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Book review: <i>The Python Diaries 1969 - 1979</i> by Michael Palin

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the cover of the book

If this was written by me, it would be called "The Too Much Drinking Diaries 1997-2007" and prescribed to brave and chronic insomniacs only.

Cover

A colourised photo, against white, of Mr. Palin sitting on the ground like the schoolboy he still resembles under the wrinkles. The fashion speaks for the era. The text isn't much, but as a whole it works quite well combined with the impressive heft of the book. And there's no half-arsed Gilliamisms to be seen, so be grateful.

Plot

The collected texts of Mr. Palin's occasional (but generally regular) diary from the titular period. An interesting period it was, too - Monty Python wound up their last series but then produced three films, numerous books and albums, toured America, and cemented the popular following they still enjoy today. One of the reasons for this is that A- there were six of them, all of whom with considerable talent and individual specialities (including, obviously, Palin), and B- they worked together wherever possible on each project and didn't farm out work, use other writers, or re-package the same thing fifteen times. (Their comedy CDs, for instance, are individual gems, using largely separate material to the shows or films - even the movie soundtrack CDs feature much new material). Because of this, they had to interact a lot in different professional and social combinations, with Palin often in the role of conciliator and nice guy. Thus he's usually occupying the centre ground in whichever then-current flurry of fame or success threatens to overwhelm the group.

Aged twenty-nine when the book begins, the author is married with two children, is approaching some level of celebrity, owns a house, is on the board of several entertainment organizations, works with five of the most idiosyncratic, talented young performers in the country, occasionally goes to dinner at George Harrison's mansion, has one film under his belt and is working on the next, and, just quietly, has already helped create one of the most incandescent, influential entertainment movements of the last millennium. He's also British so doesn't get carried away with trifles like that.

The good

On top of this, the country around him is going through huge changes. As the seventies progress, the cultural upheavals of the youth movements of the sixties filter down to suburban society. Attitudes to race, drugs, homosexuality and political engagement are changing, one dining room at a time. The British government verges on losing control of their own capitol - there are mass blackouts caused by striking coal miners, transport lockdowns caused by striking rail workers and truck drivers, and those charismatic Irish lads in the IRA are bombing pubs full of innocent people all over London. Around Mr. Palin's house, streets of Victorian terraces are being razed to make way for the sort of urban architecture which now form sublimely horrific backdrops for Aphex Twin videos and Irvine Welsh books. It's mostly peripheral in the text, but it makes for great detail. Because of Palin's inclusive, chatty writing, one can sometimes lose the sense of chronological distance before it snaps sharply back with a mention of politics, a non-P.C. attitude, or, most enjoyably, some uniquely British archaism: The grannies who ran the assembly line at the EMI record plant would refuse to produce albums if they were truly offended by them; multi-million dollar American film productions, stars and all, would come to the UK to use their staging companies (despite the British institutional-grade canteen food), and the idea that terrorist bombings are the regrettable actions of homicidal criminals who should be put in jail ASAP and not fearsome warriors who we must cower and consume before. Those zany hippies!

Speaking of hippies, there aren't many in the book, which will probably come as a relief to most. It's interesting, actually - Palin lives a cheerful suburban existence with his wife, children, parents to visit, renovations to pay for, etc, yet his professional life bumps up against the excitingly unhinged worlds of musicians and young actors. As with the chronology, there's a frequent contrast between the normalcy of family life and the evolving strangeness of the Python's make-it-up-as-you-go professional aesthetic. Movie acting must be a bizarre enough profession for anyone, let alone a surreal comedian who also happens to be a good-natured, well-adjusted chap who didn't get into the business to see his face on billboards. Palin's well-adjustedness does normally come to the fore, however, and, at least in his own recollections, there seems to be little life can throw at him which he's incapable of finding the humanity, pathos, or silliness inside.

