Monty Python star's dark turn

Michael Palin.
Michael Palin.

NEW YORK • Through the characters he has played in nearly 50 years of Monty Python television shows and films - devious shopkeepers, an aspiring lumberjack, an adventurous knight who just wants a bit of peril - Michael Palin, 74, has cultivated a reputation for being a sympathetic, likeable guy.

The British actor and founding member of the antic, erudite comedy troupe gets a chance to be unpleasant in Remember Me, a PBS miniseries.

He plays Tom Parfitt, an elderly man who falls down a flight of stairs in his home. He is then moved to an assisted-living facility, where a social worker falls out of his bedroom window to her death, leaving him the only apparent suspect.

The mystery that follows is part earthbound detective story and part investigation into the realm of ghosts and the undead. The tale ultimately reveals Parfitt as much more than he appears: not kindly or incapable, but dark, devious and even older than the man of 80something years he claims to be.

"I could be really unpleasant," Palin said, excitedly describing the role in a recent phone interview from London. He paused, then corrected himself: "Well, I couldn't - my charactercould be really unpleasant. Which helped the Palin image, I think, by tarnishing it a bit."

Remember Me allowed Palin not only to undermine his reputation, but also to demonstrate that there is still a lot of vitality in people - fictional characters, as well as the actors playing them - long after they have crossed some of life's major thresholds.

"I used to be offered people's father's - now it's grandfathers, if you're not careful," Palin said, more amused than annoyed. "I still think of myself as being about 14."

Remember Me, which was first shown on the BBC in 2014, was written by film-maker and screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes (whose previous credits include HBO's The Girl, about actress Tippi Hedren and director Alfred Hitchcock).

Hughes said she drew upon a variety of sources and inspirations, including the real-life history of the British coastal town of Scarborough, where the story is set, and the haunting ballad Scarborough Fair, which commemorates it.

Offering Palin the principal role in the series, she acknowledged, was "a complete long shot", but not unthinkable.

"Tom, in the show, is an old man who's never really grown up - that's the nature of the story," she said. "Michael Palin looks like an old man who's still a little boy, in the most charming way."

The actor had just one question during this recruitment process: "He asked, 'How supernatural is it? Is it going to be Scooby-Doo?" she said. "We thought, 'oh, no - this means he hates ghost stories.'"

On the contrary, Palin said, he has been a fan since childhood of the ethereal tales of authors like M.R. James. "There were always clergymen involved, for some reason," he said. "And he opens a door in the middle of the night, and the world of the suppressed and mysterious invades."

Palin, who grew up in England's Yorkshire county, said he always showed an aptitude for acting and imitation, but had to keep such aspirations secret from his father, an industrial engineer, who did not want him pursuing a theatre career.

Even so, he said he came to think of himself more as a writer than as a performer, which helps explain his being exceptionally choosy about taking on acting assignments.

Palin nearly starred in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a film by his Python colleague Terry Gilliam that reimagines the story of Cervantes' Man of La Mancha.

Last year, the actor was still attached to this long-delayed film when it ran into a financing problem (again). "I had hung in there for quite a while," Palin said, "and turned down one or two other quite interesting things. I said to Terry, 'I don't think I can go through another year of uncertainty.'"

Palin could not predict his future acting plans. Still, it seemed hard for him to imagine he would not eventually return to comedy, which has always been his way of making sense of the world - or, perhaps, his way of making peace with a world that can't be made sensible.

"As soon as I'm told not to laugh at something, then it immediately becomes hysterically funny," he said. "Disorder is very, very close to order. It's a bus ticket away from total chaos. And that's what I like, really."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2017, with the headline 'Monty Python star's dark turn'. Print Edition | Subscribe