Michael Palin on live tours, lost sketches and the show that made Monty Python
We’re speaking to you about the DVD release of The New (In)Complete And Utter History Of Britain – a show you and Terry Jones made before Monty Python. We’re ashamed to admit we didn’t even know it existed…
No, you and millions of others; most of the world knew nothing about it. Terry and I had the idea that we would look at British history as if broadcast media existed the whole time. So, at the Battle Of Hastings, you’d have the victorious Normans interviewed after ‘the game’, like a sports report. Silly sketches, like an estate agent trying to sell somebody Stonehenge. In a strange way it gave birth to Monty Python because John Cleese called me in April 1969, and said, “Hello Michael, I’ve just seen that new series of yours with Terry – if you won’t be making any more of those, shall we get together?” I think it was quite ahead of its time, really.
Definitely. The idea of looking back at history has been attempted plenty of times in comedy since…
Yeah, well, Blackadder – I’m not saying there was any real similarity, but it was looking at history and trying to make comedy of it. But we were also looking at television as a medium – presenters with concerned voices, talking about the “state of Britain today” – which is what Python did a lot of, too.
The show covers a vast period of time. Do you have a favourite historical era, yourself?
The Romans are always quite good. I’ve got a feeling that they were very like us, in a way. They’re always sat around, having a drink. They had lovely houses, beautifully decorated. One of my favourite things I wrote for Python was the very liberal-minded Centurion [in Life Of Brian] who has to send people off to be crucified. He’s a good boy, and he’s been sent off to some godforsaken corner of the Empire where brutal things take place.
You and Terry writing together must have been good practice for Python, because you all wrote in pairs, right?
Yeah, we all wrote in little partnerships, sitting at a table.
It must have been quite stressful, having to present your sketches to the rest of the team…
I remember that being quite enjoyable, actually. When a sketch worked, and everyone found it funny, it was terrific. When you were onto a bummer, it wasn’t so good. I still remember reading them all ‘The Spanish Inquisition’, which was a ragged old sketch at the time, and it getting a couple of laughs.
Does anyone in Python still bear a grudge about one of their sketches that never made it?
Terry and I wrote what we thought was a funny sketch called ‘Vercotti New Town’, about a pair of Italian spiv gangsters who finance a new town on the side of a mountain in Glencoe. We thought it was funny, but it was overruled completely.
Tickets for the Python live shows in July sold out pretty much instantly. That must have been a nice feeling…
‘Relieved’ is the word I’d use. We had this mad rush of blood to the head and said, “Hey, let’s pay off all our debts with a couple of gigs”. Then suddenly you find out this ridiculous statistic that the tickets sold out in 43 seconds, which I don’t understand at all. It takes me that long to dial a number.
What have you got in store for the live shows?
It’ll be the first time we’ve ever done ‘Spanish Inquisition’ on stage. I’ll be nervous as hell about that [laughs]. Graham [Chapman] will be interwoven into the show with some good stuff on screen. It’ll be interesting to see how our systems cope…
Do you and the Python team still get on as a group?
We’re all on good terms. There have been ups and downs – people walking out of this, not wanting to join that – but we’re absolutely united over these live shows. We enjoy each other’s company, just for a short while [laughs].
What’s on the Python rider? Mountains of drugs and booze?
I just want somewhere to sit down. I don’t think I’ll need drugs. A nice bottle of wine would be good, for afterwards.
You also have an upcoming one-man show called Travelling To Work about going from comedian to travel presenter. What’s the worst place you’ve been to for a travel programme?
A place called Dno in Russia. We had to catch a train and there was no one on the platform but a bunch of feral children. The word ‘feral’ is overused, but these kids really were wild; they lived under the train wagons and they appeared like this mad army moving slowly towards us. I’ve never been happier to get out of somewhere alive.
The New (In)Complete Complete And Utter History Of Britain is out now on Blu-ray and DVD; check palinstravels.co.uk for Michael’s one-man show dates
(Image: Rex Features)