“We didn’t regard our work as having much of a future,” says Michael Palin, talking about his early career in 1960s television comedy. “TV was just one of those things that you churned out, and it went into the shredder afterwards or was wiped. You never thought people would want to see this in the future.”
In April, Palin will be appearing on stage at BFI Southbank as the opening event of the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival. In conversation with broadcaster Eddie Mair, he will introduce a number of clips from his early career, which have been preserved and restored by the BFI National Archive.
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These include extracts from early sketch shows, such as Do Not Adjust Your Set and The Complete and Utter History of Britain, in which you can see the surrealist anarchy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus beginning to take shape.
“When Python came along,” he explains, “journalists noticed that this was something a bit special. At that time, the BBC was still wiping tapes: they wiped a lot of Spike Milligan stuff, and Pete and Dud’s material was wiped. We got quite worried.
“I remember Terry Jones saying we’ve got to record these, so we got a clunky old Philips tape recorder and recorded all the early Python shows, just in case the BBC got rid of them. They were all in his garage, waiting to be brought out at a suitable time.”
In a world before videotape or nostalgia channels, when repeats were rare, it was difficult to imagine why something as transitory as television could be worth saving – or when it might ever be seen again. This began to change in the late 1960s, when the BBC started recording everything, but it makes our picture of early television patchy.
Prior to his appearance at the festival, Palin has spent the day at the BFI National Archive, revisiting some of his earliest material and wandering between the stacks, where film reels and videotapes are stored on shelves reaching to the ceiling. “It’s quite extraordinary how much stuff there is,” he says. “You’d need a mountaineer to get to the top shelves.”
The BFI also holds a large paper archive collecting materials such as polaroids and shooting scripts that document this period of Palin’s career.
What’s it been like for him going down memory lane by watching these old shows again? “I look at them and I think: ‘we were young then.’ It all seemed to be so easy. We churned stuff out – a show a week – writing, performing. We never stopped and thought about it.
“As years have gone on, especially with Python, there’s this feeling that Python is legendary and was breaking the boundaries of comedy. It’s hard to deal with that – I just look back and think it was all youthful exuberance. There were lots of things we thought weren’t right, or weren’t shot right, or we wished we’d had another week. But people look back and say that broke the mould of television!”
Alongside its vast film collection, the BFI’s archive preserves some 750,000 television programmes, which it started to accumulate back in the days when broadcasters still routinely wiped their tapes.
Among the treasures picked out to be screened at the festival is an animated sequence called ‘The Christmas Card’, which Terry Gilliam created for Do Not Adjust Your Set in 1968. Gilliam was an American cartoonist living in London at the time. He’d been struggling to make a living from magazine work when his friend John Cleese suggested that he contact Humphrey Barclay, a producer at the BBC.
Seen again today, Gilliam’s first animation for the show, which gleefully sends up traditional Christmas card designs, seems astonishingly subversive for what was essentially a children’s programme. “‘The Christmas Card’ is still my favourite Gilliam animation, after all the years,” says Palin. “All done in a little backroom, moving bits of paper around.”
Gilliam was “very English in the subjects he chose, but there’s an aggression and an edge to it, which was very American too. That was very important throughout his work with Python – to have that slightly hard-edged American way of looking at things.”
In addition to Palin’s on-stage appearance, the BFI/RadioTimes festival is screening East of Ipswich, the 1987 BBC drama written by Palin based on his own childhood memories of dreary holidays by the Suffolk coast.
“It’s cathartic watching that,” he says. “It’s the closest I get to seeing my mum and dad.”
It was during these holidays as a teenager that Palin met his wife-to-be, an encounter that’s also dramatised in East of Ipswich.
“It was a terribly awkward time: we’d gone on holiday, we’re stuck in this rather grim place, eating food with this tyrannical landlady. I looked out of the window one day and saw this line of three girls going off to bathe. The first two girls looked quite happy, but with the one at the back it was obvious that the last thing she wanted to do was go into the North Sea before breakfast.
“You could see this rebellious look, and I thought ‘that’s the girl for me.’ We’re still married.”
Alongside preview screenings and on-stage appearances from stars including Maggie Smith and Susie Dent, the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival offers a number of other opportunities to dig into the BFI’s television archives. Vincent Price, Fanny Craddock and Mary Berry all feature in an evening of vintage cookery programmes, while This Is Tom Jones presents highlights from the star’s 1960s TV show, which includes rare footage of Jones performing alongside the likes of Stevie Wonder and Dusty Springfield.
Meanwhile, fans of costume drama will be curious to see the Henry James adaptation The Author of Beltraffio. Starring Tom Baker and Georgina Hale, and directed by Tony Scott, it hasn’t been seen publicly since it was first broadcast back in 1976.