Michael Palin: “If you can’t laugh at yourself you’re doomed’

TV legend Michael Palin talks to TV Times magazine about receiving the BAFTA Fellowship, becoming a granddad and why he’s not quite as nice as you might think…

Congratulations on being awarded the BAFTA Fellowship. How are you feeling?
“It’s terrific to be given something like this, but I’m terribly worried about saying the wrong thing and being in the right place! The night itself is a bit nerve-racking in case you drop the award or get the name of your most important influence wrong!”

Did you ever think you’d get this far in your career?
“My dad was dead set against me doing anything to do with showbiz and Sheffield was not the creative hub that it is now! I was resigned to being a copywriter at an advertising agency at best.”

You met future Monty Python collaborator Terry Jones at Oxford, which took you to the Edinburgh Festival. After finishing your degree you then began presenting a TV pop show called Now!…
“It wasn’t terribly successful, but it made me enough money to get married, pay the mortgage and keep going. Then along came Do Not Adjust Your Set, which led to Monty Python.”

It must have been a very exciting time…
“We had a meeting at the BBC with Michael Mills, the then Head of Comedy, in one of those bland, faceless rooms with a number like B733 on it. He asked us questions about the series, none of which we could answer and then he just stood up and said, “All right, I’ll give you 13 shows, but that’s all!” It was the greatest sentence of my career!”

We bet you never imagined it to take off like it did…
“It’s very strange. Monty Python was very much taken up by the young computer generation that came along in the 1970s and 1980s. The nerds loved it, so when they needed something to describe unwanted material coming across the internet they chose the word ‘spam’ because of our silly sketch. It’s extraordinary.”

You also turned adventurer when you agreed to present the first of many travel series, Around the World in 80 Days…
“It came out of the blue – the BBC just rang me up and told me about the idea. It appealed to me because I’d never really traveled and I thought this would be a chance to see China and America. It was only later that the director confided in me that I was the fifth person they’d asked to do it!”

How did you feel about taking on the challenge?
“I was a bit nervous of how to do it. Was I supposed to be an actor? Was I supposed to be me? Nothing could be more boring than me with my rather pathetic repartee, not being able to get tickets because I couldn’t speak the language! But oddly enough people quite liked it.”

When we look at your career, it’s certainly been varied…
“The mix of things I’ve done is quite satisfying. It’s not easy because people do like to pin you down, but that’s just the way I am. I’m somebody who goes around looking for ways to entertain people.”

How do you feel about being known as a Mr Nice Guy?
“I like getting on with people and I think that’s mistaken for being nice. I prefer conciliation to confrontation and I enjoy my life.”

You’ve been married to your wife Helen for 47 years…
“Forty-seven years seems dreadfully unadventurous, what on earth do we have to talk about! Family is important to me and I’m a believer that if you find somebody you love then that’s an important thing and you should stay with it.”

And we hear your family is growing…
“We’ve got two grandsons now, which is terrific. It’s like a new breed of Pythons being born – very silly people with whom you can do daft things!”

What do your children make of you being a comedy icon?
“If I try to make a joke my eldest son has got a wonderful way of sending me up. He laughs very loudly and says, “Ho, ho, ho, Dad that’s a good one!” There’s a lot of humour when we get together, but my children do see me as this slightly ridiculous figure who is paid to make jokes and go round the world!”

Is comedy vital, do you think?
“Comedy is absolutely essential. I can’t deal with people who have no sense of humour – if you can’t laugh at yourself and the world then you’re doomed.”

Have you ever entertained the notion of retirement?
“What would I retire from? I’ve never really had a proper job. If my father were still alive he’d be incandescent!”


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