Halfway To Hollywood: Diaries 1980-1989

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9780297844402: Halfway To Hollywood: Diaries 1980-1989

A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction of 2011 title  The second volume of Michael Palin’s diaries covers the bulk of the 1980s, a decade in which the ties binding the Pythons loosened—they made their last film Monty Pyton’s Meaning of Life in 1983. For Michael, writing and acting took over much of his life, culminating in his appearances in A Fish Called Wanda, in which he played the hapless, stuttering Ken, and won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor. Halfway to Hollywood follows Palin’s torturous trail through seven movies and ends with his final preparations for the documentary that was to change his life—Around the World in 80 Days.During these years he co-wrote and acted in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits as well as spearing in Gilliam’s follow-up success Brazil. Palin co-produced, wrote and played the lead in The Missionary opposite Maggie Smith, who also appeared with him in A Private Function, written by Alan Bennett. In television the decade was memorable for East of Ipswich, inspired his links with Suffolk. Such was his fame in the US, he was enticed into once again hosting the enormously popular show Saturday Night Live. He filmed one of the BBC’s Great Railway Journeys as well as becoming chairman of the pressure group Transport 2000. His life with Helen and the family remains a constant, as the children enter their teens.Palin’s joy of writing is evident once more in Halfway to Hollywood as he demonstrates his continuing sense of wonder at the world in which he finds himself. A world of screens large and small.

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About the Author:

MICHAEL PALIN is a scriptwriter, comedian, novelist, television presenter, actor and playwright. He established his reputation with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Ripping Yarns. His work also includes several films with Monty Python, as well as The Missionary, A Private Function, A Fish Called Wanda, American Friends and Fierce Creatures. His television credits include two films for the BBC’s Great Railway Journeys, the plays East of Ipswich and Number 27, and Alan Bleasdale’s GBH.

In 2006 the first volume of his diaries, 1969-1979: The Python Years, became an international bestseller. He has also written books to accompany his seven very successful travel series, Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle, Hemingway Adventure, Sahara, Himalaya and New Europe. He is the author of a number of children’s stories, the play The Weekend and the novel Hemingway’s Chair.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

HALFWAY TO HOLLYWOOD (Chapter 1)1980

As a new decade began I was enmeshed in two new projects. One was collaborating on the screenplay of a children’s fantasy dreamt up by Terry Gilliam, and the other a proper serious documentary, on railways, for the BBC. Both of these were off my normal patch, which was exciting in a way but a little less predictable than I’d have liked. The bedrock of the family was being quietly and unsensationally strengthened; Helen and I had been married nearly fourteen years. Tom was eleven and Will was nine and Rachel coming up to five. Which meant a lot more responsibilities than the same time ten years earlier. And I still had no regular job. I was an intuitively stable character living in a state of almost permanent flux. Quite a balancing act.

Keeping a diary had, after tentative beginnings in 1969 and 1970, become an ingrained habit, and a discipline too. Like the running I’d recently taken up, it was something consistent, a necessary complement to the mercurial world of work. Something to keep me grounded.

I continued to write up the diary most mornings, aware as ever how selective I had to be and how little time I ever had for honing and shaping. But I kept the story going. Just about.

Unless otherwise indicated, the entries are written in my house in Oak Village in North London.

Sunday, January 6th

With the social and gastronomic excesses of Christmas and New Year over, life this weekend has returned, after many weeks, to something approaching calm. I find I can easily cope with eight hours’ sleep a night. I find I enjoy having time to sort my books out or take the children out or sit in front of the fire. I feel my body and my mind adjusting to a new pace and a new rhythm. I’ve hardly used the car in the last week. I haven’t been into town, or shopping, or having business meetings. And I feel the benefits of this pause, this time to take stock of the present instead of endless worryings over the future or the past.

