Michael Palin On Monty Python’s Flying Circus

❉ 50 years of Monty Python: A previously unpublished interview with Michael Palin!

“Snippets of our intellectual pretensions were there, and we could use them to create these sketches.  I mean the fact that with the Proust competition they give the award to the girl with the biggest tits!  It’s just a way of giving the intellectual world a double-barrelled blast.”

In 2013, just prior to the surprise announcement of Monty Python’s 02 reunion shows, and when We Are Cult was not even a glimmer in his eye, this website’s founder and editor James Gent – Hello! That’s me by the way! – had the privilege of speaking with Michael Palin, where for about half an hour I quizzed the Sheffield-born comedy legend and polymath about ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’, which was first aired fifty years ago today – on Sunday 5 October, 1969, the Autumn of Space Oddity and Abbey Road; Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider.

As a serious Pythonologist, who was later commissioned to pen the Pythons’ group biography for their official website, I took the opportunity to dig a little bit deeper into the series. I dutifully prepared one side of A4 paper’s worth of questions, which had to be quickly filleted down as I was informed by Mike’s PR man that I would only have ten to fifteen minutes to chat with the world’s busiest septuagenarian; however, as I proceeded to nervously bumble along with my interrogation (Brain: “I’m talking to MICHAEL FUCKING PALIN! Don’t say shit! Don’t say fuck! SHIT, FUCK!”) and as Palin proved that his reputation as one of the most patient and gentlemanly chaps in showbusiness was well-earned by humouring my more fanciful fan theories about Edmund Grossmith, Jean Luc Godard, the crisis of anxiety in the 1970s, and pyschedelia and suburbia. Furthermore, as our alloted time drew to a close and I apologised for having “a couple more questions”, Palin further indulged your humble correspondent with a casual, “Well, I’m sure we can chat for a bit longer if you need to”. Dammit! He really is the ‘nice one’. Bastard!

I’m very pleased to share with We Are Cult‘s readers, a sizeable portion of this chat with Sir Mike. If you’re a Python or British comedy geek – make a large pot of coffee or pour yourself a nice whiskey and settle in with this interview, which I think I’m safe in saying you’ll find more insightful, detailed, thoughful and considered talk on the topic of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, than the numerous lazy, ‘will this do? thinkpieces that have become almost as much of a Python tradition as repeats and reissues…

“And now…”

What can you remember about the process of recording an episode of Python in front of an audience?

In studio, it was quite hectic.  What we did to start with was we had a kind of warm up man, I think Barry Cryer did a lot of our warm-ups to start with, and Barry Took as well, so if there were gaps in between, long changes, they would come on and tell a few jokes to the audience.  I think that was very much in the early shows, then I think we got a folk singer in for a bit, that just didn’t seem right.

I seem to remember that we used the minimum amount of outside entertainers, because it was quite embarrassing to invite Barry on to tell a few jokes and then, ‘Right, shut up!’, the gallery comes down to shut them up, ‘We’re all ready and on we go’.

We just let the audience know this was how we did it, and they quite enjoyed the fact that they were part of the process, and that they had to wait while we had to change our costume, make a little joke about moustaches falling off and all that, and generally kept them pleasantly relaxed.

The first series is very fixated on a kind of 1950s suburban conformity, dominated by absurd establishment figures, the sort of people still hanging onto Victorian values; was any of this was a working-through of your backgrounds, or part of a more generational, counterculture thing – I mean, it’s exactly the same worldview the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band sent up on The Doughnut In Granny’s Greenhouse isn’t it?

It was Barry Took who very neatly summed up the Pythons as being more provincial, none of us were from London, we were all from different parts of the country, and all our fathers were respectable, middle class people, we didn’t have any bohemians in the family, acting or writing, all that wasn’t part of our world.  We grew up in a world where things were rather dull and quite conservative.

Although I didn’t grow up in a world of people with bowler hats, the bowler hat became a sort of image of that sort of establishment respectability, of people keeping themselves to themselves, behaved respectably, were probably Freemasons, that sort of world which we felt quite alienated, and liberated from in the 1960s, because we’d all come to London, and in London anything was going in the ‘60s.

It was a time for anyone to express themselves, musically, through fashion, through books, newspapers, whatever, you could do something new, and that’s what we were all enjoying.  So we did use these sort of figures that represented the world we had broken away from, or thought we had broken away from, completely.

I mean the brilliance of people like John and Graham as performers was that they looked, physically, like the authority figures you’d see around.  John spoke like a bank manager and Graham spoke like a colonel. You could use these people to create that sense of a group of people running lives and making big decisions, then sending it up the same time.

