Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years by Michael Palin

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Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years by Michael Palin
Buy Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years from Amazon.co.uk

Buy Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years from Amazon.com

Genre: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: A lengthy but highly readable insight into the hard work behind the Monty Python TV series and films, and Palin's early solo career. The diaries also flesh out the complex character behind Palin's TV persona.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 776 Date: July 2007
Publisher: Phoenix
ISBN: 978-0753821770

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Never meet your heroes, goes the old adage. Never read their diaries might be equally sage advice. That's probably why I didn't tackle Michael Palin's collected daily journals until now. Along with the rest of the Monty Python team, he was without doubt a hero of my teenage years.

Even now, thirty or more years later, I was wary of anything which might demolish the façade of those shows, which could reveal that my telly gods had feet of clay. So I opened this hefty distillation of the Python years (1969-1979) with trepidation.

In many ways, my fears were justified. Inevitably, as Palin sets out his daily impressions of the show and of his developing career, the abiding impression is of all the work involved. On screen he may have been the the nice one of the team: affable, easy-going and tolerant, but the diaries reveal the steely streak which must drive any truly successful person. And it shows itself here in his tireless work ethic, sometimes to the detriment of his family, and a surprisingly strong business sense.

And that was bound to erode some of the magic of the shows. Comedy, we learn, is not easy. Laughs are hard won, and if you're looking for tales of Pythonesque absurdity, this book might seem alarmingly prosaic. Little of the shows' humour and apparent anarchy comes across. Instead, we learn of the endless meetings, the money worries, the legal wrangles, and the personality clashes behind the silly walks and the Spanish Inquisitions.

Palin balances such gritty realities with touching glimpses of his family life and personality. He is truer to his on-screen self here. You suspect that judicious editing has protected the living, but he still conveys a believable sense of his devotion to his wife Helen and his three children. Palin comes across as every bit the decent chap that we see on TV. He deals with his father's decline into senility and death with touching compassion and an enviable lack of anxiety. A combination which maybe gave him the resilience to survive in an industry which has destroyed lesser souls.

The diary form makes these revelations all the more credible. He is, we feel, speaking to himself, not to an audience. His rare outbursts of pique are measured and often tempered with empathy for his enemies. For any hint of real gossip or malice, you have to read between the lines – for signs of exasperation at Graham Chapman's self-destructive unreliability, for instance, or distaste for John Cleese's selfish avarice (Cleese drives a Rolls; Palin a Mini).

The format can also make him appear amazingly matter-of-fact about his superstardom. He really doesn't seem to be name-dropping when he talks of conversations with various Beatles, Rolling Stones, members of The Who, or Paul Simon. The Pythons, you realise, were like rock stars, and moved in the same circles.

In contrast to the awkward nobodies which were his stock-in trade, you infer with some surprise how relentlessly sociable Palin is. Parties, dinners, holidays with friends, casual visits and social gatherings abound here – you lose track of who's who, so numerous are the names of family, friends and business acquaintances which pepper his daily recollections.

Equally arresting are the number of diary entries set in America. In the insular Britain of the 1970s, it was easy to be oblivious to the incredible parallel Stateside success of the Pythons. Palin, we learn, was regularly shuttling across the Atlantic on Concorde, fighting off US groupies, appearing on primetime TV, hosting Saturday Night Live (including a hilarious sketch involving incontinent cats), and wrangling with Hollywood moguls and showbiz lawyers.

The diaries are remarkably prescient about how Palin saw his future – particularly in his oft-professed love for travel. He reveals himself to be perceptive about politics too. A committed socialist, he accurately predicts domestic and international developments. Though, given the book's backdrop of political turmoil (3-day weeks; power cuts; strikes), he can appear blasé about some historic events. Margaret Thatcher's election is not even mentioned, for instance. In fact, his first reference to her administration is to reveal how much better off he was under the first Howe budget – leading you to suspect that his political principles did not entirely survive his growing wealth.

If not exactly warts-and-all, these diaries are candid and honest. Even though not originally meant for publication, they are pacily, stylishly written. Palin reveals just the right amount about his complex personality, and of the machinations of the TV and film industry, without getting bogged down in obscurities. And thanks to his keen eye and obvious intelligence, they are also a valuable record of their times. Palin has just published the second volume of his diaries, covering his years of movie stardom. I'll have no reservations about reading those.

For a political diary which covers much the same period we can recommend Downing Street Diary: Volume Two by Bernard Donoughue

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