Sex, money, food, religion

Turning 80 this week, Sir Michael Palin gets candid about the Meaning of Life – and reveals his destination for another TV documentary series and book

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Stupidity delivered with a straight face. It’s a concept that defined almost everything Monty Python achieved throughout their momentous comedy career but it’s also a nice analogy for life. 

For all our self-imposed rules, regulations and formalities, life, death and everything in between is all a bit silly when you boil it down to basics. The troupe tried to somehow sum this up in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, their fourth and final movie, which celebrates its 40th birthday this year – and according to one of its six creators, they did a pretty good job of it too. 

“I look back on it increasingly fondly,” says Sir Michael Palin, reflecting on the lasting legacy of a film that boasts a Hollywood-style musical number reminding us that “every sperm is sacred” and the infamous Mr Creosote, a giant blob of a man that vomits himself to death. 

“It was a difficult writing process – not nearly as smooth and easy as the other films,” he tells us. “But as I look back at it 40 years later, I think it’s got some terrific stuff in it – some of the best things we ever did.”

Born in Sheffield in 1943, Palin’s route to Python came via his studies at Brasenose College in Oxford where he first met Terry Jones, a student at St Edmund Hall who later became his writing partner. A stint working in the writer’s room at the Frost Report put the pair into contact with Eric Idle, John Cleese and Graham Chapman, and when the latter two were offered their own TV show, they called on the help of Palin and Jones, and the seeds of Python were sewn. 

Around the same time, Palin, Jones, Idle and an American animator named Terry Gilliam were offered a show following their success on Do Not Adjust Your Set, and when Palin decided to take Cleese up on his initial offer, he took the whole troupe with him. Together, the sextet found success with their wild and surreal comedy sketch show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in 1969. More acclaim followed, this time in America and with cinema calling, And Now For Something Completely Different, a sketch film featuring Flying Circus’s best bits, was released in 1971, followed by Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1975 and Monty Python’s Life of Brian in 1979. 

“We were bankable enough to have a very secure budget yet we didn’t know what we wanted to write.”

Today, both Grail and Brain are considered giants of the comedy genre, while the collective work of Python itself is largely blamed for revolutionising humour and giving birth to modern alternative comedy. By the time Meaning of Life rolled around in 1983, Python was at its bankable best and, as legend has it, told that if they made just one more movie, they’d never have to work again. There was just one problem: they’d run out of ideas. 

“The difficulty with Meaning of Life was that we were bankable enough to have a very secure budget yet we didn’t know what we wanted to write,” recalls Palin. 

“There was nothing in our minds that had the narrative quality of Life of Brian or even Holy Grail, so how on Earth do we avoid it being just another sketch film? Because sketch films are very hard to pull off. We decided to have a go and wrote quite a bit of material.

“Lots was thrown away, but what remained was sewn together under the general banner of ‘birth, life and death’, which enabled us to have a loose structure but also to be fairly outrageous in the things we were looking at, which were basically sex, money, food, religion. We could basically incorporate everything into this higher, philosophical exercise.” 

And that’s exactly what they did. In Meaning of Life, the Pythons dissect everything from sex education, via Cleese’s school teacher actively demonstrating the birds and the bees in front of his own students, to the healthcare system, complete with its bloody, door-service liver donation scheme, and, of course, the machine that goes “ping!” They also looked at the bigger picture, with Idle putting things in perspective with the surprisingly comforting Galaxy Song and Palin’s kind-but-shouty army sergeant letting his troops do whatever else it is they’d rather be doing with their time – surely something anyone stuck in a monotonous 9-5 can relate to.

“Terry Jones was the sheepdog getting us in the pen at times,” admits Palin, remembering how the film’s director and co-star, who passed away in 2020 shortly after a diagnosis of aphasia dementia, had a knack for keeping the Pythons on track. 

“Terry gets his head down, decides what needs to be done and gets it done. For instance, he knew Every Sperm is Sacred could only be done if you did it like a great big Hollywood musical number. 

