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The one that got away

Michael Palin is the meekest, mildest and nicest of the Pythons.

14 October 2009

12:00 AM

14 October 2009

12:00 AM

Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries, 1980-1988 Michael Palin

Weidenfeld, pp.621, 20

Michael Palin is the meekest, mildest and nicest of the Pythons. The latest chunk of his diaries traces his attempt during the 1980s to break away from his wacky colleagues and forge a film-making career in his own right. The title, Halfway to Hollywood, reflects his modest, circumspect nature. We first meet the millionaire filmstar living a monkish existence in Camden in 1980. He occupies an ordinary townhouse. His three children attend state schools. And he drives a Mini, albeit with a sun-roof. To concentrate on screen-writing he turns down $180,000 to appear in a Hollywood movie (you should multiply by about six to get today’s values) and a week later he goes to Hamleys, where he startles himself with his extravagance by spending £59.99 on a model railway kit which he’s dreamed of, he says, for 28 years. A little later he rejects ‘lavish inducements’ to do a week’s work on Yellowbeard, a Graham Chapman film, but when he’s summoned for jury service the next day he hasn’t the guile (or the calculation, perhaps) to use the film as a pretext to avoid his civic obligations. Discharged early from court, he waits for an hour ‘to claim my expenses,’ (tube ticket, sandwich) and seems baffled to find himself with nothing to do.

His sense of duty is powerfully developed. To highlight world hunger he joins a 24-hour celebrity starve-in and observes his fast to the final minute. At ten past midnight he sits down to a bowl of pasta (he’s precise about the time — presumably he started cooking at midnight exactly) but he scourges himself for the insincerity of his gesture. True hunger, he says, is not knowing where your next meal is coming from. When he promotes a book at a boys’ school, he signs 120 copies, each with a different quip or gag, knowing that the boys will compare afterwards and not wishing to disappoint them.

Palin has an exceptional ability to compartmentalise his gifts, to assign various aspects of his personality to various tasks, allowing no overlap. Because he’s on diary duty here, not comedy duty, these pages are almost entirely free of gags. Still, this is a brisk, pithy, amusing read, teeming with the writer’s inner life, crammed with high- quality observations — ‘all technological advances bring built-in dissatisfaction’ — and deft ink-pen sketches of his associates. He calls Sunday newspapers ‘that insidiously attractive substitute for experience’.Oddball quotes seem to drop into his pocket unbidden. His foot specialist, sawing away at a clingy veruca, says, ‘I’d have been a professional violinist if it hadn’t been for the war.’ He meets Bob Geldof at a party and they discuss the ethics of making TV commercials. ‘My morality is absolutely clear,’ says Geldof, ‘I just want to make lots and lots of money.’ Which Palin calls a ‘classic Cleesian position’.

At John Cleese’s west London home he notes that ‘the interior glitters and drips opulence and pictures’. The pair are acquaintances rather than intimates. ‘Lordly’ is Palin’s favourite word for Cleese, who can be difficult, demanding and histrionic. After several weeks working on a new Python script Cleese buries his head in his hands and wails, ‘We still haven’t got a film!’ Meeting Palin to discuss a project called ‘A Goldfish Called Wanda’, Cleese remarks of his mother, ‘She’s dreadfully stupid, completely neurotic, but I do like her.’ At his birthday party Palin comes across the 87-year-old cowering in a corner, reluctant to budge. ‘John would only say I was being a nuisance.’ Like her, Palin seems to have enjoyed being bossed around by the real-life Fawlty.

When A Fish Called Wanda becomes a hit in the US, Palin reckons his share of the royalties to be about $350,000 and off he goes to Lillywhites to splash out again, this time on a piece of luggage whose luxurious design astonishes him. It features not just canvas, he says, but leather.

This is the bag which will accompany him ‘Around the World in 80 Days.’ The book closes on the eve of that trip. Travel journalism isn’t the world he set out to conquer. But he conquered it all the same.

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