This era of Python was creatively fecund indeed, reflecting the country around them going through something of a (non-architectural) renaissance. The third and fourth series' of one of the most imaginative and funny TV shows ever filmed, plus And Now For Something Completely Different, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life Of Brian (still topping "funniest film" lists thirty years on), Live at Drury Lane, live tours of America, American TV syndication (which butchered the show, predictably), and books and albums too numerous to mention. On top of it all, each Python had individual projects with varying levels of success on the boil - John Cleese had a video production company with whom he wrote and starred in training films, but also acted in movies, and wrote the perfect, if dated, sitcom Fawlty Towers. Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam wrote and directed movies, Eric Idle wrote books and TV shows, hung around with the real Beatles and then invented the fake version, the Rutles, who he wrote an album for, and the hilarious pre-Spinal Tap mockumentary "All You Need Is Cash". Graham Chapman acted in and produced movies, swanned about amusing people and drank a lot (which, as it seemed to be one of his primary life goals, counts as a kind of success). Palin himself wrote and starred in the timeless TV movie comedy series Ripping Yarns, acted in films, was a director for Shepperton Studios, wrote a novel, hosted SNL several times, published books, and had a hand in more things than I can recall. It's all in here, through Palin's kind eyes. We don't get to aim them, but we don't often wish to.

At the heart of it all was the original Monty Python TV show, now approaching forty years old. As someone who recently bought the entire seventeen-disc DVD set I can't really be expected to be unbiased, but it stands up pretty well today. The writing is first class - there has truly never been anything close to it since, in terms of invention and quality control, which is all the more amazing when one considers how influential it was. The performances vary, though Palin is probably the best actor, Cleese is close behind and Jones and Idle provide dozens of fantastic characters. Only Chapman is a regular letdown, which is a touch odd because he was the star of their two most famous films, and, particularly in Brian, did a pretty good job. The one big glaring flaw is the direction. It's typically pedestrian but often appalling. One lazily assumes that the age of the program is at fault here, but the Python Diaries puts this to rest: Ian MacNaughton seems to have been given the job largely because the Pythons got along with him, and (to generalise massively) seems to have been allowed to keep it because they were too polite to fire him. There can be no greater proof of this than the truly Pythonesque example of the TV show coming second at the Golden Rose Televsision awards in Montreaux - to a European rip-off of their own program! Yes, Monty Python's Flying Circus loses to Kalvik Finvorg's Kipper Parade, and why? Because KFKP isn't sloppily edited and clumsily shot. In the words of Palin: "Watched Ian's newest program, and he's definitely improved, but, after Python, he needed to." It's a great pity because, like the Young Ones, which it influenced, the sheer amount of comedic invention in the scripts demand the kind of really anal production that it takes a control freak like Ricky Gervais to demand. Like Palin, however, we're probably too polite for own good and thus risk being left to fantasise about what could have been.

The bad

As I said, it's a little difficult to be objective about this. Obviously, almost any biography's appeal depends on the reader's interest in the subject; this is doubly true for Python Diaries because, as the title tells us, the era was chosen to include the maximum Python info, which is also bound to be a matter of taste. I think anyone interested in either subject could get a good read out of this, but if you're hoping for undiluted Pythonage you'd be better off with one of the official books. The Life of Brian book is a fantastic effort, containing, among other things, fantastic photos, the complete script, many scenes too offensive to be included in the original (yes, I know, wait until you read it), and diary excerpts from Palin, Jones and Chapman, all to do with the business of filming and the relationships therein. Much (at least a third) of Python Diaries is (and I say it warmly) suburban - Palin discussing his young family, his friends, his mother, his father's encroaching senility, his house, and the trivia of the everyday. Occasional moments of blandness occur, but it's to Palin's credit that the book's as readable as it is. Just don't go in expecting a cliffhanger or a punchline on every page.

What I learnt

A lot about the Pythons' influence on the glory days (mid-to-late seventies) of Saturday Night Live, the American TV show which gave the world John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy and Bill Murray. Three decades ago. Since then there's been...um...Will Ferrell.

How truly surreal filming must often be, particularly when surrounded by one's friends, with a minimal budget up a Scottish hillside in the rain, acting out ridiculous situations written in a warm dry living room eight months before.

That the Pythons and the Goodies formed a strange dichotomy in seventies showbiz - as is often the case, the Python's edgier, odder material was given arty credibility while the Goodies, who were no immensely popular and far more professional, were considered QUITE beyond the pale by artistic sorts. Palin actually got along quite well with the trio - as he puts it: "Tim seems to happily accept any work that comes his way, regardless of concerns for quality or credibility, do it, get paid and move on. Thus I suspect he spends a lot less time worrying than I do."

In short

Title: The Python Diaries 1969 - 1979
Author: Michael Palin
Publisher: St Martin's Griffin
ISBN: 0312384882
Year published: 2008
Pages: 672
Genre(s): Non fiction, Autobiography
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