Wednesday, October 17, 1981
…Give the manager one of my complimentary tickets to Mel Brooks’ History of the World, which is having a glossy preview at 11.30.
Find myself sitting next to Harold Evans, editor of the Times. He seems to be very anxious to please asking me what I’m doing, as if he knows me. Make some jokes about the SDP, then he admits that he does think they are a very sensible lot. This, together with a propensity to do the right thing by clapping whenever Mel Brooks appears on the screen, makes me suspect him. Surely Times editors should be made of harder stuff?
The film is dreadful. Having dispensed early on with any claim to historical accuracy or authenticity and any exceptional attention to visual detail, the whole thing depends on the quality of the gags. And the quality is poor. It’s like a huge, expensive, grotesquely-inflated stand-up act. A night club act with elephantiasis.
I return from my book reporting hiatus to tell you a little about the first 200 pages of the book I’ve chosen to start 2015. Halfway to Hollywood: Michael Palin’s Diaries, 1980-1988 is exactly what it sounds like.
Comedian, writer, actor, and traveler extraordinaire Michael Palin has, over the last few years, started publishing (presumably edited) collections of his diaries from different parts of his life. I own the first section, which covers the bulk of the Monty Python years, but hadn’t realized more were available until a search for something else at my local library brought this up by accident.
The diaries aren’t scandalous, and the gossip is actually kept to a relatively low level. In the first volume of his diaries, Palin records that he took up a daily diary entry as one way of helping himself break a smoking habit not long before filming of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” began. And these really have a daily diary kind of feel – he often records when he got up, where he went on his daily running excursions, and how various meetings with colleagues, business managers, and medical professionals went. A lot of it is very everyday information, which reassures me that he hasn’t done much, or any, after-the-fact editing to hype up the excitement level.
When I was in middle school, “Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail” was the cool movie. Some kids had their favorite member of a band, or a favorite member of a sports team. I had a favorite Python.
I thought John Cleese was screamingly funny. I was fascinated by his seeming ability to flip a switch and go from calm, even supercilious, to apoplectic fury in an instant. I loved his look-down-one’s-nose biting sarcasm.
I still like Cleese’s style, and indeed I can’t really say I dislike any of the Pythons (though I also can’t say I’ve ever really “gotten” Terry Gilliam’s bizarre cartoons). The older I get, though, the more I find I prefer the gentler style of Michael Palin.
When I think over the “Flying Circus” show, most of the sketches I like best involve Palin, from the Argument Clinic to Blackmail. I like his subsequent work, too, especially the travel shows.
I think one of the reasons I enjoy Palin’s diaries so much is because I like getting a view into the process of entertainment, the gears and cogs that work behind the scenes to make what we enjoy. I’m up to the middle of 1982 in this volume, and Palin has just finished filming “The Missionary,” a quirky film for which he wrote the screenplay AND filled the lead role (Maggie Smith, of all people, plays the female lead). I think it’s interesting to get a peek at how a movie gets made, from initial idea to presentation in cinemas. Of course this is an extremely simplified view, but it’s still interesting.
The diaries read a little like those travel shows’ narrations, actually. Palin is factual and interested in everything. He genuinely enjoys himself and is sorry to leave a place or a project, but he’s also eager to see what’s coming around the bend. And I like his sense of humor, which is quirky and rarely offends, but has an occasional bite to it. And I like that he seems to slip it in there and move quickly on to the next thing, before you’ve entirely realized the depth of the joke.
It’s no wonder that some people call him “Britain’s Nicest Man.” Of all the Pythons, he seems like someone who’d be genuinely fun and not at all stressful to know.
And as regards the above quotation, I have to say I feel totally vindicated. I didn’t much like “History of the World, Part One” either.