I’ve become a little self-sufficient, too. Though Gilliam is a regular visitor – like a mother hen having to keep returning to the nest to make sure the eggs are still all right – I’m responsible for the writing pace at the moment. I know that just over the horizon is the full swirl of a dozen different projects, meetings, responsibilities, considerations and demands, but for now the sea is calm.

Monday, January 7th

Denis [O’Brien] was back from the States today. According to TG he has no backers for the film [Time Bandits], but intends to go ahead and do it himself – just to ‘spite them all’. I think this leaves me feeling as uncomfortable as it does Terry. But I read him some of the opening scenes, which cheer him up.

Pat Casey1 rings to know my availability. She has a movie part which was written for Dudley Moore. He’s now charging one and a half million dollars a picture and wants to do some serious acting, so Pat is asking me if I would be interested in the part. I have to turn it down as I’m occupied this year.

Wednesday, January 9th

At Redwood [Studios] at four. Eric, moderately well laid-back, occasionally strumming guitar. Trevor Jones2 bustling. André3 looking tired, but working faithfully. Graham [Chapman], who is getting £5,000 a month from Python as co-producer of this album [Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation], sits contentedly, with John [Tomiczek] in attendance. He seems, as usual, not quite in tune with what’s going on around him. I record the Headmaster’s speech and that’s about all.

Up to the Crown at Seven Dials for a drink with Terry Gilliam and Roger Pratt.4 This is more like the real world for me. I can believe in the three of us and the place and the people around us far more than I can in what’s going on at Redwood. Clearly TG feels the same. He’s a bit confused by Denis’s attitude to his film – on the one hand he is supportive and confident in TG – the next he’s suggesting stars and names with almost frantic indiscrimination.

Thursday, January 10th

Rachel’s first day at Gospel Oak School. It’s a rather glum, hard, cold day with weather from the east. I don’t see Rachel leave as I’m at the Mornington Foot Clinic. Mr Owen natters and reminisces as he slices at my foot – removing not only the corn but valuable minutes of screenwriting!

Home by ten. Rachel seems to have taken to school without any traumas. In fact Helen seems to have been affected more by the experience.

Unplug the phone and get down to the knotty problems of making an adventure serious and funny. Jim Franklin1 rings to offer me a part in the Goodies and Pat Casey to try and induce me yet again to take a Dudley Moore cast-off.

Friday, January 11th

Up and running early this morning. The temperature is just on freezing and the grass on top of Parliament Hill is covered with frost. Feel immensely refreshed and thoroughly awoken.

Arrive at T Gilliam’s just after 10.30.

Progress is steady but not spectacular, though TG is very amused by the Robin Hood sequence.

To Denis O’B’s for a meeting at two. Denis looks weary. He was up working on ‘structures’ for TG’s film until 2.30 yesterday morning. But he seems to be as bright and tenaciously thorough about all my affairs as he ever was.

Home by six. Feel encouraged after our meeting. Denis has talked of an India project – and self-financing of it, rather like TG’s film – but basically my encouragement stems from the knowledge that with Denis we are in a different league. For the first time we are being offered the prospect of quite considerable financial rewards. Denis clearly identifies money with power – although in our case our ‘power’, in terms of reputation, was established and created without vast rewards. Now Denis wants the rewards for us and through us for himself.

At the moment he seems to have admirable goals, but I have this nagging feeling that our ‘freedom’ to do whatever we want may be threatened if Denis is able to build up this juggernaut of Python earning power and influence. A few of the most interesting projects may be rolled flat.

Monday, January 14th

To Anne’s [James] for a Python meeting with Denis. JC, fresh returned from Barbados, stands there shivering. Anne, as thoughtful as ever, has provided some lunch. Meeting is basically to discuss Denis’s two offers for the next [Monty Python] movie – from Warners and Paramount. Warners want a screenplay before going ahead, Paramount just a treatment. Denis is asking for 6.4 million dollars.

