Education: Passed/failed: Michael Palin
Thursday 16 October 1997
Poles Apart? I remember my first day very clearly at the kindergarten attached to Birkdale Preparatory School (motto, `Res Non Verba' - Things Not Words) where I spent nine years: the very dark brown paint of the converted house of a Sheffield steel owner; Miss Forsdike taking my hand; the doors swinging to behind my mother. I remember enjoying geography and maps from early on; there was a project on Sheffield which involved colouring in the various rocks. Roger Laughton, the series producer in the first documentary I ever did, was in the year above.
Playing Your Tune? I had a very traumatic experience in the music class, where we used to sing stirring songs like "Men of Harlech". The master said. "Someone's not singing in tune!" I was denounced and forced to go up to the front to sing scales next to the piano. My voice shook. I was banished to a table in the same room called "Non-singers" and I've been embarrassed about my singing ever since.
What the Dickens? I suffered from extreme stage fright when playing the chief weasel in Toad of Toad Hall; I was deeply relieved when it was called off due to rain; it was outdoors. At nine I was Martha Cratchit in A Christmas Carol. The idea was we'd all come in out of the rain and I had water poured over my bonnet, which I then couldn't get off, from a watering can. It was a large cast on a small stage and I fell off during the Christmas dinner scene. In the school breaks, I'd do improvisatory shows with different voices and people would pack into the little room. I did a series about what might go wrong at the Coronation.
Did Ye Ken John Peel? Passing Common Entrance to Shrewsbury, where my father had gone, was one of my happiest educational moments. I overlapped by one term with John Peel, who was very different from the general run of house prefects. I found him in his study, lying on his back, eyes closed, and nodding his head in time to the blues music which he played very loud. This wasn't done at a school where you went to chapel every day, twice on Sundays.
Greene Belted? My A levels were Geography, History, English and maybe French. History was my strongest subject but I wanted to read English and mugged up for the English exam at Worcester, Oxford. At the interview, when I was asked my favourite author, I said, "Graham Greene," only to be told, "The course stops at 1900. Graham Greene need not detain us. What is your favourite author before 1900?" Desperately, I said "Wordsworth" and he said, "Name six poems". I said, "Daffodils" and, after a long pause, "Michael". I ended up in Brasenose, where they didn't ask such cruel questions.
Something Completely Different? Robert Hewison, who now writes for The Sunday Times, encouraged me to work with him in a cabaret act. I was a Sheffield boy overawed by Oxford but he was very confident and metropolitan. He got us a booking at the Oxford University Psychology Society Christmas party; they were a very serious - and very appreciative - audience. In my second year I was chosen to go to Edinburgh with the Oxford Review; this was when I started working with Terry Jones. It went down extremely well and we used to stay up until 1.30 in the morning, listening to the new Beatles album. I thought I'd really arrived.
Time's Up? I had to work quite hard at the end of my third year to make up for the previous two-and-a-half; I got a Second. In our last term I produced a show with all the current Oxford performers like Diana Quick and David Wood; it was a great evening. Robert Hewison and I also wrote a show at The Playhouse which didn't go down terribly well. "Ahead of it's time," is what we say.
Interview by Jonathan Sale
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