How to Duck a Punch…an Interview with Michael Palin
"It was quite a landmark case in favour of artistic copyright residing in the writers, not the people who bought the writing"
Michael Palin’s The Thirty Years Tour is a show based on his diary entries from the end of the 1960s to the end of the 1990s. A late finish in Stoke the night before made for a tired Python, but still he charmingly talked playground scraps, a courtroom battle, and live performing
Palin’s storytelling ability and humour was put to use as far back as his school days. It was something he could use to protect himself from a hiding – a trait that was also practiced by the likes of David Jason and John Cleese. “There were always people being ‘bashed up’ in the playground.” Palin said. “I usually avoided fisticuffs because I could make people laugh or tell stories.” It’s a talent he is still using today for his new tour.
So what’s helped to mould the thirty years put before us in this show? People can influence careers. For Palin one such person was Spike Milligan.
“Spike was a complicated man. He really was sort of manic depressive. Get him on a good day and he’d be absolutely ebullient, funny and warm; he cared about lots of injustices in the world, he was a great environmentalist, an extraordinarily funny writer and wonderful poet – there are so many things I could say about Spike that are so positive. But on a bad day he could be cross, a bit grumpy and short tempered. He had a terrific and absolutely unique talent…but he was sometimes difficult.”
Places also play a role. Palin was born in Sheffield and lived there for 25 years (except when away at school or university). It’s where he got his first taste of performing, thanks to the very active amateur dramatics taking place there – but the role Sheffield played in his career goes deeper than a bit of acting experience. Sheffield supplied him with “a rather stubborn feeling of being, if not exactly an outsider, someone who looked at the world from a provincial city. I wasn’t a Londoner, I wasn’t a Metropolitan, and I think this was very important when I look back. Someone has pointed out that Monty Python was composed of people from all over the country; there were no Londoners there, no people from the capital where they were comfortably off. Everybody was from outside London and determined to make it in their own way just to show the Metropolitans what we could do.”
And then from provincial to transatlantic...“America took to Python through public, not commercial, broadcasting. They put Python out uncut. ABC came along, bought 6 Python shows and cut them up, wanting to put them out as two specials. We thought the cuts were so savage and ridiculous that it was really disembowelling Python. We thought we had to do something about it and because we had an American in our cast, Terry Gilliam, we were able to take legal action in America. So Terry and I went over to try and stop ABC putting out these specials because we felt they didn’t represent Python and had abused our copyright.”
Was this case anything like one of Python's courtroom sketches? “It was very Pythonic – courts always are! ABC’s attorneys didn’t really know anything about Python whereas the judge clearly rather liked it! I had to stand up and describe what was funny about a Python sketch. Their attorneys thought this was a waste of time and the judge said ‘Maybe, but I’m quite enjoying it’!” Once again, was Palin using humour to escape a beating? “We failed to win the case because it was too close to the transmission of the programme. But later we appealed and won. It was quite a landmark case in favour of artistic copyright residing in the writers, not the people who bought the writing. In the end we lost the battle and won the war.”
When Michael has performed as part of Monty Python there’s been the other cast members supporting him, and when he’s travelled the world for his documentaries he has had an abundance of beautiful places to comment on, so is standing alone on stage with just his history much scarier?
“It’s not actually. I find playing on stage easier than acting in front of a camera. In front of a camera I’m not sure who’s out there – it’s just this piece of lens. When I did my travels I discovered that the best way I could be was as natural as possible, so what I do with the audience is just be as natural as possible. It’s not a one man show, it’s a two man show – me and the audience. If you’ve got a group of people who have bought their tickets because they know who I am and they’re quite interested in what I do, there’s usually a great warmth between myself and the audience. For a moment before you come out on stage, you wonder if it will work. Then usually it does…it’s been terrific so far.”
So being funny and a good storyteller seem to be working for Palin on this tour…and presumably still help him to duck a punch!
For tickets to see the Thirty Years Tour click here
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