 2014, Weidenfeld & Nicolson has published three thick volumes of his diaries (all of which can be sampled at Googlebooks): The Python Years 1969-1979; Halfway To Hollywood: Diaries 1980-1988; Travelling to Work: Diaries 1988–1998. As with his Python movies and travel programmes, all have been highly popular, and much lauded. A few extracts can also be read on his own website, as can some tips for aspiring diarists.

Here is part of his introduction to the first volume (which gives 
an extract from a childhood diary, as well as a little insight as to why he began to keep a diary), as well as several excerpts from the same volume.

‘I have kept a diary, more or less continuously, since April 1969. I was twenty-five years old then, married for three years and with a six-month-old son. I had been writing comedy with Terry Jones since leaving university in 1965 and, in addition to contnbunng material to The Frost Report, Marty Feldman, The Two Ronnies and anyone else who’d take us, we had written and performed two series of Do Not Adjust Your Set (with Eric Idle, David Jason and Denise Coffey) and six episodes of The Complete and Utter History of Britain. Alter the last one went out in early 1969. John Cleese rang me.

“Well, you won’t be doing any more of those,” he predicted, accurately as it turned out, “so why don’t we think of something new.”

So it was that, quite coincidentally, Monty Python came into my life, only a month or so after the diary.

This was far from my first stab at keeping a regular account of how I spent my time. At the age of eleven I resolved to record each day of the year, and kept it up until the 18th of July. The style was staccato, and looking back now, quite surreal.

Letts Schoolboy's Diary, January, 1955
Tuesday, 18th. Big blow-up in prayers. Had easy prep. Listened to Goon Show. Got sore hand.
Monday 24th. Had fight with (form) VR. Got hit on nose. Did two sets of prep. Jolly hard! Cabbage for lunch. Watched TV.

At regular intervals I tried to resume the habit, but as I grew older keeping a diary seemed an irksome duty, like writing to one’s parents, and anyway, there was far too much going on in my teens and early twenties to have either the time or the inclination to write it all down. Yet there remained a nagging feeling that it was a small failure to let life go by without in some way documenting it. The feeling persisted as I grew older. All I lacked was the will-power.’

Palin then includes an anecdote about how he found the sudden will power to give up smoking which also gave him the impetus to re-start and maintain a diary. Palin continues:

‘There are times when I’ve resented the whole process, when I’ve felt lumpen, dull and inarticulate, when detail has slipped away and the whole exercise has seemed completely pointless. But the longer I’ve kept the diary the more inconceivable it has been to abandon it. Its become an effective and tenacious parasite, mutating over the years into something as germane to my life as an arm or a leg.

The motivation for keeping the diaries remains the same as it always was, to keep a record of how I fill the days. Nothing more complicated than that. Though this inevitably involves emotional reactions. I’ve never treated the diary as a confessional. Once I’ve noted the day’s events, usually the next morning, there’s little time left for soul-searching. [. . .]

This selection [i.e. 1969-1979] is culled from thirty-eight hand-written secretarial notebooks amounting to some five times the volume of material reproduced here. The early entries sit a little awkwardly as I search for a voice and a style that relies on more than lists of events. My reward for perseverance, often in the face of tempting discouragement, is to see the diary bed itself in and slowly begin to tell a story, with regular characters, a narrative, and a sense of continuity.

In the course of these diaries I grow up, my family grows up and Monty Python grows up. It was a great time to be alive.’

23 August 1970
‘The last week has been spent filming in or around London, ending up at our traditional location - Walton-on-Thames - on Friday. It was less hot this time than in the past - I noticed this because for the last shot of the day I had to stand beside a fairly busy road clad in the It’s Man beard and moustache and a bikini. Next to me was John Cleese, also in a bikini.’

25 December 1971
‘A rather fine, sunny morning, and for the first time in our marriage we woke on Christmas morning in our own home.

Thomas saw James across the road, and then they both saw Louise looking out of her window, and soon there was an impromptu gathering of little children comparing presents on the pavement outside our house. The quiet of the day, the sunny morning and the neighbours all talking made me feel very glad - about staying in London, and about living in Oak Village. If it doesn't sound too pedantic, I felt that this was how city life should be.’

31 December 1971
‘Harold Nicolson used to sum up his year on December 31st with a few pithy words. It’s a sort of diary writer’s reward for all those dull July 17ths and October 3rds. (Will I still be keeping my diary on Dec. 3Ist 1999? Now that’s the kind of thought which gives survival a new urgency.)

1971 was my fifth full year in television and certainly on the face of it we have achieved a lot. A TV series, which has reached the sort of national notoriety of TW3. ‘Monty Python’, ‘Silly Walks’, ‘And Now For Something Completely Different’, etc, have become household words. The TV series has won several awards during the year, including the Silver Rose of Montreux. The second Monty Python album has sold over 20,000 copies since release in October, and Monty Python’s Big Red Book completely sold out of both printings within two weeks. It has sold 55,000 copies, and 20,000 more are being printed for February. In London it was top of the bestseller lists. And finally the film which we made a year ago and were so unhappy about, looks like being equally successful.

