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

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins wins the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
music
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
News
(David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Graduate Sales Executive

£18 - 24k OTE + Uncapped Commission: Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Executive ...

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Ashdown Group: .NET Developer : ASP.NET , C# , MVC , web development

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits - see advert: Ashdown Group: .N...

Guru Careers: 3D Package Designer / 3D Designer

£25 - 30K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an exceptional 3D Package Designer / 3...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor