by Silvia Gallotti, Manuscripts Cataloguer at the British Library currently working on the Michael Palin archive. The archive, which has been generously donated to the British Library by Palin, covers his literary and creative life during the years 1965-1987 and will be available for the public to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room from spring 2018.
During a dialogue between Pontius Pilate and his centurions in Monty Pythonâs Life of Brian (1979), Pilate dares his men to have a âlittle giggleâ at the name of his âfwendâ [sic] named âBiggus Dickusâ in Rome. Their attempt to stifle laughter is finally thwarted when Palinâs Pilate, in full Roman regalia, tells them the name of Bigusâs wife â Incontentia Buttocks.
When reading drafts of Palinâs early sketches written for The Two Ronnies, The Frost Report, or Do Not Adjust Your Set or when delving into notebooks and scripts for The Monty Pythonâs Flying Circus, The Holy Grail or The Life of Brian, it is impossible to resist a âlittle giggleâ or even, sometimes, to burst into uncontrollable laughter like Pilateâs centurions.
As well as being a singularly valuable source of inspiration for new generations of comedians, writers and actors, Palinâs archive is also as entertaining as his finished work. The material not only reflects each stage of his creative process â from initial ideas, conceptualization, planning and organising to drafting and final revisions â but it also illustrates all the different phases of TV and film making, from pre and post-production to publicity and distribution.
Palin organised his papers in files, each relating to a TV, film or literary project, spanning from his early career to his later performance in A Fish Called Wanda (1988). The files (all 200 of them) are currently being catalogued and include research material, notes, drafts, correspondence, scripts, call sheets, shooting schedules, financial statements, photographs, advertising posters, press reviews, distribution reports, and more. Showcased below are just a few examples of the material found in the archive related to Palinâs TV projects and films, ranging from early drafts to publicity ideas.
âKarate Quickieâ â Excerpt from The Frost Report, 1966
The Frost Report was a comedy show produced and broadcast by the BBC, hosted by David Frost and written by comedians including Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Marty Feldman, Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker. The first episode was released on 10 March 1966. Each episode, presented by David Frost, covered different topics, such as education, love, money, trends. Above is a draft of a comedy quickie written by Palin probably for the âFrost Report on Leisureâ. It is one of the numerous early drafts of sketches included in the archive, some of which were never used.
Page from a notebook used in the production of Monty Pythonâs Life of Brian, 1976-1977
Life of Brian was Monty Pythonâs third film, after And Now for Something completely Different (1971) and The Holy Grail (1975). Directed by Terry Jones and financed by George Harrison, the film caused controversy among some religious groups upon its release. Cinemas in Ireland, Norway and many UK cinemas banned the film, which was nevertheless a huge success elsewhere.
The above page comes from a notebook with Palinâs notes and drafts for the film. It is a draft of the scene where Pilate, Biggus Dickus and the centurion appear on the balcony in front of the crowd to announce the release of a prisoner. The combination of holograph manuscript and typescript clearly illustrates Palinâs editing process through which pages have been cut out and pasted back together in a different sequence.
Schedule for âThe Entire History of Englandâ, 24 Sep 1968-10 Jan 1969 from the TV sketch show series The Complete and Utter History of Britain
The Complete and Utter History of Britain was a six-part series written and performed by Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Produced by London Weekend Television, it was broadcast between 12 January and 16 February 1969. Above is a schedule for the show, handmade by Palin, with dates for rehearsal, filming and viewing. âThe Entire History of Englandâ was the provisional title of the show. The archive includes other examples of shooting schedules as well as camera scripts for Monty Pythonâs shows and Palinâs films.
âFrog This Way Upâ sign from âAcross the Andes by Frogâ -- Ripping Yarns (1976)
Ripping Yarns was a television comedy series written by Michal Palin and Terry Jones. It ran for 2 series (8 episodes in total) and was broadcast on BBC from from October 1976 to October 1979. The sign above was made for the episode âAcross the Andes by Frogâ, directed by Terry Hughes and aired on 17 October 1977. The story had first appeared in Jones and Palinâs humorous book Bert Feggâs Nasty Book for Boys and Girls (1974).
List of âClothes for Rly Journeyâ â Great Railway Journeys, May 1980
The above page is from a notebook is related to Palinâs first engagement as a TV presenter. A lover of trains, his episode of the series Great Railway Journeys was entitled âConfession of a Trainspotterâ and documented his journey from London to the Kyle of Lochalsh. It was filmed in May 1980 and this is Palinâs handwritten list of the clothes to take on the journey.
Notebook - The Missionary, 1983
Michael Palin is writer, lead actor (with Maggie Smith) and co-producer of The Missionary, film directed by Richard Locraine. His first film produced and performed without any of the Pythons, it was released in the U.S. in November 1982 and in the UK in January 1983. The notebook includes Palinâs notes about the publicity campaign and cinema openings in the UK, including drafts of commercials. This page gives an insight in Palinâs work at the publicity stage of film-making, with his notes for advertising posters and radio commercials.
These items give just a small glimpse of the prolific and multifaceted career of one of Britainâs most loved figures. We hope that being able to see all of this material for the first time will provide an insight into the history of show business and inspiration for future researchers and practitioners alike. Palinâs influence is felt across disciplines, and access to his archive stands only to widen and deepen this influence.
All images reproduced with the kind permission of Michael Palin.