Time is of the essence, as Paramount, who are offering a better financial deal, do require the movie for summer 1981 release. This, I feel, puts pressures on the group which we would rather not have – and thankfully no-one feels any different. But JC suggests that we go along with Paramount at the moment and just see if, after the seven-week March/April writing period, we have enough to give them a treatment – ‘In which case we could all go ahead and make a lot of money very quickly.’

Though we all feel the Paramount deal for the next movie is the one to pursue, Denis is proposing to try and place Grail, now released from Cinema 5, with Warners, so they can do a Life of Brian/Holy Grail re-release in the US next summer. There is no great enthusiasm for selling the Bavaria film as a Python Olympic Special to the US networks in summer of this year. Eric reckons there will be no Olympics anyway. Certainly the Russian invasion of Afghanistan has shaken things up.

TG comes round and we talk over Denis and the movie. But I’m feeling very unsettled about my role in it at the moment. The script is clogged and I’ve lost a day’s writing today. There seems suddenly so much to do and I refuse to give up my railway project [contributing to the BBC’s Great Railway Journeys], despite reportedly ‘generous’ financial inducements from Denis to prolong my work on the TG movie.

André arrives very late, bringing a quite beautiful tape of Trevor Jones’s arrangement for ‘Decomposing Composers’. How the hell I’ll sing it, I don’t know.

Thursday, January 17th

Go with Tom and Helen to a ‘parents’ view’ at Acland Burghley Comprehensive, one of the three local schools which Tom will have to be selected for, and where he will be well ensconced by this time next year.

A modern school, presenting a forbidding aspect, cloaked as it is in heavy grey concrete. The doors and passageways give the immediate impression of a hard, unpretty, pragmatist mind at work. But the library/reading room, where about 20 of us parents assemble, is warm and bright, the shelves are well-filled. I noticed Soviet Weekly alongside The Economist.

We were shown into a biology room and given glowing prospects of the future of this school. However I couldn’t help noticing a large piece of paper on the front of a cupboard low on the ground near our feet, which bore the simple legend ‘Whoever reads this is a cunt’.

Friday, January 18th

The world seems to have started 1980 so badly that I have on occasions this past week questioned the wisdom of working myself to a standstill when all the elements for the start of another global war crowd the newspapers for headline space. Ultimatums are flying around and ultimatums, to me, are synonymous with the outbreak of World War II.

It may in a few years sound rather laughable that Jimmy Carter threatened Russia that he will pull America out of the Olympics if the Russians haven’t withdrawn their forces from Afghanistan by mid-February, but combined as this pronouncement is with the volatility of unsettled Iran and the much more threatening stances being taken up in preparation for President Tito’s imminent death in Yugoslavia, the potential flashpoints seem sure to light something.

But it all ultimately is unreal and either you panic and sell everything you’ve got to buy gold, or you just sit down and have breakfast, presuming it won’t be the last one. And of course it isn’t.

Saturday, January 19th

Denis O’B rings. His proposal for my work on the T Gilliam film is that I be made a partner, along with Terry G, in the production company, so I will be able to share with TG the depreciation on capital which will be worth £60,000 in tax advantages. Don’t ask me why, but this is clearly a generous move on the part of George [Harrison] and Denis O’B, who are the providers of the money.

And I can go ahead with the railway documentary – ‘If you really want to,’ says Denis, unhappily, knowing that there’s precious little he can do to squeeze more than £2,400 out of the BBC for what’s ostensibly 12 weeks’ work!

In the afternoon a two and a half hour visit to Haverstock School. A lived-in, scuffed and battered collection of buildings. Impressed by the straightforwardness of the teachers. Impressed by the lack of waffle about tradition, Latin and prayers and the emphasis on the future and helping all the children of whatever ability equally.

An impossible ideal, some may say, but at least these teachers are confronting the most basic problems of an educational system with great energy and cheeriness. I was encouraged.

Monday, January 21st

The world situation seems to have cooled down, though I see in my Times that Paul McCartney is still in jail in Japan after being caught at the airport with naughty substances. How silly. Eric reckons it’s a put-up job – part of John Lennon’s price, which he’s exacting from Paul for being rude to Yoko.

