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4 June 2019updated 03 Aug 2021 12:49pm

Michael Palin is the hero social liberals need right now

By James Cooray Smith

It’s said that you should never meet your heroes, in case you don’t like what you find. This isn’t really an option in the age of 24-hour clickbait and social media, where it’s far too easy to accidentally discover that your former favourite pop star has endorsed a far-right party, or that an actor whose work you’ve enjoyed is a deranged conspiracy theorist. You don’t even have to go looking for such things. They come to you.

Many social liberals, particularly of the Liberal Democrat persuasion, may reasonably feel anguish at recent Twitter comments by John Cleese, former bosom buddy of their recently deceased former leader Paddy Ashdown, about how London has changed in his lifetime – as well as at his subsequent doubling and trebling down. Many more could be forgiven for having a sudden moment of horror as the words “Michael Palin” and “immigration” appeared recently in a headline in the i newspaper.

But no one needs to have worried.

Much of what passes for plain-speaking and common sense around immigration or other aspects of social policy is often mild – and sometimes not so mild – demagoguery. So for Palin to frankly say that immigration is a public good, broadening our cultural horizons and staffing institutions that would not otherwise, thanks to an ageing population, be filled, is practically a revolutionary act. For him to do it gently but firmly, reasonably, seems the very measure of the man.

Palin is an incredible talent, who in a 50 year career has excelled in many fields. He has a Writers Guild Award for scripting drama, and a Bafta for acting in comedy, and multiple other awards and nominations, including a Bafta nomination for song writing. It was agreed between the Pythons themselves that Graham Chapman was the best actor amongst them, which is why he plays the lead in both of the Python films that have one. But with all due respect to the opinions of the men themselves, it was always clearly Palin. Jim Nelson in Alan Bleasdale’s GBH is an extraordinary performance (for which he was also Bafta nominated), while Jack Lint in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) is genuinely terrifying, and not a character those only aware of him from the travel documentaries that have dominated his career since 1988 would really expect he had in him.

While Palin has chafed against the idea of his being “The Nicest Man in Showbusiness”, it and other similar sobriquets have stuck, despite his own objections. (No artist wants to be thought of as safe, and Palin’s work simply isn’t.) The idea, though, is an easy sell. He’s lived happily in same corner of north London on the same street, married to the same woman, since the late 1960s. He’s lived a life of suburban respectability while turning out great work, whether it’s the script to Gilliam’s Time Bandits, his remarkable documentary about North Korea or his occasional (more frequent now than they once were) acting forays: Molotov in The Death of Stalin being a recent highlight.

Palin’s published diaries, as he’s noted himself, demonstrate that he is not the anodyne figure such terms suggest, and that he can be creatively restless, bad tempered and morose. But it’s always within limits people can recognise from their own lives: living proof that creative genius need not be fragile or toxic, and that great creativity is not dependent on or an excuse for cruel and unusual behaviour. Palin’s seemingly unaffected mixture of talent and casually expressed, slightly awkward decency is almost shocking in our overheated age. That he has spent so much time travelling the world, met so many people and produced so much valuable art makes it hard for anyone to dismiss him as naive. Some will, of course, even though the facts of the matter are on his side.

We don’t deserve Michael Palin, but we should all be so grateful we have him. Maybe he can somehow save us all.

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