Where did that nerdy, suburban, yet slightly odd, archetype of office clerk characters like Arthur Pewtey and Reg Pither come from, which you so excelled at presenting?

I’m not quite sure!  I really don’t know.  There were a lot of (old buffer voice) ‘people like that’ with moustaches and briefcases, we could all do those; the Pithers and all that were something I’d sort of created myself in a way.  They may well have come from a Peter Sellers background, or something like that, they were not people I knew particularly.  It was a sort of type of character that would annoy the establishment whilst appearing to be part of it, and they would go on and on and on in that strange nasal voice.

I think that was possibly partly Peter Cook, partly Beyond The Fringe, partly Sellers.  It was an acted character whereas the sort of chaps with moustaches and all that, we could all do that terribly easy, because that was just us doing our fathers’ business acquaintances, you know.

The Pewteys and Pithers of Python do seem to have a bit of an antecedent in suburbanites like Mr. Pooter from George Grossmith’s ‘Diary Of A Nobody’…

Yes, I think there is a tradition there.  I always like the person who really goes on and on but doesn’t have much to say, but goes on and on and irritates people around him, which I find a rather good comic device for discombobulating the establishment.  I think that just creating a one dimensional, dislikeable character was less fun for me.  I always like to, whatever you’re playing, however a small part it was, to give them something else that was there, just a look in the eyes, something like that, or just something about the way they say a line.  You see a little glimpse of someone underneath there.  It’s not just a series of stereotypes, I wanted to get away from that, really.

There’s a seam in your everyman characters, of men frustrated by ambition – did this reflect any anxiety about a road less travelled had TV not intervened, in the same way Cleese’s attacks on chartered accountants seemed to reflect his own anxieties: “It’s something to do with trying to escape from a sort of narrow, rather respectable, lower middle class inhibition, and that’s really what my work’s been about.”

I don’t think it was directly because I feared that I would be this, that or the other, it was just that I always disliked the blank ordinariness of life, not ordinariness, but a blank conventional-ness of life, where you would go to the office, behave in a certain way; I was always interested in the smaller characters around, the office cleaner of the shopkeeper, they interested me because I never seemed to know much about them and I was fascinated by them! To me the joy has always been writing characters and playing characters. I just enjoyed playing with those characters, I think I get more out of characters who are complex failures than successes, I mean there’s not much fun in a character who just gets things right.  I love to explore hopes, ambitions, I love all that, the idea of people building up from their dull lives to what might be outside.

The Pythons’ costume designer, Hazel Pethig, has spoken generously about the collaborative process the pair of you enjoyed: ‘It was a mutual, combined effort, like a two-way process.  You’d spark one idea off between us.  But importantly your brief as a costume designer would be to give whoever had written it, whatever they had written it for, and enhance it, and try not to get too much comedy in the costume… which can’t always be described.  But it helped Michael make the most of the role. It’s all character and how it manifests.’ Can you tell us a little about that?

Hazel was great – she wasn’t forcing her decisions on us, she wasn’t coming back to us from a background of a dogmatic ‘costume design’ world; she was very much her own person, she’s lovely, she had a nice, slightly dreamy, new age-y, way about her and she liked to explore the character.

I felt working with Hazel was  a lovely way of building up characters together, because she was just happy to explore the various alternatives, she was never dogmatic and I rarely saw her go into jargon or costume-speak, it was about the character and how she could make that character with you something original and different.  She loved it when there were little sort of details or differences that we could agree on, a different sort of tie, a jacket that was a little too short or whatever, just a little touch that gave each character something different.

Ian Davidson, who made several appearances in the series and whom you had worked with since the Oxford Experimental Theatre Company (ETC) days, said: ‘Terry and Mike’s stuff always had an element of the absurd, whimsical or plain silly. Their strength was being able to give it a satisfying form.’

I think that was an important part of the success of Python, that we all brought different preferred areas of performing into the mix and no one merely duplicated what anyone else was doing, everyone came in with a different kind of performance from a slightly different direction, informed by a different interest in life and characters. All of us could realise these characters, could play them pretty well, but they’re all different.

I think there was a lot more anger in John and Graham’s writing, it was really very angry.  It was a bit like John Osborne, the playwright at the time, who started what they called the kitchen sink drama, it was people who were reacting to what they saw around them in quite a sort of extreme way, there were going in hard, the old establishment, the old conventions.

