03 May 13
Presenter, writer and Monty Python star Michael Palin was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship, BAFTA’s highest honour, at the Arqiva British Academy Television Awards in 2013.
Photo Credit: BAFTA/ Stephen ButlerFrom the experiences he has enjoyed during his globetrotting television career one might assume Michael Palin is an unflappable sort of chap. But Palin confessed that the news about receiving the BAFTA Fellowship, in recognition of the eclectic mix of his achievements in the public eye, took him aback.
The Fellowship is the highest honour that BAFTA can bestow and a marks the Academy's recognition of Palin's outstanding career. The Award was presented by Palin's Monty Python co-star Terry Jones who gave a heartfelt speech of admiration on stage at the Television Awards ceremony in May 2013.
Expand to read more about Palin's career...
Starting out as a television writer for series such as The Frost Report, it wasn't long before Michael found himself in front of the camera. He is fondly remembered as a founding member of world-renowned comedy group Monty Python , featuring in such classics as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Holy Grail and Life of Brian. Michael’s intelligence, wit and masterful creativity were crucial elements to Monty Python’s success.
Since the Python days Palin has continued to work on critically acclaimed televised series, becoming a household name with a firm and lasting place in the nation's hearts. He has presented some of the most recognised travel documentaries on television including Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Sahara and more recently Brazil with Michael Palin.
I’m well aware that any success I’ve had is down to team-work. I’ve been blessed throughout my career with the inspiration and support of others. The Fellowship is for all of us.
In this interview originally conducted for the 2013 Television Awards brochure, Palin discusses his long and successful career in front of the camera as well as revealing his surprise at being 'thought of' for the BAFTA Fellowship.
BAFTA/ Sarah DunnHow did it feel when you learned that you were going to be a BAFTA Fellow?
Well, I was a bit knocked back. I wasn’t expecting it. There’s not that many people who get Fellowships, so I thought this was serious stuff. I felt very appreciated, I suppose, is the word. It’s very, very nice that people should think that your work has a certain consistency over the years. You can look back on it and not be too embarrassed by it, and in fact feel you have produced something which people think is worthy of a Fellowship. That’s great.
You’re in fine company – Martin Scorsese, Morecambe and Wise, Sir David Frost, and the likes…
I know, I know. Don’t tell me or I’ll begin to get sweaty and worry about it.
What does BAFTA represent to you?
Very good viewing theatres [laughs]. I’ve obviously been involved in BAFTA work, BAFTA events, BAFTA ceremonies over the years. It’s the way, I suppose, that they look at television, they support television, they discuss television. It’s a place where the medium is taken very seriously.
And it’s always been there as a sort of guiding light behind television. Keeping an eye on television, keeping an eye on what it does and what it produces. And, I like to think, keeping the standards up, too.
BAFTA/ Sarah DunnWas there a moment when you realised this was what you wanted to do in life?
People have been asking me that, and I do go back to a certain point when I was 21. It was 1964, and I appeared in a revue done by the Oxford University Revue Group in Edinburgh. And that was playing, for the first time, to an audience that wasn’t your friends and pals.
Myself and four others wrote and performed the revue, and it did very well. I just had a feeling then that if you can entertain an international audience in a fringe festival for three weeks and get packed houses every night, possibly there’s a way of making a living out of it.
I wasn’t sure, and my parents – certainly my father – were guiding me away from the theatre and the stage, but it was what I could do best really. And I could also write. It was thanks to David Frost enlisting myself and Terry [Jones] for The Frost Report, then Humphrey Barclay choosing me for the Do Not Adjust Your Set series in 1967, with David Jason, Denise Coffey, Eric [Idle] and Terry Jones.
And then Python, this little group, the six of us getting together, comedy anarchists as we were then. I think I took I took the right course in the end.
Was it more thrilling than terrifying, going up on stage that first time?
It wasn’t terrifying, oddly enough. I think I’m far more scared of going up on stage now and proving myself than I was then. I think there’s a lot to be said for when you’ve nothing to lose, and certainly no reputation, you can be what you want to be.
