Michele Hewitson Interview: Michael Palin

By Michele Hewitson

One-time Python, at 69, is still boyishly nice in the way that little clever boys can be nice. In fact, he may even be the nicest chap in Britain

When the Michael Palin smile arrives, the Mr Grumpy he claims to be disappears. Picture / Natalie Slade
When the Michael Palin smile arrives, the Mr Grumpy he claims to be disappears. Picture / Natalie Slade

An hour with Michael Palin. That'll be jolly nice, I thought, and so would have anyone. He'll be chatty and friendly and a bit funny, but not in a smartypants way, and above all he will be jolly nice. Well, he's Michael Palin, isn't he? And we all know what Michael Palin's like. I do, apparently.

There was an awful moment of confusion when we met because I said it was nice to see him and he said "again!" To the best of my knowledge I have never met him before, but he was certain I'd interviewed him last time he was in Auckland. I did do a telephone interview with him a long time before that, which I really had forgotten, so perhaps he's right and somehow all evidence of this other in-person interview has disappeared from the archives ... Perhaps he was just being nice.

Anyway, this made for an awkward beginning. If it had been almost anyone else I'd have said: "You must have been drunk the last time you were here," but you can't say things like that to Michael Palin, now can you? He's awfully, Englishly, polite for one thing and also, I wouldn't want to hurt his feelings.

He is, I think, quite sensitive, but why I think this I have no idea - perhaps I noted it the last time I didn't interview him. I'm being a bit silly and must stop it. Because, despite all of the Monty Python dead parrots and fish slapping dances and lumberjack songs, that was a very long time ago, and he's not generally very silly, really, is he?

"Oh, yeah! On the inside. I behave perfectly normally; the right shoes are on the right feet. I don't dress up as mad carrots." Did he really say mad carrots? I'm not absolutely certain, but it's so silly, I'm going to choose to believe he did. He said: "I do appreciate silliness."

A mad person told me I had to ask him whether he did Gumby flower arranging at home and I said, don't be silly, of course I'm not going to ask him that. (If you don't know what Gumby flower arranging is you haven't lived - go to You Tube immediately. In the meantime I can tell you it involves wearing suspenders, a knotted hanky on your head, and shouting a lot at flowers.) I asked: "Do you do Gumby flower arranging at home?"

"No, I don't!" he said. He may actually have shouted this, in a Gumby sort of way. I thought, "Oh, dear. What an idiot I am. Imagine asking Michael Palin such a stupid question. Now he'll be grumpy." He can be very grumpy, he says, and apparently his children - he and his wife of 46 years, Helen, have three grown up ones - call him Mr Grumpy. He did look, briefly, a bit like a Mr Grumpy, but then he cheered up and his face crinkled in that lovely friendly way his face does when he smiles. He had a thought. He could do Gumby flower arranging for his grandchildren. They are 3 and 6. "They'd love Gumby flower arranging! I'll have to try and do it for them."

He said: "Well, I think I must be rather disappointing to people who want me to be a Python." Yes, those people who do the skits, with the daft voices, after a few drinks. "Yes. I'm sure. Ha, ha. I can usually avoid that situation. I'm not sort of embarrassed about it and I do talk about it. I'm very happy to talk about Python until the cows come home, but I'm not going to stand up and do lumberjack songs. Unless I want to do it."

On what occasions could he possibly want to do lumberjack songs? "Well, if I'm telling funny stories." When he's drunk? "No, no, no!" Does he ever get drunk? "There's too many questions! I'm still on the first one! Yes, I get drunk and sing lumberjack songs!"

I wish I believed this, but I can't. He's too buttoned up. Here's a description of his telly manner from a review of Brazil: "Palin is so polite and buttoned up and British that he is almost invisible." Weirdly, I think that is supposed to be complimentary. But what does he think of it? "I don't mind as long as I'm doing my work. I really believe that you are judged by your work, by what you do. Why you do it, and who you are underneath it, I wish I knew. It would be very nice if I could say: 'Well, I do this and that for this reason.' I mean, for instance, you ask me things which I can't actually help you out with sometimes, because I don't know the answer myself. That's sort of me not quite knowing why I do what I do and if that comes out as being buttoned up, that's not being evasive, it's just that I don't really know!" That was something of a relief. Because you'd think (or I did) that he'd be easy to interview - chatty and all of that - and perhaps he is if you stick to the books or the telly series. He once said, in an interview, in response to a question about once walking out of an interview (in his own home!) that: "I don't want to be analysed." He says it's more about scrutiny and feeling like something in a laboratory being poked at. "I guess I'm uncomfortable when people are interested in me. I'm more of an observer, really."

