Michael Palin: ‘Terry Gilliam’s scared off anyone who might play Don Quixote’
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Ahead of a poetry evening in aid of Keat’s Library Bridget Galton talks to Michael Palin, the latest star signed up to the director’s long-delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Regulars at Hampstead’s the Holly Bush could be forgiven for doing a double take at a scene that mirrored the good-versus-evil of Star Wars.
Ex-Python Michael Palin, widely accepted as the nicest man in Britain, was sharing a drink with the sci-fi epic’s latest baddie Kylo Ren; aka actor Adam Driver.
Playing Yoda was Palin’s “old mate” Terry Gilliam, the Highgate director who has cast the duo in his crisis-ridden film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
But since Gilliam’s self-confessed 17-year “dream nightmare” has seen John Hurt, Robert Duvall and Johnny Depp attached – and then detached – and even spawned a film about not-making the movie, Palin remarks: “in theory anyway”.
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“There were two films announced at Cannes, both of which I am supposed to be in but neither of which I have a contract for. Terry Gilliam wants me to be Don Quixote because he has frightened off everyone else who might play him.
“We are mates who go right back so he has roped me in and has some finance, and the other lead actor is Adam Driver, the villain in Star Wars who is very, very good.
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“I met him for a drink in the Holly Bush, it was very cordial and it will be a nice thing to do.”
So no red-on-blue lightsaber clash in the quiet Hampstead backstreets then.
But the playful sparring nature of the collaboration became clear at Cannes, when Gilliam amusingly told reporters Palin was perfect to play someone “old, ridiculous and foolish” adding that he wouldn’t cast the other Pythons because they were “too miserable and impossible” to work with.
Palin’s other project starts filming next month; he plays Soviet politician Vyacheslav Molotov in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin alongside Steve Buscemi as Khruschev.
“Armando is another director I admire and it’s perfectly written: a despot and the infighting of the people around him in his last days is a gift for Armando.
“It’s The Thick of It set in Moscow with lots of foul language, cheating, lying and appalling behaviour.”
But first he appears at a Keat’s Community Library fundraiser, reading from John Betjeman’s memoir of his Highgate schooldays, Summoned by Bells.
“My father was not a great reader but he bought Summoned by Bells and loved it. When I started reading poetry, I found it mischievous and a bit naughty.
“He writes in this lovely flowing rhythm which makes him a joy to read.”
Although some of Betjeman’s verse has perhaps fallen out of fashion, Palin defends the former poet laureate: “There’s a lot of nostalgia in his work but as I’ve read it again it’s still very funny and touching on universal things like going to school, being bullied, being forced to play games, and glimpses of the adult world through the eyes of a child.
“He’s never malicious. He manages to celebrate everything whilst making sure you know which side he is on.”
An ex-public schoolboy, Palin relishes Betjeman’s critical view of school and the experience of someone “not quite fitting in”.
“I went to Shrewsbury because my father had been there and his father before him.
“It strained the family finances but they were determined I should have the opportunity.
“We often played Highgate at games like Eton Fives.”
These days Betjeman is remembered as much for his conservation work– his statue at St Pancras commemorates rescuing the Victorian landmark from the bulldozers.
“His work as a conservationist really can’t be overestimated. He was the voice of the people at a time when everyone was ‘we can’t let our hearts rule our heads’?”
Palin himself has achieved a similar status as a national treasure and is recognised as much for being the affable globetrotting host of travel documentaries as for his work with Monty Python.
But despite this late rush of film roles, the father-of-three has slowed the pace somewhat.
“I love travelling and I am always on the move but there are a lot of people doing travel series well, from different angles and though I may do one in future I now have three grandsons. No matter how incredible the journey I always love coming back.
“When people ask my favourite place, I say ‘home’. It sounds soppy but it’s true.”
Fellow Pythons may have undergone marital break-ups and moved abroad, but Palin has stayed put in Gospel Oak with his wife of 50 years, Helen Gibbins.
“I like where I am we’ve been here a long time and have roots and friends. That’s what’s important having a base.”
And the publisher of several volumes of diaries says he still keeps a journal: “I can’t stop now, it’s like cleaning my teeth, something I do every morning.
“I’ve tried doing it at night but if you’ve been out and had a few you can’t read your hand-writing and there’s red wine stains on the page.”
Two years ago, the Pythons reunited for sold-out live shows at the O2 with Terry Jones, Eric Idle Gilliam Palin and John Cleese reprising their famous sketches.
“You knew people were fond of Python but you didn’t know whether this was a small core of people who recite the scripts all the time, or would buy tickets for an arena. To find we sold out the first two nights was quite a shock.
We realised: ‘this has got to be good’. When we stepped onto the stage there was a great roar that energised us so much. It was wonderfully exhilarating.”
At 73, Palin’s objective remains the same as thoughout his working life: “I’ve been very lucky to meet people at various stages who said: ‘come on have a go at this’.
“I get bored quite easily and am attracted by things I have never done before – Gilliam’s film is a perfect example, having to learn how to ride a horse, hold a lance and wear armour in the Spanish heat at 73 – come to think of it I’ll put a clause in my contract not to kill me off.
“I know it’s going to be painful because he makes things differently to the way everyone else does, and you’ll occasionally find yourself in a film going upstairs in a crouching position.
“I am not in condition to do a lot of that, but heck it’s lovely to be able to take on a challenge like that at my age.”
If, he adds cautiously, “it happens”.
Michael Palin and Lee Montague celebrate John Betjeman at Peter Samuels Hall The Royal Free Hospital on June 3. Tickets £15 from Keat’s Library or call 0207 4311266.