During the latter part of June this year I had the privilege of spending 48 hours in Toronto with one of Britain’s top comedians, Michael Palin. A founding member of Monty Python, past president of London’s Royal Geographical Society and the producer and author of eight highly successful documentaries and accompanying books on travel and geography.
Palin was in Toronto to receive the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s (RCGS) Gold Medal for promoting geographic literacy. One of my roles was to take jet-lagged, but ever good-natured Michael to his many scheduled television and newspaper interviews throughout Thursday and Friday. Sought after by major media outlets we could have easily doubled the number of interviews without any effort were it not for required downtime, the RCGS awards ceremony, a major RCGS reception with over 700 attendees and a RCGS donor’s luncheon, along with a private visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Over those two days I was deeply touched by how many people approached Michael to express the positive impact his comedy had had on their lives. Others were impacted by his travel and geography documentaries and books mentioning the “Palin effect” that inspired them to travel to, and learn more about, the geographical areas he had featured.
The pace of the two-day, whirlwind visit was brutal. So it came as a surprise when Michael invited Andre Prefontaine, a RCGS colleague of mine, and me for dinner that Thursday night. I was beat after the day’s activities and could only imagine how tired Michael must have been. Since we were all staying at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel we decided to have a late night dinner at its EPIC Lounge.
Preferring craft beer over wine I quickly intervened when the waiter came to our table to ask for our drinks order and convinced my two dining companions to try locally crafted beer from the micro breweries in Toronto’s downtown core. With the arrival of our main meal we ordered two bottles of Ontario and British Columbian wines and settled in for a long, enjoyable evening of relaxed conversation.
While attending school in England the first country that Michael learned about was Canada. “Canada is a great country for geography,” said Michael. “Winter figures very large in the Canadian mentality. Enduring long winters seems to give Canadians a sense of humour to endure it.
“In fact the first overseas sale of Monty Python was to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation),” said Michael with a smile. “They only aired it for a few weeks before pulling it off the air and Canadians came out in the streets during January and demanded that Monty Python be brought back and it was. Monty Python owes a lot to Canadians. I think that Monty Python is to Canada what Jerry Lewis is to France.”
Eventually the conversation led to 1966 and the BBC’s Frost Report, where Michael met the other members of what would become Monty Python. The Frost Report is similar to today’s Daily Show as it took current issues and would tell them through comedy.
Always interested in geography and historic settings Michael and Director Terry Gilliam had to convince John Cleese and Eric Idle to film Monty Python and the Holy Grail outside London away from stage sets. They wanted the movie filmed at a Heritage Trust castle in Scotland. A couple of weeks before filming was to start the Trust changed its position. Scrambling to find another Scottish castle they came across Doune Castle which at the time was privately owned. Today Doune Castle draws large numbers of tourists who come to visit the castle where Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed.
Andre and I were fascinated by what provided the inspiration for the humour that is uniquely Monty Python, Michael reflected and said,” the guys in Monty Python were all from smaller communities outside London and came from middle class backgrounds. We all went to university and had varied academic backgrounds in law, medicine, history, English and other subjects. We weren’t part of the London’s stodgy ruling classes and our humour took on accepted norms as to what humour should be.”
“We all wrote our own sketches in separate offices and would get together weekly to bring forward our ideas. The best sketches were ranked and we would then figure out how to string them together using Terry Gilliam’s animation and filmed inserts”
As with everything else in life, timing is everything. “Up until the Beatles American culture dominated Britain,” Michael said. “But with the Beatles leading the British musical invasion of the US it opened up America to British culture, but it wasn’t until 1973 that Monty Python was accepted by the Americans”. That said, Canadians embraced Monty Python much earlier, with or without the Beatles and Americans, to us Lumber Jacks Monty Python is okay and will always be our Jerry Lewis.
For a listing of Michael Palin’s travel and geography documentaries and books,
visit Palin’s Travels.
All Photos By Royal Canadian Geographical Society – All Rights Reserved