Michael Palin: “Inertia is my middle name”

31 Oct|Tom Hodgkinson

Tom Hodgkinson sits down with the amiable Python and discusses his career and John Cleese’s perfectionism.

I first interviewed Michael Palin about ten years ago and was delighted to pin him down to an event at Fenton House this year, at our first ever Idler Festival. Palin is deservedly renowned for being nice and in person he certainly lacks the egotism and importance that engulfs so many celebrities. Now 75, he was a Python before becoming a TV traveller. His latest book is called Erebus and is the story of a sailing ship, and he’s also recently released a documentary about North Korea. I chatted to him one very hot Saturday afternoon in July.

Tom Hodgkinson: Most people give up on fun and freedom after leaving university. But you carried on.

Michael Palin: Well I was lucky to be able to carry on having fun as a way of life, as a career, as a way of making money. Now, that is not usual. My parents were middle class parents from Sheffield and were very keen that I get a respectable job. For a long, long time when I was at Oxford, I had to pretend that I was going to be a doctor, or a banker, or a journalist, or just something vaguely respectable like that, while at the same time performing comedy, going with Oxford to the Edinburgh festival, which was terrific. And I remember thinking: this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. But I didn’t dare tell my parents that. The first job I got after Oxford was not anything to do with my second-class history degree: I was compering a TV pop show in Bristol. It was a show called, Now!, which became Then! very quickly, because we couldn’t afford the big musical acts.

TH: So, you had Herman’s Hermits rather than The Beatles?

MP: Well, Herman’s Hermits were big then. That would have been really something if we’d got Herman’s Hermits! We had one Hermit, maybe, but not all of them. Anyway, I ended up falling into this very, very fortunate position, doing what I wanted to do and what I enjoyed doing – which I had some talent for – and getting paid for it. I could so easily have gone the other way, I suppose, and done a respectable job. I did try and get a general traineeship at the BBC, but I failed.

My theory is that John Cleese wears out all the therapists he talks to

TH: John Cleese has been in the news. As far as I can see, from the perspective of a normal member of the public, he’s really big on therapy, but it doesn’t seem to have had any effect on his personality. He’s still very angry, let’s put it that way.

MP: My theory is that John wears out all the therapists he talks to – they’re broken by the end of it. These intelligent people are reduced to gibbering wrecks. And then John goes off to California. Dear John, he’s always looking for perfection – he’s looking for the perfect place to be and the perfect place to live. And he ended up in California, because it was warm. He and Eric have a great thing about being warm and comfortable, which I wouldn’t say is always the most important thing about your working life.

TH:It’s well known that perfectionism can be a source of unhappiness, because you obviously never find the perfect thing. Unlike many of your contemporaries, you have always stayed in London, not far from here in Hampstead, in a less fashionable area…

MP: Yes [laughs].

TH: … called Gospel Oak. You live in the same house, I think, that you bought in the 1960s. You either haven’t bothered to move or you just never felt the urge to go and live on a farm in the Cotswolds, with sheep in the garden, chickens running around and Jeremy Clarkson coming round for dinner. You didn’t have that fantasy?

MP: Ooh gosh, now that’s a fantasy I don’t think I’d like, really … I’ve lived in the same house for 50 years, and my wife and I have been married 52 years. Inertia is my middle name. I am quite busy, but I’m just not good at the competitive thing. I can stand up for myself in an argument, but I can’t sell myself at all. So, I just hope I’ll work with people who can sell whatever idea I’m involved in better than I can.

This is an extract from a longer interview which appears in Idler 63. Buy a copy here.