The inspiring Monty Python at Work is Michael Palin’s intimate, behind-the-scenes account of the conception and making of the legendary group’s shows, films, books and albums, drawn from his published diaries. Here, the author explains what writer-performers can learn from the book – and read further for extracts from the beginning of the Python journey.
Since the publication of my diaries I’ve received reactions from many people in many different areas of life. Some respond to the family material, particularly those entries dealing with illness and loss. Others find particular interest in locations and shared neighbourhoods, others in political asides, still others in my involvement in transport, and trains in particular. In many ways the most surprising and gratifying response has come from writer-performers, often much younger than myself, who see in my descriptions of the agony and ecstasy of creative work, reassuring parallels in their own experience.
As diaries are about work in progress, rather than achievement explained or reputation gained, they have a directness unvarnished by time. The creation of Monty Python, through the pages of a daily diary, is a nagging reminder of the unglamorous process rather than the glamorous result. I can understand why people in the same line of work might find this helpful. I was often lifted from the gloom of elusive inspiration by reading, in her diaries, that Virginia Woolf had bad days too. Similarly, I’ve been told by aspiring young comedy writers and performers how encouraged they are by the travails of Python.
When my friend and scrupulous editor, Geoffrey Strachan, asked me if he could extract my Monty Python experiences from the diary into a single compact volume he made much of the fact that this could almost be an educational tool. I wasn’t so sure about that. There’s little point in a Do-It-Yourself Python. Monty Python is what it is and can never be recreated by following steps one, two and three. And Python is a product of its time. The way we did things will never be possible again. But the important thing is that the will to do them and the spirit that created Python is timeless. If this account of the hoops we went through to turn that spirit into reality is instructive and inspirational today then I think it will indeed have proved itself to be some sort of educational tool, albeit in a very silly syllabus.
Below are some extracts from Monty Python at Work. Dating from August 1969 to December 1970, they give a fascinating glimpse into the group’s early days, starting with the filming of the first series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The book as a whole covers the period up to the release of their final film, The Meaning of Life, in 1983.
Thursday, August 31st 1969, Southwold
Out to Covehithe, where we filmed for most of the day. The cliffs are steep and crumbling there and the constant movement of BBC personnel up and down probably speeded coastal erosion by a good few years.
Mother and Father turned up during the morning and appeared as crowd in one of the shots.
In the afternoon heavy dark clouds came up and made filming a little slower. We ended up pushing a dummy newsreader off the harbour wall, and I had to swim out and rescue this drifting newsreader, so it could be used for another shot.
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Monday, February 16th 1970
Somehow, since Monty Python, it has become difficult to write comedy material for more conventional shows. Monty Python spoilt us in so far as mad flights of fancy, ludicrous changes of direction, absurd premises and the complete illogicality of writing were the rule rather than the exception. The compilation of all the last series, plus new links, into the film script And Now for Something Completely Different has been completed, and the script should be with Roger Hancock. No further news from Victor Lownes III, under whose patronage the work was done.
I am about to start writing Monty Python II, for, as Eric reminded me on the phone today, there are only eleven weeks until we go filming in May, and we are seriously intending to have eleven shows written by then.
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Sunday, March 8th
We watched David Frost ‘hosting’ the Institute of Television and Film Arts Awards at the London Palladium. Monty Python was nominated for four awards and won two. A special award for the writing, production and performance of the show, and a Craft Guild Award to Terry Gilliam for graphics. But somehow the brusqueness of the programme, and its complete shifting of emphasis away from television and towards Frost and film stars, made the winning of the award quite unexciting.
None of us was invited to the awards ceremony, as the girl who was organising it ‘didn’t know the names of the writers’ of Monty Python.
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Thursday, April 16th
At 10.00, cars arrived to take us to the Lyceum Ballroom off the Strand to be presented with our Weekend TV awards. We were rushed into the stage door, where a few girls with autograph books obviously thought we were somebody, but none of them was quite sure who.
A dinner-jacketed young man with a vacant expression and an autograph book asked me if I was famous. I said no, I wasn’t, but Terry Gilliam was. Gilliam signed Michael Mills’* name, the twit then gave the book to me saying, ‘Well, could I have yours anyway?’
So I signed ‘Michael Mills’ as well. We all signed ‘Michael Mills’ throughout the evening.
[* Michael Mills, Head of Comedy at the BBC, was the man who green-lighted Python in the summer of 1969. Despite a disastrous meeting at which we could give no satisfactory answers to any of his questions, he came out with the memorable words: ‘All right, I’ll give you thirteen shows, but that’s all.’]
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Monday, May 11th, Torquay
Set out for Torquay and our first two-week filming stretch away from home.
Our hotel, the Gleneagles, was a little out of Torquay, overlooking a beautiful little cove with plenty of trees around. However, Mr Sinclair, the proprietor, seemed to view us from the start as a colossal inconvenience, and when we arrived back from Brixham, at 12.30, having watched the night filming, he just stood and looked at us with a look of self-righteous resentment, of tacit accusation, that I had not seen since my father waited up for me fifteen years ago. Graham tentatively asked for a brandy – the idea was dismissed, and that night, our first in Torquay, we decided to move out of the Gleneagles.*
[* Eric and John decided to stay. In John’s case a lucrative decision as he later based Fawlty Towers on Gleneagles.]
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Thursday, June 18th
To Camberwell. The morning’s work interrupted by the delivery of a large amount of dung. We were sitting writing at Terry’s marble-topped table under a tree sheltering us from the sun. All rather Mediterranean. Suddenly the dung-carriers appeared. Fat, ruddy-faced, highly conversational and relentlessly cheerful, they carried their steaming goodies and deposited them at the far end of Terry’s garden. After about twenty-five tubfuls they were gone, but at least they left a sketch behind.*
[* ‘Book of the Month Club Dung’, which found its way into Show 6 of the second series.]
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Sunday, November 8th
After washing my hair and shaving at 7.00 in the morning, I am driven to work and immediately my hair is caked down with grease and my face given a week’s growth of beard.
Ken Shabby* was especially revolting, with an awful open sore just below the nose. But Terry J (who has seen the rushes) is worried that it was shot with too much emphasis on Shabby and not enough wide shots to create the joke – which is the relationship of this ghastly suppurating apparition to the elegant and tasteful surroundings.
[* Shabby, a disgusting man with a pet goat, who appeals to the father of a beautiful upper-class girl (Connie Booth) for her hand in marriage, but spoils his chances by, among other things, gobbing on the carpet.]
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Thursday, December 31st
Apart from some dubbing still to do on the film, Monty Python is finished – we spent almost a year on one thirteen-week series and six weeks making a film – now it remains to be discussed as to whether or when we do another series…
Nick Hern Books are thrilled to publish Monty Python at Work, Michael Palin’s intimate and inspiring behind-the-scenes account of the conception and making of the shows, films, books and albums.
Drawn from his published diaries, it will delight Python fans everywhere, and be a source of instruction and inspiration to students and those who seek to follow in the group’s footsteps.
To order your copy at a 20% discount, no voucher code required, click here.
Michael Palin will be discussing the book at a National Theatre Platform on Monday 2 June, at 6pm – click here to book tickets.
Author photo by John Swannell