Michael Palin: Monty Python as it happened

Palin, Michael_photo John SwannellThe 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.

Michael Palin as a Gumby, during Monty Python filming

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.

∼ ∼ ∼

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.

∼ ∼ ∼

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.

 ∼ ∼ ∼

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.’]

∼ ∼ ∼

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.]

∼ ∼ ∼

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.]

∼ ∼ ∼

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.]

∼ ∼ ∼

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…


Monty Python at Work, £9.99

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



Jacket of THE KING'S SPEECH Shooting Script

The King’s Speech dominated this year’s Oscars, winning awards for Best Film, Director, Actor and Original Screenplay. Here, its author, David Seidler, explains the inspiration behind the film – and why it is such a personal story to him.

The crackle of the radio always got me excited. I loved that radio. The case was made of wood. Bakelite, as plastic was called, was too fancy for a lad. My wooden radio had holes in it. I’d been given a toy drill for Christmas. Never give a drill to a small boy unless you want holes in everything.

The static, like an overture, readied me for the thrills to come. If I’d been particularly well behaved it might be an American favourite, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, or Bob Hope. This was an extra special occasion… the King was speaking tonight.

I remember his voice, high, and tense, with occasional pauses and hesitation. Yet the cumulative effect was marvellous: stalwart, staunch and stirring. Despite his stutter he was able to deliver glorious sentences that rallied the free world. He was my King (I felt so proud of being British), and although everyone in the world, ally and enemy alike, listened critically to every syllable he uttered, he doggedly persevered. So there was hope for me.

Childhood for those who stammer is not pleasant. You live in self-imposed silence because it is too painful to speak. Hard not to notice how uncomfortable everybody becomes: eyes glaze over, fingers tap, they want to get away as quickly as possible. Or try to be helpful, which is even worse. ‘Take your time… slow down… relax.’ If only it were that simple.

There was hope though. I heard it on my Swiss cheese radio. My parents told me, ‘The King was far worse than you.’ George VI of England, known as Bertie, gave inspiration to a little boy exiled to a former colony.

Of all the moments in the film, there is one that is especially close to my heart. It is a very crucial moment—although unfortunately earning the film a ridiculous R-rating (the same as Chain Saw in 3D) in the US and a 15, later reduced to 12A, in the UK. It’s a scene where the King swears and says the naughty f-word (which is heard every day in every school playground everywhere). The naughty word is not in the scene to shock, nor for prurient interest. It is there because it demonstrates an important aspect of stammer therapy that I learned from my own stutter, and which all speech therapists I’ve ever spoken to agree has validity.

image of David Seidler
David Seidler receives his Academy Award for ‘Best Original Screenplay’

I was sixteen and my defect had not eased. I’d been told if a stammer doesn’t disappear by the end of adolescence, the chances of its leaving decrease dramatically. That’s another reason I felt Bertie was so brave; he was still slogging away through his twenties, thirties and forties. That takes guts. Well, I got angry. My hormones were raging, but I couldn’t ask a girl out. Even if she said yes, what was the point, I couldn’t talk to her. Was this fair? I was a good lad who hadn’t done anything dreadful to anyone. Hadn’t slept with my mother or killed my father. Why was this awful burden being placed upon me? Naughty-word it! I’m a human being and I’ve a right to be heard. If I’m stuck with this naughty-word affliction for the rest of my life, well naughty-word it, the rest of you are just going to have to naughty-word listen to me!

That flipped an internal switch. The stutter melted away. Two weeks later I was auditioning for the school play. Even got a part. A small role in Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. I was a Christian, about to be eaten by a lion in the Coliseum, but I didn’t stutter as I died. I’m sure Bertie must’ve had a similar defiant defining moment. How else could he carry on so bravely. That’s why the naughty word is there.

Why tell the story at all, though? It’s old and forgotten. Well, one per cent of the population stammers. That’s an awful lot of stuttering. A great deal of living in silence. An awful lot of emotional pain and anguish. If this film brings hope to those afflicted and understanding as to their plight, I’ll be very well pleased. From the Introduction to The King’s Speech shooting script

‘A richly enjoyable, instantly absorbing true-life drama’ Guardian

‘Thanks to the best efforts of writer David Seidler… The King’s Speech isn’t just an enlightening period drama, but a very entertaining, heartfelt and surprisingly funny crowd-pleaser.’ Time Out

‘For a film about being horrendously tongue-tied, Seidler’s words are exquisitely measured, his insight as deep as it is softly spoken.’ Empire

David Seidler’s Oscar and Bafta-winning screenplay for The King’s Speech is published in the UK by Nick Hern Books (£12.99), and can be ordered through the NHB website with free P&P – quote ‘TKS blog offer’ in the comments field (UK customers only).