Michael Palin's tasks included walking across Clifton suspension bridge in a striped Edwardian swimming costume © David Sandison
'I played a piano while Arthur Mullard smashed it up'

It was a prime minister who got Michael Palin his first job. In the mid-Sixties, when the West Country television company TWW was starting up a local rival to Top of the Pops, young Palin was auditioned as a presenter. As he would soon become part of Monty Python, known for sending up yoof shows rather than presenting them, he does not now seem to have been an obvious choice.

Fortunately there were to be other trendy elements, including a political segment produced by a couple of satirical scriptwriters. "I could do a Harold Wilson impersonation," Palin explains, admitting that "in fact, it was an impersonation of John Bird impersonating Harold Wilson."

But it was good enough to get him into the team of no fewer than four presenters; an actor, a fashion expert, a dancer and Palin all crowded into the studio of Now!, as the show was ambitiously named.

"I think the exclamation mark was our downfall, as if we were going to change the whole way television was looked at.

"It was very cumbersome, with four presenters and two or three groups who had to be got on and off the small stage. Top of the Pops could have three or four big names but we could afford only one and had to take whatever we could get for virtually nothing."

TWW hoped to sell the show to the rest of the commercial network, but Palin remembers Grampian as being one of the few stations to come on board. In spite of being financially challenged, Now! managed to lure Tom Jones, then a rising star, on to its first show. Rod Stewart was happy to make the trip westwards, as were Eric Clapton and Alan Price and The Animals.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who had just made a satirical pop song, featured on the Palins' wedding photographs, as did Manfred Mann – after a two-day honeymoon squeezed by the filming schedule, Michael and Helen had been forced to fly straight to the studio in Bristol.

"I was being given more to do. I had to walk across Clifton suspension bridge in a striped Edwardian swimming costume and red wellingtons, miming to 'These Boots Are Made for Walkin''. Once I played a piano in the middle of a field as [actor] Arthur Mullard smashed it to pieces. Yes, the political element of the show did become somewhat diminished."

During the impressive year before Now! became, as it were, Then!, Palin could observe at close quarters how television programmes were made even when it rained and the props failed to turn up. And it was a day job that was at times just that – one day a week. This gave him time to write sketches with another Jones – Terry – eventually moving on to something completely different.

'New Europe' by Michael Palin is out now (Weidenfeld, £20)