Book Reviews - Review 388
Diaries 1969-79: The Python Years
Category: Biography | Published: 2006 | Review Added: 21-08-2019
These diaries largely consolidate Michael Palin's status as the "Nice One" among the Monty Python's Flying Circus crew. When there were disagreements and tensions, it was he who stepped in as mediator, and he took up more than his share of the slack left by his less reliable co-stars - in particular Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Eric Idle. (Chapman was an alcoholic; Cleese was prone to withdrawing his co-operation when he didn't need the money; Idle spent rather more time than he needed to lounging about with rock stars in California and France.)
This volume is 670 pages long, but if an interest in Python is a given, it's pretty easy to get through. Palin's writing is insightful and articulate - he is patient with the failings of the willful personalities of the showbiz world, but never blind to them. Perhaps he could afford to be patient - besides having an uncommonly calm and well-adjusted personality, he was apparently born under a lucky star. In November 1977 he notes, "I know I cannot live in a continual vaccuum of happiness, [but today] there is nothing more I want than what I have."
Yet the tone of contentment runs right through the diaries, without it appearing to be the contentment of complacency. On the contrary, Palin is strikingly understanding of the difficulties of others. He writes a letter of consolation to a friend's wife, who has attempted suicide; she responds by saying his letter was more help to her than the well-intentioned but clumsy words of people closer to her. (Sadly, a later suicide attempt was successful - a reminder that there is only so much good one can ever do.)
That said... for all one's admiration of Palin's kindly personality, one gains the impression of a man living in a pretty rarefied world. If he associates with many people outside showbusiness, there's no hint of it here. Parties with Mick Jagger, dinner with Paul Simon, galas with the Star Wars cast, work on the committee of the Shepperton film studio - these are the stuff of day-to-day life for him. One contrasts his diaries with those of another "national treasure", Alan Bennett, which incorporate much more of life as most of us recognise it. But then, Bennett is a grammar school boy; Palin is a public school one.
So perhaps one should not be too surprised that Palin's definition of being strapped for cash does not fit most people's, or that tax bills he complains about are larger than many salaries were at the time. Nor is he averse, despite his professed socialist principles, to considering tax avoidance schemes on the fringes of legality - and when deciding against them, this being due to fear of repercussions rather than ethical reservations.
The published diary entries constitute just one-fifth of those Palin wrote, and they have been selected for the interest of the Python fan rather than for insight into his personal life. The emphasis on his career throws light on a steely drive that, alongside talent, luck, hard work and charm, earned him his enormous success. He sometimes spends months away from his family, and even forgets his wedding anniversary while filming The Life of Brian in Tunisia. Still, by showbiz standards, he seems to have held his private life together well.
Oddly, the early years, covering the Python television shows, pass quickly and rather unmemorably; it's after the end of the last TV series that the narrative becomes really interesting. The relationships between the cast members acquire more depth and interest as the centrifugal forces of ambition, wealth and expanded opportunities compete with commitment to the group. The book has something of a climax in the account of the shooting of Brian - an exciting time, clearly, and with the palpable sense that a cinematic masterpiece was in the making.
One can hardly fault this book - it's well-written and well-edited, and has all the human interest of a novel.