Terry and I were less angry, we were more interested in exploring contradictions and complexities, doing stuff on film, playing with film, doing more physical comedy.  Terry Jones always had a camera around and I can remember when we first wrote together when I’d just left University in 1965 and we used to go round to Terry’s house in Claygate, in Surrey, and he had a little camera and do little films where chairs moved and all that stop action stuff and he loved doing that, there’s some delightful things he’s done.  He was very interested in what you could do with the camera, and I was learning from that.  I wasn’t so interested in the technology of how you use the camera and speed it up, stop-motion.

BBC TV Vision Mixer Bill Morton once told me ‘I think the Pythons were the first show to hijack the BBC network symbol, at that time a revolving globe, to put comedy voice-overs on, much to the confusion of the continuity announcers.’ The show really revelled in a sense of deconstructing the vocabulary of TV which hadn’t really been done before, was it exciting breaking new ground by playing with the conventions?

It was the right time to be doing that.  Something like TW3 had explored how you could break down the barriers in television, you’d see the cameras. You’re now so used to all that, but actually seeing cameras going through the studio floor in shot, doing that all live and making that a virtue, that was done long before we came around, but I think what we did was we, instead of sending the whole thing up, we could actually play the formality.

The important thing was to fool people that this was the BBC and then Graham would come in hanging upside down or there’d be silly announcements like, “On BBC1 they have so and so, and on BBC2 there’s me telling you this”. It was a great area for comedy, because people got used to all these clichés. I think that’s something that comedy’s always worked on.  It’s just identifying things that we’ve all heard and got quite bored with and saying, ‘Well, there could be another way of doing it.’  I think there’s something that television needs nowadays, they have different conventions, television appears to be very relaxed now and all that, but it’s fallen into exactly the same conventions.

At the beginning of every documentary now for the BBC they tell you exactly what you’re going to be seeing, here are the best moments, ‘I’ve been taking a journey…’ – I’ve done it myself, and I feel embarrassed about it! Someone’s got to stop this, someone’s got to say, SEND THIS UP, and come on, relax!

A lot of comedy is accused of dumbing down, but Python seemed to encourage audiences to level up, in that it assumed the audience had a certain level of literacy. Did you give much thought as to how the viewer at home would respond to something left field or name-dropping arthouse directors, philosophers etc?

I guess we were encouraging the audience to level up rather than dumb down, but a lot of the intellectual references were accompanied with some slapstick.  I mean, Pasolini’s Cricket Match – you didn’t have to know much about Pasolini, but we had to know quite a lot about it!  Terry and I, and Gilliam, we loved Pasolini’s work, incredibly inventive, but you have images like Eric naked as a bowler, the batsman rolls up and the batsman’s suddenly naked, little things like that…

The rubbish dump film was a kind of Jean Luc Godard spoof, that’s right, yeah. We’d already been doing Bergman spoofs since Twice A Fortnight, of course.

You once said, ‘We know the names of two or three philosophers so everyone thinks Python is incredibly intellectual, we know all about philosophy, but we don’t – it’s a wonderful con trick!’

That was our particular conceit, we’d have characters voicing complex intellectual ideas, I mean the classic for me was the Summarise Proust Competition.  To understand it, you had to know that Proust was a very long book, seven or eight volumes, which took years to read.  You had to understand that to get the joke about summarising Proust in fifteen seconds, in order to see an absolutely ridiculous, remorseless situation work its way through, when the hero can’t even remember the name of the hero all through the books, quite apart from getting anywhere near the vast work we’re talking about, ‘Swann, er, Swann…’!

So you’re playing with the intellectual ideas but it requires a little bit from the audience, we were seeing that was written for people like ourselves, in a way, who had had an education up to quite a reasonably high level, but not really understood all the things they were supposed to understand.  Snippets of our intellectual pretensions were there, and we could use them to create these sketches.  I mean the fact that with the Proust competition they give the award to the girl with the biggest tits!  It’s just a complete and utter silly contrast against that sort of intellectual framework, which we’re all supposed to – I mean, even today, I read The Observer, and I read the books column, ‘must read this, must read that’, it’s all very po-faced, it’s just a way of giving the intellectual world a double-barrelled blast as well.

Production Manager Roger Last said that although you never intended to write satire, the Pythons ‘did have their targets…  It was very much of its time, anti-authority’.

I wasn’t, myself, particularly, looking for targets, so much as characters and whimsy, things like that. For me, the joy was the contrasting of two very different worlds, like the Army being offered protection by the Vercotti brothers. The assumption was that the Vercottis were gangland, these idiots could go in and offer the army protection, and the way the Army dealt with that… That wasn’t sort of having a go at the Army or even the Mafia, it was just all to do with these stereotypical figures, and how when you put them together, you could make them do something, have something rather wonderful happen, and they both had to relate to each other in some way or another.

