The Python Years: Diaries 1969-1979 by Michael Palin – Reviewed

Published December 25, 2014 by tootingtrumpet
Keeping matters in hand - on the set of Jabberwocky

Keeping matters in hand – on the set of Jabberwocky

I like diaries. Of course, there’s the frisson of excitement that comes with looking at anything forbidden, the pulling back of a curtain and the peek inside the life of another. But, aside from the voyeurism, three other structural qualities give the reader of diaries a real thrill.

Firstly, the roles of writer and reader are reversed. There is no omniscient narrator slowly revealing the plot to us, the denouement held back just long enough for that oh so satisfying resolution. It’s us, comfortably sitting in 2014, who know the diarist’s future not them!

Secondly, one is immersed in a permanent present, each day self-contained and as likely to butt up against Triumph or Disaster as any other day. And one can track one’s own parallel life too – the months and years at the tops of the pages as much a map for one’s own memory as for the entries of the writer.

Thirdly, one sees the doubts, the paths not trodden, the sheer chance of life explicitly – diarists do not plot a route to becoming Prime Minister at 45, they muddle through as much in thrall to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as the rest of us. They’re lifted from our lives of opportunities missed or refused only partly by talent – it’s hard not to conclude that it’s as much luck, energy and boldness that defines a person’s life as the dead hand of socio-economic class etc etc etc.

These observations seem to cut through all diaries, whether the politics and positivity of Tony Benn, the decency and melancholy of Chris Mullin, the snobbery and gossip of Sir Roy Strong or the wit and tragedy of Kenneth Williams. So it’s no surprise at all to find them applying to Michael Palin’s Diaries, the first volume of which is an ascent from post-Oxbridge umming and ahhing to global megastardom with the Pythonic apotheosis, “The Life Of Brian”.

Palin is, of course, a notoriously decent cove, something that shines through on page after page. He sees the best in people and that sunny disposition means (as so often) people return the favour by seeing the best in him – he’s good company. He’s not without his frustrations: Graham Chapman’s boozing; John Cleese’s eye on the cash and a certain impatience with unionised film crews come through strongly; but nothing like as strongly as his respect for the talents of others. Though not prey to false modesty, Palin knows that his fellow Pythons are immensely gifted too and this combination of egos (incredibly) holds together on this gossamer-thin thread of multilateral respect, as they are tossed on the stormy seas of international fame. There is, of course, much to be said in any relationship for the ability to make one another laugh – and they never stop doing that.

Other names outside the magic circle flit in and out of shot: a charity football match vs Radio One, in which Ed Stewart plays a blinder in goal; The Secret Policeman’s Ball with Peter Cook’s virtuoso judgement on Jeremy Thorpe; George Harrison, all quiet decency and sly scouse humour. Nobody is given short shrift: even John Belushi (who surely can’t have been easy to work with, jetting in and out of Saturday Night Live) comes across well.

Insights pop up on almost every page. One of the best half-hour comedies in the BBC’s rich history of the format, “The Testing of Eric Olthwaite” was filmed between his father’s death and the memorial service a week later. Pre-Diana, that was the way things were. The now classic “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” that closes “Brian” was received “coolly” by the Pythons at a preliminary read-through. The brilliantly funny School Leopard in “Tomkinson” was an ad-lib, the sequence dropped in later.

There’s more, much more, as we sit in on the creation, execution and (though there’s rather more of it than I would like) marketing of some of comedy’s highest peaks. What’s remarkable is the willingness of the Pythons to maintain so much control over their work, regardless of its impact on their lives. Each of them write, perform and direct (or otherwise work on casting, editing etc) day-in, day-out, the inspiration seemingly on tap and available at 2.00pm – 5.00pm between a morning spent acting and an evening schmoozing potential investors. Perspiration trumping inspiration yet again on the production of great art.

Though in the late 70s, Palin and co are cushioned by substantial (but nothing by today’s standards) pots of cash (even travelling by Concorde can be hard work), the ordeals involved in filming “Holy Grail”, “Jabberwocky” and “Brian”, all of which demanded much of Palin’s good humour, physical fitness and will to succeed, the business of making films is gruelling and would break lesser men. Palin’s feet were fixed firmly to the ground by (it has to be said, cliche though it may be) dollops of Northern common sense, ordinary domestic arrangements (wife and three kids in North London house with Mini parked outside) and a keen curiosity in everything – the urge to travel, manifest in later life, pokes through the narrative regularly. Quite how characters less anchored than Palin survived such workloads is a story in itself – some, of course, did not.

There are few laugh-out-loud passages in the diaries – there seldom are in this format – the need to get things down at the start or the end of busy days with no time for rewrites is hardly a recipe for style. But the ordinary prose about extraordinary events leads to a rhythm that makes the volume unputdownable. I’ve already downloaded Volume II and I know I’ll do the same for Volume III.

Thanks Michael – see you again soon.


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