At five I brave the skyscraper-induced blasts of icy wind that whip round the Euston Tower and find myself in Capital Radio, being asked questions on, and reading extracts from, Decline and Fall. I find I’m never as lucid when the tape’s rolling as I am over a glass of wine at home an hour later and in the course of an hour I get tongue-tied and fail to say even what I meant to say – let alone whether that was worth saying or not. I’m in august company – Denis Norden and Melvyn Bragg are the other two pundits on this particular book. JC has already said his piece about Twelfth Night (from which Shakespeare didn’t emerge very favourably) and TJ is soon to do The Spire by William Golding.

Wednesday, January 23rd

The fine weather’s back again. Tito’s recovering and the steel strike is still faced with government intransigence. I have either pulled, twisted or bruised some muscle below and to the right of my kneecap, so I rest from running today, despite ideal, dry, cool, bright conditions out there.

Work on with TG script. The end is in sight, but is this writing to order – 6lbs assorted jokes, half a hundredweight of nutty characters and 20 yards of filler dialogue – really going to stand up? I’m encouraged when I think of the general level of movie dialogue – but this movie has to be judged by exceptional, not general level.

Write myself to a standstill by four and drive into the West End to see Apocalypse Now. Impressive – there is no other word for it – and the action sequences of the war are rivetingly watchable.

But the last half-hour – the meat, one feels, of Coppola/Milius’ message – is a huge con. The action slows, the dialogue and performance become heavy with significance, sluggish with style.

Thursday, January 24th

Stop work at one. A couple of phone calls, then drive down to Neal’s Yard for the Grand Unveiling Ceremony of the 14/15 Neal’s Yard sign [designed by Terry G]. On one side red lurid lips and teeth bear the legend ‘Neal’s Yd. Abattoir’ (to correct the present unwholesome imbalance in favour of the wholefooders who have proliferated all over the yard) and on the other side ‘The British Film Industry Ltd’.

When I arrive it is made clear to me that a few choice words will have to be spoken and yours truly is the man to speak them. So we troop down into the yard and there, on this perfect sunny day, I bewilder all those queuing for non-meat lunches at the bakery by giving a few loud, but brief words, then smashing a champagne bottle against the building. ‘God bless her and all who work in her.’ It breaks the second time.

Friday, January 25th

To Terry Gilliam’s at 10.15 for session on the film. TG likes the Ogre and the Old Ladies scene, but I think feels that the Evil Genius is too much on one level of cod hysteria. I agree, but we still have time to go over the characters again and invest them with a few more quirks.

We go to lunch at the Pizza Express and talk over the more serious problem of the ‘content’ of the script – the attitude to the characters, to Kevin’s adventures – the message which gives the depth to a superficial story of chase and adventure. Really I feel the depth is there anyway, it’s a question of how obvious to make it.

Leave for Dr Kieser’s1 surgery, where I have a cut and cover job on one of my front upper teeth – so my dental surgery is in its third decade. At one moment, as he works on the gum and bone, it begins to hurt. ‘Is that pressure or pain you’re feeling?’ asks Kieser urgently. God...how on earth do I tell?

Friday, February 1st

A rush for the tape. Began reassembling and rewriting the section from the Spider Women to the end at ten. Lunch at the desk.

TG arrives about 7.30 and I stumble to the ‘End’ by eight. He will get all this mass of stuck-up, crossed-out, type-and-longhand-jumbled sheets to Alison [Davies, at the office] this weekend. All should be returned by Sunday a.m., so I can then read through and learn the awful truth about this amazingly speedy piece of writing.

I go to bed at midnight with the satisfaction of having completed my self-set task of a TG script in the month of January. It would be marvellous if the script were of a high standard, worked and immeasurably increased the confidence of all working on the project...

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Michael Palin
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