He is widely held to be a very good actor but he hardly does any acting these days. (He says the person we see on the telly, in his travel shows, is "pretty close to my natural self".) Acting is too analytical for his taste, perhaps? "Yeah, possibly it is. Yes, well, it is a covering up of what you are." Also, he says acting is being bossed around and so involves a lack of control and that is something he doesn't much enjoy - which tells you quite a lot about him without having to put him in a Petri dish and watch him wriggle.

He is rotten at accepting compliments, really. Although he is too polite to ignore them - he said "thank you" when I said he was a very good actor but he also almost flinched. I'm sorry to have noticed but I was there to have a gawk at him, which is another word for scrutiny. You don't have to do much of that to note that he is terribly accomplished at self-deprecation.

One of his greatest achievements, according to him, was the "Nasal retention" required for the chip up the nose scene in A Fish Called Wanda. "I was quite pleased with that. I might put that on my CV. Nasal retention a speciality," he said, happily, being silly on the outside as well as deflecting any further discussion of his brilliance.

He is a cliche of himself now, of course. I would never have been so rude as to have said so. He did. He mentioned a review which said he'd become like Prince Charles, going around the world shaking hands. He thought this was a good review. "Oh God. He's touched on something, which is what I feel myself sometimes. It's quite interesting, because what I think that what happens over a certain period, however natural you are, you become a cliche for being yourself."

The big cliche about Michael Palin - and saying it is guaranteed to bring out the Mr Grumpy within - is that he is the nicest chap in Britain. I read a very funny headline: "The dark knight rises: Perhaps Michael Palin isn't the nicest chap in Britain after all". That made me laugh my head off. Good try, I thought. When I told him this he didn't quite laugh his head off, but he didn't come over all grumpy either. You couldn't blame him if he did. Who would want to be the nicest chap in Britain? It makes him sound like a particularly British pudding: sweet and comforting but not memorable. "It's just such a bland word. And being nice to people ... that's what most people do, actually, isn't it? I wouldn't say that it's particularly my defining characteristic. It's like treacle. You put your foot in and you can't quite get out." I asked him, a bit later, if he read A.A. Gill whose defining characteristic is most certainly not jammy sponge and custard and he said, not terribly nicely: "I wouldn't go out of my way to."

Now that really did make me laugh, because really, that was a good try at being a bit rude which failed almost completely.

Of course he's bloody nice; it'd be daft to deny it (and he doesn't). And he's still boyishly nice, at 69, in the way that little clever boys can be nice. He's whimsical and curious and endearingly silly. You wouldn't be surprised, if you asked him to turn out his pockets, to find that in them he keeps a pocket knife and marbles and some stamps from his collection. He is supposed to collect stamps. He did as a child. He says he is collecting them again now in the hope that his grandchildren will one day be interested although he holds out no hope of this, really.

"So it will be me going back in my dotage to becoming a stamp collector again!" He likes this idea, or at least likes telling people about it because it makes him sound boring. And who'd want to scrutinise a boring person?

He's so nice, I'd read, that he is the only Python currently speaking to all of the other Pythons. He said, well, I'd have to ask them because he doesn't know who is currently on speaking terms and who is not. He of course likes them all and likes to see them all. "They may not like to see me. I don't know." Oh now really. That is taking self-deprecation to ludicrous lengths. So, I said, not a bit nicely: "Why would they?"

"Exactly! Exactly! Ha, ha! They probably think this is another of Michael's silly illusions." In the same way he thinks he's nice. "Yeah, he thinks he's nice! He's fallen for it!"

Did I? Yes, of course I did, but he's much more interesting and complicated than some nice old duffer who goes around the world shaking hands. The bad news for him is that this makes people like me want to go and gawk at him.

- NZ Herald

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