They didn’t even know my name, I was just that guy who does that sketch, it’s either funny or it’s not funny. Once you have a reputation, then people lay that on you each time, and you feel ‘My God, I’ve got to be as good as the last thing I did’. But that’s important, that keeps the standards up, that’s part of it. I found going up on stage then much easier than I do now.
Who would you say were your major influences when you started out?
Well, in comedy, Spike [Milligan] and Peter Sellers, and The Goons. Spike particularly, because I thought, ‘How does anybody write this completely off the-wall stuff?’ It is so unlike anything else, so free with the medium, so silly. Thirty seconds of total silence – how do you do that in a show? Sellers because I thought he was just a wonderful comic actor, and still do. His timing was absolutely superb. I was just listening to the Songs For Swinging Sellers the other day, the album that George Martin produced. It’s just brilliant stuff. He’s a great actor too, so there’s Sellers, Spike and I suppose Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I was a great admirer of their work.
Who would you say were your major influences when you started out?
Well, in comedy, Spike [Milligan] and Peter Sellers, and The Goons. Spike particularly, because I thought, ‘How does anybody write this completely off-the-wall stuff?’ It is so unlike anything else, so free with the medium, so silly. Thirty seconds of total silence – how do you do that in a show?
Sellers because I thought he was just a wonderful comic actor, and still do. His timing was absolutely superb. I was just listening to the Songs For Swinging Sellers the other day, the album that George Martin produced. It’s just brilliant stuff. He’s a great actor too, so there’s Sellers, Spike and I suppose Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I was a great admirer of their work.
Not a bad list...
Not a bad list, no, that’s true. But I think you discover your own way of doing it. I don’t think we ever modelled ourselves on exactly what had gone before, although I think Spike felt that Python pinched a lot from him. We did pinch some silliness from him, but silliness you have to create yourself. I’ve always felt you’ve got to add something new... You may pay tribute to the people who’ve taught you this or inspired you, but in the end you’ve got to produce your own particular thing that is distinctive.
And that, I think, has been something that’s been quite important in my career. Always make sure it’s something you feel you can do. Not just fit into a general sort of blank, and say, ‘I can fill this blank’. It’s got to be something you really want to do, and then said in your own way with your own conviction.
IFCWith Monty Python being regarded as comedy innovators, you certainly fulfilled that...
I think with Python and also with Ripping Yarns, no one’s quite done anything like that. And I suppose, with the travel, I feel that in the end – although I didn’t set out to do it in the way that I’ve done it – it’s kind of developed with me being me.
I thought nothing could be more dull than Michael Palin going round the world, unable to speak a language and doing his rather poor repartee. But in a way, audiences liked the fact that I could be that vulnerable, and so I think I’ve done it in a way that no one else could do.
Were you always adventurous?
Theoretically I was adventurous. Practically I was probably a bit lazy. In my career, I’ve always depended on people giving me a little push here and there. There was a guy I met at university called Robert Hewison who pushed me into doing stand-up comedy shows at Oxford, which led to the revue.
Terry Jones sort of pushed me into writing with him when I left university. The Pythons all pushed me along. I’ve always had a sense of adventure in acting, in writing, in travelling, whatever. But I needed someone to push me into it.
If I’d just sat around and said, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ I probably wouldn’t have gone round the world or done Monty Python, but that’s what friends and contacts are for.
I remember you saying you used to read about the places you eventually visited...
I was born and brought up in Sheffield in the 1950s, and Nottingham was as far as we ever went for our travels, so I read an awful lot about the outside world. I lived through maps, atlases, National Geographic magazines, Biggles stories set in the Gobi Desert.
Even people who came to our church, who’d been missionaries, and would tell you what it was like doing a mass baptism in the Limpopo. They’d lost their arms, being bitten off by an alligator. That was the world out there. I thought I’d never see it but at least I could enjoy it through other peoples’ eyes. So it’s been quite a reversal, me being the pair of eyes for a lot of other people.
Maybe that’s the attraction, you bring the ‘common touch’ to it?
I think that’s probably it, there’s no expertise at all. I’m reasonably well educated, I’m curious, I can ask questions, but I’m not extremely clued up on world politics, sociology, anthropology, all the things that someone like David Attenborough, who I regard as a great entertainer as well as a specialist, is really good at.
