Python Palin brings stage show 'home' to Belfast
Michael Palin rose to fame as part of the madcap Monty Python troupe, travelled the world for his TV shows and books and after joining the Pythons on stage last year he takes his new one-man-show to one of his favourite haunts, Belfast, this month. He talks to Brian Campbell
IT’S fair to say that Michael Palin is a bit of a hero of mine. I grew up watching him in re-runs of the brilliantly madcap Monty Python’s Flying Circus series, I watched the Monty Python films The Life of Brian and The Holy Grail so much that I practically wore out the videos and I then got a virtual tour of the world by avidly tuning in to Palin’s TV travel shows Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle and the rest.
During my journalism course at university we were once given an assignment to write an in-depth profile piece on a high-profile person we admired, so I wrote about Michael Palin.
In 2007, myself and my now wife visited Budapest and made sure to sample the Hungarian liqueur Unicum after watching Palin visit the factory and taste it himself in his New Europe travel series.
Now Palin is travelling to Belfast to perform his one-man-show The Thirty Years Tour, based around his three volumes of published diaries. There’s certainly something poetic about the timescale of his diaries in terms of Northern Ireland; they start in 1969 (when the Troubles broke out) and end in 1998 (the year the Good Friday Agreement was signed).
Of course Palin started his diaries in 1969 as that was when he, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones first appeared on our TV screens as Monty Python.
Chapman died in 1989 and when the remaining Pythons reunited for a string of sell-out shows in 2014, the tour was wryly titled `One Down, Five to Go’.
Speaking to Weekend ahead of his gigs in Cork, Dublin and Belfast, Palin says he enjoyed the shows at The O2 in London.
“I did have misgivings [about the Python reunion tour] to start with, because we hadn't done anything on stage since 1980, so I thought, 'How will it work?'” he says. “But we decided to do 10 nights and the tickets all sold, so we knew we had to be on top form and deliver something really good.
“We had to put on a show as good as one we could have done 40 years ago and that's what happened. It was a really good feeling on stage. We came out of a Tardis and got a fantastic reception. The dancers we had were great too, so it wasn’t just all sketches. And with the 'dead parrot' sketch, it was always like 'where would it go?'
“The important thing was writing and performing comedy. We realised that all the other negotiations and differences between us over money and the number of wives and that sort of thing was irrelevant.”
I ask Palin if he has a vast Beyonce-style entourage for his one-man-show tour.
“I have nothing like Beyonce does and I have no attributes of Beyonce – least of all an entourage,” he laughs. “It's probably one of the smallest crews ever – it's just me and my production manager Joe and a tech man.
”But there is some light singing in the show. You never know quite what's going to happen each night. There's a question and answer with the audience, so that's always a nice area for improvisation.
“A lot of it is about the diaries and the information that I've remembered and Python stuff and the travels and Ripping Yarns. So it's really a narrative from the start of the diaries in April 1969 up to 1998, from the birth of Python up to the Full Circle series,” he says.
“That loosely keeps the show together and there's travel stories, archive clips and things that I think will surprise people – things which I don't think people will have seen or heard before. It's gone down well.”
He says he forgot about his initial reaction to getting the script for the hit 1988 film A Fish Called Wanda until he re-read his diaries.
“I just didn't like the script,” he says. “I thought, `What am I going to do? What am I going to tell John [Cleese]?' because I'd agreed to be in it. But when it happened, Kevin Kline was brilliant and made this nasty character come to life and it was all wonderful. It's the most popular film I've done.”
He says he’s looking forward to his “Irish odyssey” and to Belfast in particular.
“I was a more frequent visitor in the 80s and 90s when I did the one-man show. Belfast was actually the only place I'd ever done my one-man show until last year when I did the UK tour. I know it well and I like it; it's a friendly place and there are always good audiences.
“When I first came it didn't seem utterly comfortable on the streets and it didn't seem a very prosperous place, but I've been back since and it's changed out of all recognition.”
Palin’s second book of diaries, Halfway to Hollywood: 1980-1988, includes several references to Belfast, starting with his first visit in 1981 after he had been invited to do a show at the Belfast Festival by its director Michael Barnes.
“It shows you the power of a written letter. Michael’s letter was so beautifully phrased and it made me sit up and think, 'Well, Belfast? Really?' Because Belfast in 1981 wasn't a place you'd necessarily rush off to, but he made it sound great and he was absolutely right and saying yes to that invite was one of the best moves I ever made.”
In the book he recalls checking into the Europa Hotel via a small hut as, at the height of the Troubles, it had a bank of 10ft barbed wire placed in front of it.
As well as writing about being miffed at a negative review he got in The Irish News for his festival show in 1985, he recounts facing a panel of Belfast teenagers and being asked, “Now you’ve made all this money, do you still want to make people laugh?”
“That's right,” he says now. “The questions in Ireland always have a philosophical side and an edge to them.”
He was also famously challenged to run around the Arts Theatre in Belfast – and did, in 38 seconds – but says he might not repeat that trick in the Waterfront.
He admits that he did have “a certain amount of trepidation” before his first visit to the north.
“There were soldiers in the streets and that kind of thing, but the warmth of the audience was so great and I never felt threatened at all. There was one time when I tried to cross the road in the middle of an Orange march and I had to dodge through a crowd of marching men in bowler hats, so that was fairly terrifying. But it was quite Pythonic as well.”
:: Michael Palin brings his Thirty Years Tour to the Waterfront in Belfast on Friday, October 30 at 8pm. For tickets (£32.50), visit Waterfront.co.uk or call 028 9033 4455. Travelling to Work: Diaries 1988-1998 and The Complete Michael Palin Diaries are out now.