Terry Jones once told me, ‘We all agreed on what the targets were, really.  We all had similar backgrounds. I think, in the 1960s, a new world was going to happen, and IT DIDN’T.’

I wasn’t particularly looking for targets. I think John and Graham, again, perhaps had agendas – I think the Merchant Bank sketch in particular is brilliant.  I don’t think I’d start off with who do I want to send up here, who do I want to demolish here?  I didn’t really start from that point of view.  Neither did Terry, I don’t think, particularly.

‘Tory Housewives’ was almost certainly John and Graham.  I always took the view that, you know, if you send people up too much, you’re actually giving them too much good publicity, so what we would do is slightly, obliquely, introduce them. Things like ‘Spot the Looney’ was a brusque way of saying something about politics without getting into any arguments or anything like that, without having to debate a point.  It was really about having fun, most of all. It never became heavy at all, in the satirical sense, we were all aware of that and would say, ‘Come on, we’ve got to make that sillier’, so silliness was quite important to us.

Ray Millichope told a great story about going into the Imperial War Museum to view stock footage for the killer joke sketch and a member of staff being outraged that he was viewing clips for use in a comedy show (“This isn’t light entertainment, this is bloody World War II!”) – did you encounter much adverse reaction with sketches like that and the North Minehead By-Election – WWII being in recent memory for many and still fairly taboo topic for comedy?

What had happened after the war was that, there’d been a kind of retrenchment, because it’d been a tough war and the country was pretty much broken after it, but what had happened was the officer class, if you like, had re-established themselves as the people giving the account of the war, and there’s very little talk of the war from the ordinary soldier’s point of view.  It was nearly always ever the books we read were by officers, great courage, acts of courage, heroism in France and all that, but there was a kind of convention that the war was filtered through the officer class and the generals, and the military re-established themselves pretty quickly after the war.

It wasn’t that we felt, Oh God, if we talk about the war, there’s going to be young men’s lives laid down, sort of thing; I think we were attacking more the establishment version of the war, this dreadful waste of human life, which tends to be nothing to do with the officers who’d ordered people into battle in the first case. In a way, I think we felt, well, this is fair game, and also it was tinged with silliness.

I mean the German joke sketch we did was getting various sideswipes at the British military man and all that, planning and all that, but mainly it was just telling jokes while running through the minefield, because it’s quite a bizarre image.

Even when you were being silly, with a few exceptions you were always being silly about something that was reflected in the world around us.

Anything could be thrown into the mix, of course, and sketches had to have – they had to be about something.

Is there anything you got away with at the time that on reflection you probably shouldn’t?

Um, I can’t remember chapter and verse, but there were some quite long things which didn’t really quite work out and sustain, I can’t exactly remember what they were, but occasionally we did ramble and it was fairly obvious.  I think that sometimes we tended to use devices perhaps too often.

I thought a very good device at first was us playing schoolboys being interviewed.  I think we used those schoolboys a little bit too often, the headmaster calling boys into the study sort of thing was the same as the colonel calling the general into his office.

We perhaps got a little stuck with offices and tables and interviews and things like that.

We had to fill these shows, and if you were going to get moments of genius like the Argument Clinic or The Mouse Problem, things like that, there were other things that did ramble or didn’t quite ignite, you know.

Roger Last once said, ‘Now and again, you’d read a script and you’d know a sketch wasn’t very good… Sometimes they couldn’t cut them, because then the programme wouldn’t be long enough, and even if they thought it wasn’t working too well, you couldn’t cut it because you were asked to do a programme which was 29 minutes 30 seconds, that’s what you were supposed to do.’

I think that was it – I can remember seeing shows and thinking, “Well, that just didn’t really work”, and then the next thirty seconds will justify you tuning in because it was just something extremely daft like John and me, the strange thing we improvised on film where he’s being a policeman standing on the side of the road and I tell him I’ve lost my wallet and all that, could he help, no I can’t do anything about it, just standing on the verge of the road, after a long pause, ‘Do you want to come back to my place?’ and he says ‘Yeah, alright’ and off we go!

But that sketch was quite subversive, given that the punchline is about a copper cottaging with a punter!

It wasn’t meant to be about homosexuality or gay lib or anything like that, it was just a silly moment, but looking back that’s sort of twenty seconds that just seemed to me to work perfectly whereas some of the longer things rambled on rather ineffectively.