I’m not specialist, but I think very often I’m a bit like an ‘everyman’ figure. We all have a curiosity about things, and sometimes being too smart or too clever, or pretending you know everything when you don’t is the danger. It’s probably better just to admit that you’re learning as you go along, which is what my travel programmes are about, I think. I’m learning as I go along.
You’ve had huge success in comedy, writing and your travel programmes – do you have any other ambitions?
I’d love to have been able to play guitar and appear at Glastonbury or something like that. But I can’t play a musical instrument, I missed that part of my life.
There’s always air guitar...
Oh yes, I can do the air guitar. I’m very content, really, with the things I’ve done. And the fact that I’ve never over specialised is quite nice. It means you can go off in certain directions. I wrote a novel last year. This year, I’m making another arts documentary about an American painter called Andrew Wyeth, which is one of five that I’ve done over the years, and is a bit different. I’m very lucky to be able to pick and choose what I do next. The main thing is doing whatever you do with conviction, and doing it well. I don’t ever want to coast along just making programmes. There’s a terrible thrill, a sweaty moment when you’re just about to start doing something and you don’t know whether it’s going to be the worst thing you’ve ever done or the best thing you’ve ever done. Just go for it. That’s important.
Speaking of which, what do you think is the best thing you’ve ever done? What are your career highlights?
Well, I always say the fish-slapping dance [in Monty Python], because I think that is just a perfect little moment of television. There are just so many things in that 45 seconds, I feel it couldn’t have been done any better.
In terms of acting, I would say Alan Bleasdale’s GBH. That was demanding, and a terrifically powerful script. I really enjoyed doing that, trying to get that right. I feel quite proud of what I did there.
And the travel as well. What makes me most satisfied about the travel programmes is that I’ve made obscure countries really popular. So I can go to Niger, which is the 192nd poorest country in the world, and get an audience of 8 million people watching. I just think that’s terrific. If the schedules said, ‘Tonight there’ll be a programme about Niger, the 192nd ranked country in the world,’ I don’t think many people would tune in. But if you make it part of a journey, and shown through the eyes of a traveller, you hook people who would never have seen these places. That’s quite an achievement.
When you started out you were an outsider lampooning the mores and etiquettes of the Establishment. After a hugely successful career, do you feel part of the Establishment now?
That was an illusion. I was never really an outsider. I was from a middle class family, went to a public school and a top university. I was sort of Establishment. In a way, Python was insiders poking fun at our little world.
I do hope that there’s a never a point where I become ‘the Establishment’, but of course you get a CBE or a Lifetime Achievement Award and all that sort of thing, and suddenly you realise that to certain people they recognise you have achieved something and are part of a widest possible Establishment, the Establishment who’ve achieved something and done something successful.
For instance, I was asked to be president of the Royal Geographical Society, and I would say that is the Establishment shaking your hand warmly. But actually it wasn’t, it’s how you deal with it. I felt I was stepping into the shoes of all these great travellers, Sir John Hunt and all that. In fact, I did it my way, and introduced an element of humour and lightness going out to the membership, which I could do and perhaps others couldn’t.
So each time I’ve done anything I feel I’ve done it in the way only I could do it. That’s important – I never, ever think sitting there and being patted on the head is a good thing. You’ve got to make sure that you may get patted on the head, but the next morning you start all over again.
What advice would you give for aspiring artists and performers?
I think, be bold. I knew what I could do and also enjoyed doing, which was acting and writing. But how things turned out for me depended on taking a risk at a certain time, taking the gamble that you actually could do something differently from the way other people did it. You have to have something to give.
The second thing is consider the virtue of collaboration and teamwork. Getting somebody else to work with, or working with people you absolutely trust, is very, very important. Throughout my career, from Monty Python right through to my travels, I’ve worked with small teams of people and we’ve built up a loyalty to each other. Realising you don’t have to do it entirely on your own, and getting a good team or a good partner who can support you, is important.
And you’re going to get some knocks along the way. There will be things that don’t quite work out. In those cases, you have to be strong and say, ‘I’m not going to give up, I’m going to try a different way of doing this’. Hard, hard work is good.”
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