Dead parrots and all that: Michael Palin tells Michael Leapman how he couldn't hack it on a local paper

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The Independent Online
Any journalist could have told Michael Palin the first rule of writing a column: if you are going to make a joke, be sure to flag it unmistakably. In the first of his four columns for the Isle of Wight County Press last autumn he wrote: 'My stay in Vectis (surely this must be the only island named after a bus company) . . .' The ink was scarcely dry before the inevitable letter arrived from Disgusted of Shanklin. Doesn't he know that the bus company was named after the island?

Palin's venture into journalism was, in several respects, a humbling experience. It came about through his connection with Meridian, the company that ousted TVS as ITV franchise-holder for the south of England. He was a founder of Meridian, which promised in its franchise application that he would feature in a documentary series.

He wanted it to be based in the region, in contrast to his globe-trotting Pole to Pole for the BBC. The idea was for him to take a job as a reporter on a southern paper. 'The Isle of Wight seemed highly promising,' says Palin, 'because it is a separate world with a different mind-set from the rest of the country. You feel that as soon as you get there.'

Peter Hurst, editor of the County Press, agreed to accommodate four columns. So Palin spent four weeks there with a camera crew, attending Cowes Week, a garlic festival and a misshapen vegetables contest, and writing about them for the paper. The resulting four- part TV series, Palin's Column, will go out on Channel 4 from 6 June. The programmes may be fine, but I got the impression from both Palin and Hurst that neither regarded the columns as a tremendous success.

'I can do sketches and dialogue but journalism has always been rather frightening to me,' confesses Palin, who used to write a lot of the Monty Python programmes, and once worked as a journalist - though not for long - in the publicity department of a Sheffield steel mill. 'It's a difficult thing to get right. We all criticise newspapers but when you try to do it yourself it isn't easy.'

In his County Press columns he went for personalities rather than issues, even though it is a broadsheet of a traditional kind. He was disappointed at what he saw as the cool response of the paper's 112,000 readers - 90 per cent of the island's population.

'The column didn't generate as much correspondence as I hoped,' he admits. It was especially galling because the paper prints more readers' letters than any other in the country: three pages a week.

Hurst offers an explanation: 'He was very professional and a stickler for accuracy - always ringing us at the last minute to change things - and while his column was entertaining, it wasn't very controversial. There are a lot of controversial issues here and that's what people write letters about.'

It was not for want of trying. Palin's columns ranged over potentially dangerous ground: witchcraft, the island's traffic system, its prison and the price of the ferry crossing, but somehow it lacked the combative edge of a Garry Bushell or a John Junor.

This may not have been entirely his fault. The quaint cross-heads inserted in his copy - 'Fitting burial place for Oliver next to Crumpet'; 'Grand old lady made to look like a beekeeper'; 'Spooky smell emanating from the potting shed' - did not help much.

For whatever reason, Palin's career as a columnist is probably over. 'I haven't had offers from any other paper,' he tells me, I think a little dejectedly.

(Photograph omitted)