You only made six episodes for the fourth and final series, Had you gone on to do more episodes, would it have resembled Ripping Yarns, given that by then your writing had already gone into more long-form, narrative based material?

I hadn’t really thought about it like that but I think it did, in a sense, explain why, after all the television series ended, we were able to get together for a film, because all the elements were there.  John said he wanted to do a film, Terry J and Terry G were both interested in directing films, Terry and myself were interested in exploring the narrative, a longer story upon which the jokes could be hitched, and we were doing that in the fourth series, so perhaps it’s not so surprising that when the idea of the Holy Grail came up, everyone said, ‘This is the way we should go….’

Terry Jones told me, ‘I always wanted Python to go in that linear direction, ‘Ripping Yarns’ was the logical extension of that, and I would have loved Python to have done ‘Ripping Yarns’ with the full cast.’

I think there was definitely a direction there, which was, I suppose, Terry and I were the ones who took, first of all, to do longer sketches.  John (contributed) a bit of writing in (Series Four), Graham did rather a lot of writing actually, in the fourth series, and Eric too, but I mean, we’d seen The Cycling Tour, which was very much something by Terry and myself, and the others joined in, and that was the way I thought we should go, rather than just everything being unconnected, that perhaps there should be a narrative.  A narrative which loosely strings along, like a clothes-line, different bits and pieces.

Film cameraman Trevor Baxendale recalled that, ‘Ian McNaughton as director was a hoot, he was probably responsible for “letting them do what they wanted” and thus a lot of the success.’ Hazel Pethig goes on to say, ‘John Howard Davies was properly mad, he was good to work with, but Ian was very much part of the team, he tried to understand what the Pythons wanted, which wasn’t difficult really.’

Terry (Jones) and myself and Terry Gilliam were such HUGE fans of Spike Milligan’s Q5 series that we thought, ‘Maybe we should meet the director of that?’ because someone who could handle Spike probably had the right credentials for what we wanted to do.  We were prepared to take much more of a risk, and Ian seemed to embody that.  Ian had this mad, wonderful, Scottish excitement about doing things, he was quite anti-establishment himself and we felt we were likely to get our different, odd, unusual, unconventional, untested ideas through Ian than we would through John Howard Davies, who would probably be more disciplined, and John did indeed want things to be more like the old sketch shows.

So, I mean, it was a bit of a risk with Ian, but we said we can jump off the cliffs successfully with Ian whereas we could safely stay at the top with John Howard Davies, and won’t go into these slightly more dangerous areas.  John, to his credit went along with that! I think Ian was extremely important to the whole Python series, because he gave us the freedom, he encouraged us to do silly things and daft things, ‘cos that was his style of humour as well.

The problem was, you know, Ian drank a lot, we all did at that time, and John really didn’t, very much, John wasn’t very much part of that, and I felt that John was slightly disaffected all the way through. He was happy to do all the shows, but there was a slight problem there.

This is a whole interesting part of the whole Python genesis, if you like, because John (Cleese) preferred John Howard Davies, who was an established director, very much BBC and perfectly good, he actually directed the first four Python shows and then became Head of Comedy.

How would you assess McNaughton’s input and what did he bring to the show?

Ian was always ready to get it going, he had this terrific energy and he had a real joy in what we were doing, I think that was the thing.  To Ian, it wasn’t just another series, with some clever young men from University, it was something new and different and exciting, and the great thing was, Ian hadn’t been to university and he certainly wasn’t part of the Oxbridge crowd, he wasn’t part of the BBC establishment.  He’d done a lot for the BBC, he’d done some very successful drama series, but he always saw himself as a bit of a maverick, he was therefore well suited to letting Python go, giving us our head.

Terry Jones particularly was always very keen to make sure we didn’t do the obvious, didn’t do the conventional, let’s try it a different way, let’s try something like this, and of course Gilliam as well.

Members of production team I’ve spoken to all speak about how they would be happy to go the extra mile, even breaking union rules like demarcation, extras, because they knew they were working on something that was genuinely good. Was it a happy team, are there any crewmembers whose contributions you valued especially?

The pressure was on, always, even people like Ray (Millichope) and Ian (MacNaughton) who had done a lot of BBC work, to do something different, do things in a different way, and that sometimes brought up the greatest of friction between people.  It took a lot of time sometimes, in the editing rooms. But I think, yeah, they all thought ‘This is something new, and rather important, and rather valuable.’

❉ James Gent is editor of We Are Cult, and co-editor with Jon Arnold of Me And The Starman.

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