The Monty Python star talks to Julia Llewellyn Smith about returning to TV drama after more than 20 years in The Wipers Times, his plan for a Python travel show and the secret of his long marriage.
The Wipers Times: Michael Palin as General Mitford in the BBC Two drama about the satirica
By Julia Llewellyn Smith
7:00AM BST 11 Sep 2013
Many of us have forgotten that Michael Palin ever used to be an actor. In the 1980s, the former Monty Python star made a string of lauded films, including A Private Function and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But since starring in Alan Bleasdale’s acclaimed 1991 drama GBH, Palin has rejected all dramatic roles in favour of globetrotting, making his nine, wildly popular BBC travel series, most recently Brazil.
But now, after more than two decades away, he’s finally returning to his roots, with a part in The Wipers Times, a one-off BBC drama written by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, based on the true story of a satirical newspaper produced in the trenches of the First World War.
Why the return, after so long? “I’m quite a fan of Ian and I thought it was a great story,” explains Palin, who himself had a great uncle who died at the Somme. “I’d never seen something about what basically is the place of humour in war. Usually, you just hear about the grim realities, but humour is such an important way of dealing with terrible things. It was a humour that came from the military life, from a very rough, authoritarian, hierarchical structure where all the people at the bottom could do was laugh at the people up above. It’s what Private Eye does now and Python did in its time, so it seemed a perfect fit.”
Despite the long break, Palin, a lean, still boyish 70, has always considered himself foremost an actor. “At school I was always in plays. At Oxford, the first thing I did was enrol in the amateur dramatic society. It’s predominantly what I did for the first 25 years of my career.” What stopped him wasn’t a shortage of offers. “There’ve been plenty, but I have a low boredom threshold and they’re often for things with a long commitment. People ask: ‘Will you do a theatre run?’ and I think: ‘Six months every evening, do I really want to go back to that?’ Or I’m sent film scripts that are frankly not that great, I’ve done some great films in my time, like A Fish Called Wanda, so I’m a bit fussy. Or I’m asked to do a lot of cameos in big Hollywood movies, playing a butler, who gets pushed into the pool. That’s not interesting.
“Travel just offered so much more excitement, everywhere you go you’re presented with a different culture, set of food, people reacting to you in a different way. It’s always kept sharp.”
Some might find this point of view positively masochistic. Alan Whicker, Clive James, Miles Kington and – amazingly – Noel Edmonds all rejected fronting Around the World in 80 Days – “presumably they thought it sounded too uncomfortable,” smiles Palin, blue eyes crinkling. “But to me, the idea of being driven to a set in a limo and sitting in a trailer reading magazines all day, to come out and shoot for one minute is pretty deadly. You compare it to when we travel, we start sometimes at six o’clock in the morning, we come back at seven o’clock at night, we’ve all been working flat out and there’s no better feeling.”
His reputation is as the “nice” Python, married for 47 years to Helen and living almost as long in his north London house; a beacon of stability compared to his fellow Python John Cleese, who’s now on his fourth marriage and owns mansions all over the world. But there’s a whirling jitteriness at Palin’s core, that makes him recoil from easy options. “I’ve been blessed, or cursed, with an insatiable curiosity,” he says of his travels, and the same inquisitiveness applies to his own life. “Things have to be fresh, as soon as anything becomes predictable I have to move on.”
It is by indulging this restlessness in travelling that his domestic life has remained so stable. “‘People say: ‘How can you stay married when you’re always away?’ That’s how you stay married: you’re away.”
He could have long retired, instead he’s continued plugging away at a portfolio career that, as well as the TV and film work, has included being president of the Royal Geographical Society and patronage of The Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children (his father had a pronounced stammer: “It made him very confrontational and me, as a reaction, very conciliatory.”)
There may, BBC enthusiasm permitting, be another travel series. In July, he published his second novel, The Truth, to enthusiastic reviews. “It’s the writing I probably enjoy most because I always feel I could make it better, whereas acting is something intuitive, you can either do it or you can’t and I find it rather worrying that I can.”
Still, he was “very nervous” his first day on set in Belfast for The Wipers Times, playing General Mitford, the newspaper’s sole official supporter, alongside Ben Chaplin and Julian Rhind-Tutt.
“I was thinking: ‘Am I going to be able to switch [my acting ability] back on?’ But once I got going, I felt very comfortable. Just occasionally, I’d be playing a scene and I’d realise I’d forgotten worrying about remembering my lines, that what I was saying just seemed a completely natural reaction to what the other actor was saying. It brought back great moments with Cleese or Maggie Smith [they appeared together in A Private Function and The Missionary], when you get so much back and you think ‘This is really good, it isn’t acting, it’s just having a sort of game.’ Plus, I enjoyed having to wear moustaches again – that took me back to Python days when a moustache had to be stuck on just before you did anything.”
Ah, Python. Whatever his other achievements, to a certain segment of the population Palin will always be best loved for playing a cross-dressing lumberjack or the Life of Brian’s disgruntled ex-leper. “It’s strange really,” he muses. “Python was very much a cult programme, on late at night, deliberately pushed into obscure corners of the schedule by the BBC. It never appeared in the ratings. But the people who enjoyed it, really, really enjoyed it, so it lives on.”
Were there groupies? He laughs. “Not glamorous ones. Python groupies are a special breed – I have to be careful what I say here – I think a lot of them had slightly difficult lives from which I think Python and laughter released them. Elvis Presley loved it and when I met my hero Johnny Cash, the first thing he said was: ‘I’m a huge Python fan.’”
But again, as soon as he sensed Python’s standards were slipping, he wanted to move on. “Originally what we were doing was so risky, but by the 1980s, the world had become so much more sophisticated, that there suddenly wasn’t much around that was strikingly different any more.”
Not surprisingly, he dismisses recent rumours of a Python reunion. “Although working with them on something new could be interesting.” It turns out Palin’s toying with the inspired idea of a Python-presented travel programme, with each Python presenting a segment from round the globe. “I think the other Pythons probably could make better travel documentaries than me, but they’re all very busy. So who knows what I’ll occupy myself with next. Maybe playing the trombone? So long as it’s different. I just never want to go through the motions.”
The Wipers Times is on BBC Two on Wednesday 9 September at 9.00pm