“He had a great sense of the absurd and the scale of a good joke. He knew jokes could be funny not because they were cheap to make, but also because they were extraordinarily elaborate.”

“There’s no vomiting sequence that I know of in any movie to match Meaning of Life.”

The same rule applied to the film’s infamous finale, a grotesque segment about greed featuring a man who quite literally eats himself to death in between near-constant vomiting. 

“There’s no vomiting sequence that I know of in any movie to match that,” suggests Palin with a smile. “Nothing is held back in this movie.” 

Shot in London’s Seymour Baths, Jones used gallons of minestrone soup to double for Creosote’s high-flying sick. 

“There was a wedding party booked in for about 10 o’clock the morning after,” he recalls. “I later met somebody who had been at that wedding and they said there was a bit of an odd smell – but it looked fine.”

This week, Palin turns 80, and in the years since the film’s debut, he’s witnessed some of Meaning of Life’s more ridiculous moments played out in reality. 

“The birth scene at the beginning is a brilliant piece authored largely by Graham, who was a doctor. It’s about machinery at the expense of any knowledge of the people to whom it’s being applied.

He refers to a scene where a husband is turned away from witnessing his wife giving birth in favour of a state-of-the-art kit. 

“That’s absolutely applicable now. I’ve had to go to hospitals a bit more recently and I’ve seen how, if you’re not careful, technology takes over people’s brains and they forget there’s a human at the end of it.” 

When reminded that this must be the ultimate irony, he’s quick to agree. “Nearly everything we did in Python comes back to kick you up the arse in the end.”

In his post-Python years, Palin has hardly sat still. An avid traveller, he’s made a number of critically acclaimed travel documentaries that have sent him all around the world, from both poles, Eastern Europe and the Sahara to Brazil, North Korea, and his latest trip was into war-torn Iraq in 2022. 

In 2000, he was awarded a CBE for his television work, and in 2019, his services to travel, culture and geography were rewarded with a knighthood, making him the only Python to accept such honours. Over the years, his adventures have taken him deep into Russia, now waging war against its neighbour Ukraine. Has visiting the country and its people given him a better understanding of the events that led to this conflict?

“I’m deeply saddened. That’s not the Russia I know at all and I feel the people have been conned.”

“I’ve been to Russia two or three times and you can’t avoid the feeling of an authoritarian regime keeping an eye on things. It’s not relaxing, but as soon as you get away from that, you meet people who are as warm, friendly, hospitable and kind of mad and lovely, as you’d find anywhere else.

“I’ve always felt very at home in Russia and I feel very sad about the way its people have been led into this dreadful war in Ukraine. If you look back through Russian history, dictators who want to maintain authority have to identify an enemy otherwise their authority deflates – and the latest is Ukraine. 

“I’m deeply saddened. That’s not the Russia I know at all and I feel the people have been conned.” 

While life commitments mean Palin may doing slightly less these days, the idea of retirement is never something that has appealed. 

“Oh no. Retiring in the sense of breathing a sigh of relief and saying I don’t have to go into the office? Not at all. Modifying the amount I try to take on and giving myself time to assess and appraise where I am in life and enjoy looking back as well as doing new stuff – that’s what keeps me going.

“If that’s sort of a semi-retirement, I’ll take it – but I’m always looking for the next thing to do.” 

That next thing might be arriving sooner rather than later. With rumours of retirement dismissed, Palin reveals plans for yet another journey. 

“Undoubtedly, working with a small group to make a documentary series, especially somewhere which is difficult and not covered by others, is a great thing to do. Hopefully, this autumn I’ll have a new series and a new book out,” he says, confirming that his next adventure will take him into Africa. 

“My work is my life and my life is my work. It’s more of a work-work balance than a work-life balance,” he laughs. “If this trip doesn’t happen, you’ll know that the balance has been broken.”

Photo: BBC Pictures

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