When bile is one of the creative juices: Michael Palin's take on the dilemmas of artistic collaboration are horribly revealing

He has said some harsh things about his Monty Python colleague John Cleese, but collaborators often fall out...

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The Independent Online

Last week’s most fascinating arts world story surfaced in an interview given by Michael Palin in the course of a Bafta “Life in Television” event convened to recognise the achievements of his half-century in the business. Here, as his host David Walliams benignly presided, Palin dilated on the experience of being part of the Monty Python set-up.

His key revelation – that his co-star John Cleese could be “difficult” to work with – can’t really have surprised any student of that gentleman’s career, for the political equivalent would be to remark that Dennis Skinner is somewhat class-conscious man or that Enoch Powell had strong views on racial issues. And yet the Palin take on what might be called the dilemmas of artistic collaboration turned out to be horribly revealing.

Palin rarely allows his reputation for all-round amiability to desert him, and in his account of the divide that began to separate one part of the Python team from another in the early 1970s as their orbit expanded beyond the original television series, was careful to lay much of the blame at the door of contending public profiles. “John and Eric [Idle] had a lifestyle that was slightly more, how shall I say, complicated than ours,” he diffidently explained. “They were stars and we weren’t and the trouble with stars is that they can be very difficult.” While Cleese and Idle were jetting off on exotic holidays, he alleged, he and his fellow-performer Terry Jones were “happy to go down the pub”.

All this was nicely put, but there lurked a suspicion that the contrast between saloon bar and far-flung Caribbean strand was possibly less important to Palin than being subject to the whims of what, it increasingly became clear, was a professional control freak. Asked how many people among the six Pythons had to like an idea for it to work, he replied: “John, and then the others”. As for the chances of the group staging a further reunion beyond last summer’s 10-nighter at the 02 arena, Palin reckoned the chances of Cleese being interested were slim to negligible: “Having just read his very attractive if slightly over-priced autobiography, I could tell he wasn’t really keen to do it,” he teasingly pronounced. “He’d got enough money by then.”

 

No doubt about it, the glancing wound sometimes turns out to be the most painful. And yet, in the context of showbiz history, one might have assumed that the spectacle of Cleese dictatorially at large in the Pythons’ rehearsal room would be less of a problem than it eventually became, if only because comedy, of all the creative arts, has always seemed to be more than usually hospitable to the idea of large-scale collaboration. From the Crazy Gang to the Marx Brothers, and from Saturday Night Live to the Not the Nine O’Clock News team, the ensemble performance has nearly always managed to exert some kind of brake on otherwise uncontrollable egos, reining them in or channelling their idiosyncrasies into what passes for a group effort.

Certainly the early history of a show like Saturday Night Live, when such forceful personalities – to revert to Palin-style euphemism – as Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi were rorting about together seems to bear this out. Certain of the principal performers might heartily have disliked each other; they might have been actively conspiring to push their colleagues into supporting roles; but the humour that emerged was capable of supporting these tensions, to the point where – in the small matter of Chase versus Belushi – the tensions became part of the humour itself. One of the funniest ever SNL sketches involved Belushi appearing on stage dressed as a bee, and clearly not liking the imposture because he thought that it demeaned his talent.

Contrast this with the time-honoured machinations of the control freak-cum-ego maniac let loose in the music industry – Lou Reed, for example, creeping back into the studio after the other members of Velvet Underground had gone home to ferret out the tapes and, well I never, turn up his own vocal and guitar parts, or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young gradually diminishing into Crosby and Nash, and intermittently into merely Crosby.

To read Barry Miles’s biography of Frank Zappa is to plunged into a creative world built on the principle of autonomy, where band members are cast aside like so many handkerchiefs, their contributions ignored and erased until the law-suits begin to wing in, and the happiest moment of Frank’s professional life comes when he discovers a machine called the Synclavier which enables him to dispense with supporting musicians altogether.

From one angle, you can see Zappa’s point – why let someone else do something you think you can do better yourself? – just as you could see Paul McCartney’s at the moments in the Beatles’ recording history when he waved George Harrison away from the booth and resolved to do the guitar solo himself. If the Lennon-McCartney collaboration rates as one of the greatest in musical history it was because, at any rate until the mid-1960s, much of their song-writing was done face-to-face on either side of a table with each contributing alternate lines and phrases. It was only when Lennon had been seduced into thinking that art is about the artist and McCartney started wondering why their compositions couldn’t appear on the record label with his name listed first that things started to fall apart.

All this tends to suggest that the creative collaboration works best at a time before those involved in it have started to become self-conscious, possibly at a point in their relationship where they are scarcely aware that a collaboration is even taking place. The Odd Couple, Richard Bradford’s book about the friendship between Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, demonstrates the decisive influence that each writer, though communicating only by weekly letter, had on the other in the 1950s. Larkin offers Amis advice on the manuscript that will become Lucky Jim. Amis, meanwhile, is planting seeds that will blossom forth in Larkin’s poems. Neither, at this stage, is actively competing with the other; they are simply friends trading ideas and enthusiasms. “The white stag, Fame,” to borrow Ezra Pound’s line, may be glimpsed across the horizon but it isn’t yet gambolling through the rhododendron bushes. Naturally, it couldn’t last, and by the middle of the decade Larkin is writing sniffy notes to his girlfriend Monica Jones complaining that Amis has borrowed the opening scene from That Uncertain Feeling from one of his own letters.

If all these cautionary tales have any bearing on the humiliations suffered by five-sixths of the Monty Python team, it is perhaps to suggest that Palin and his friends should have tried writing a sketch or two in which Cleese’s controlling urges were subtly advanced to the point where they quietly became the focal point or the gags, or that they should have devised a way of working in which Cleese imagined that he was being deferred to but was actually being outmanoeuvred by stealth. Alternatively, they could have tried scraping the money together to accompany him on holiday.

No doubt about it, though, Palin seems far happier writing books and pursuing television adventures on his own.

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