From all this no-one can deny that Monty Python has been the most talked about TV show of 1971 - and here is the supreme irony, for we have not, until this month, recorded any new shows since October 1970.

The split between John and Eric and the rest of us has grown a little recently. It doesn’t prevent us all from sharing - and enjoying sharing - most of our attitudes, except for attitudes to work. It’s the usual story - John and Eric see Monty Python as a means to an end - money to buy freedom from work. Terry J is completely the opposite and feels that Python is an end in itself - i.e. work which he enjoys doing and which keeps him from the dangerous world of leisure. In between are Graham and myself.’

25 September 1975
‘I spent the lunch hour in a recording studio doing three voice-overs for Sanderson Wallpaper. I really did it because I wanted to keep my hand in and a voice-over, however dull or badly written it may be, at least requires a bit of application and a little bit of performing. It’s good practice. By the same token I’ve accepted an offer to appear as the guest on two editions of Just a Minute, a Radio 4 quiz game, next week.

Down to Regents Park for a Python meeting.

Eric was very positive and I could scarcely believe that it was the same Eric who had berated us all for turning Python into a money-obsessed, capitalist waste of time in this same room in February last year. Eric’s moods should really be ignored, but it’s impossible because he nearly always has a big effect on any meeting. Today it was nice, kind, helpful, constructive Eric.

John had just returned from three days in Biarritz. He was the same as ever, unable to resist a vindictive dig at T Gilliam (on the usual lines of us ‘carrying the animator’ for three years). This didn’t find much support amongst the gathering and squashed TG more than John intended.

Terry J had had a lunch with Michael White, who felt it would be suicidal for us not to make another film this year. Anne said that most ‘advice’ tended this way.’

24 August 1976
‘Chasing up and down corridors. A bit of sub-Errol Flynn work. Anti-swashbuckling. To be actually living these childhood dreams and fantasies - and getting paid handsomely for them - I have to pinch myself mentally to be sure its happening. Fifteen years ago Graham [Stuart-Harris] and I were lapping up all the films, good or bad, that hit Sheffield, and now here I am making the bloody things.

Eric (complete with specially printed T-shirt ’Jabberwocky - The New Python Movie’) and Susie the wet-lipped Aussie model, came to see us on set. Eric brought me a signed advance copy of the book which he says has already had massive re-orders, The Rutland Dirty Weekend Book (containing three pages by M Palin!), to be released next month. It’s a lavish production job - a combination of the Goodies and Python book designs over the last four years, but fused and improved.

I feel that it pre-empts more Python books - a particular area of comic book design has been capped by the Rutland book - and if the Python ‘periodical’ which is being heavily sold to us by Eric, is to be the work of these same designers, I fear it will look unoriginal - and that Python, far from creating a bandwagon, will appear to be climbing on one.

Sit in the sun and read more of The Final Days, chase up a few more corridors.’

28 September 1976
‘No Jabberwocking for me today, but my last day off, apart from Sundays, until late October. Letters, visit Anne Henshaw. She has her head down in the labyrinthine affairs of Python as usual. She reports that the sooner we start writing the Python film the better for some in the group - she says Graham especially seems to be at a loose end and drinking more, with several of his projects, TV series and his film of Bernard McKenna’s script, having collapsed.

Shopping in the King’s Road - have to give brief run-down on Python plans in almost every shop - the assistants all seem to recognise me and want to talk.

To BBC to meet Don Henderson - T Hughes’ selection for the RSM in ‘Across the Andes’. I’m in trepidation for this is a major role and I don’t even know the guy.

Fears allayed - he looks good - with a rather fierce, red face and a good sense of humour. He’s easy company and seems to understand the role well. Still no Dora - as Michele Dotrice turned down the role (the first artist to turn down a Ripping Yarns role this time around!).

Out to dinner in the evening with Robin S-H and Barbara. By a strange stroke of coincidence a Peruvian is present. I tell him about ‘Across the Andes by Frog’ - and to my amazement he tells me that the biggest frogs in the world live in Lake Titicaca, Peru, and that the frog is a common motif in old Peruvian carvings!’

23 September 1977
‘Squash with Terry Jones at five. Beaten again. I’m afraid. Then up to the Flask for a drink. Tell Terry J that I shall be writing the novel (hereinafter called ‘the work’) until Christmas. He doesn’t sound disappointed. Says that it will suit him, as he has further work to do on Chaucer, now his book has found a publisher. He’s just finished a translation of ‘The Prologue’, which TJ says he’s more excited about than the book.

Off to Abbotsley tomorrow for a quick burst of countryside, then back to London and the novel on Monday. A strange feeling - not knowing quite what will come out. I keep wanting to start - waking up in bed and composing cracking first six lines, then controlling myself.

Will I be able to keep the diary up? Will I choke on a surfeit of writing? Will the malfunctioning, non-reversing ribbon on my typewriter cut short a promising career? Watch these spaces . . .’

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