Best-known as a member of the British comedy group Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Michael Palin has also written and acted in numerous films and TV shows, hosted a slew of globetrotting travel programs and is the current president of the Royal Geographic Society. This man of many talents also combined the willpower he used to quit smoking with his boyhood passion for making lists (of footballers, of trains he’d seen and of movies he’d watched—“I used to put a comment at the end, and the comments ranged from ‘brilliant’ to ‘fabulous.’ There was not a single film that was bad.”) to create a series of decades-spanning diaries. The newest installment of the collection, Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-1988, which earned a starred review from Kirkus, covers the gradual end of Python and the ramping up of the author’s personal projects. Here, Palin talks to us about looking back on that busy decade.
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In the book’s introduction, you talk about the temptation to retroactively impose structure and reason on the events in the diary. What kind of structure do you see?
I see recurrent themes coming up in the diaries. Obviously comedy is something that’s very much a part of the diaries, not just writing and performing comedy, but just in my view of life, there’s a lot of humor in what I see.
Writing and how you write is very much a theme that goes all the way through. My writing partnership with Terry Jones, then with the Pythons, then with Terry Gilliam on Time Bandits, things like that. Trying to find the best way to write well, to write what I wanted to write.
Travel, really. There’s not a lot in these diaries that forecasts the traveler I became in 1988 onwards, but I think there’s quite a bit about places and trains and planes and going to different parts of the world.
But, day by day, things happen by accident, really. Accidental meeting of people sometimes. Judgments are made fully formed far too early. There’s one particular entry in the diary in which I see the script of A Fish Called Wanda, which John [Cleese] finally gives to me, and I just say, “How do I tell John this doesn’t work?” That particular day, at that particular time, to me, it was violent, it was too cruel, I couldn’t see that it would be funny. And, of course, a couple years latter when we make the film and you get the actors in place and you get the director, you realize that it’s a very, very strong comedy and the performances that make it. And if I hadn’t kept a diary, I think I’d have just said A Fish Called Wanda was a brilliant film, marvelous script, loved it from the first moment. So it’s quite interesting to see there was a time when I had a lot of doubts about it. And doubt is a theme of the diaries, I have to say. Doubt about all the things I’m doing and how good they are and what they’re worth and all that.
You also say that the diaries show a person who isn’t sure what he wants to do or is particularly qualified to do. Have you sorted that out now?
No. I’ve never really settled down to what I could do or do best. I like making travel shows, but I’m always very conscious of the fact that you’ve got to be better each time. I love writing fiction, but I’ve only written one novel, and I’ve got another I’m just sort of completing. I like acting, but not so much that I want to do anything that’s around. So it’s a constant sort of doubt, which is, I think, probably, at the back of it all, a good thing, and I’m very glad I feel that way because it makes everything you do feel fairly fresh.
Were there moments that were particularly difficult to revisit?
Yes. The area of my sister’s death and her suicide, which I kind of felt I’ve got two choices here—one is to put it in; one is not to put it in. If I don’t put it in, it’s like this whole process of, if someone dies by their own hand, they’re kind of written out, you know. It’s like some terrible lapse. And they’re almost written out of one’s life and of the history, and it’s so ridiculous because my sister and I, we weren’t that close, but we spent quite a lot of time together, especially towards the end, and I found her on the whole great fun and terrific and am still utterly mystified by what she did. But I felt that it was important to deal with it because it’s such an important part of my life at the time and her decline and seeing her decline. But it was difficult to go through that, yeah. Very difficult. And seeing my mother getting iller and older and more frail at the end. That was uncomfortable too. But that’s the way things are, you know? Time moves on.
Were you concerned about people’s reactions to the publication of the diaries?
Yes, I suppose I was. If I had been really worried, if I thought there was something there that would ruin friendships forever, I don’t think I would have kept it in. But I suppose the area where I talk in most detail about relationships is probably with my fellow Pythons. And we did have a complex relationship. We didn’t all have the same lifestyles. And sometimes that impinged on the work. And so there are little struggles there. But I always felt that, deep down, my affection for the Pythons and my enjoyment of what we did when we did it well was so strong that perhaps there was almost a danger of being too sycophantic about our work, and I wanted to make sure that I kept in the things that I felt at the time were difficult and were uncomfortable and inhibited our relations every now and then. But we’re all still friends, I think. Nobody has written me any poison-pen letters. Terry Gilliam wanted more of himself in it. “Not enough about me in it,” he said. I said, “Terry, these are my diaries. Get out.”