Michael Palin has travelled the world but he won’t be getting an invitation to the White House any time soon, because he’s just compared Donald Trump to Joseph Stalin. ‘Since Trump’s election I can see there are similarities with Stalin’s style, trying to be the strong man who can say anything,’ says Palin, the legendary British funnyman and actor who now stars in The Death Of Stalin, a new black comedy about the Kremlin inner circle’s jostle for power after the brutal dictator’s death in 1953.
‘But Trump didn’t quite know what he was doing [after he was elected]. He was suddenly in power and having to get these people around him who are rather like himself. Shouty people. Stalin was much more skilful at choosing who was going to be with him.’
Michael Palin a founder member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, is uncomfortable with the word ‘legend’
So hang on, Palin is really saying that the current American President can’t be compared to the monstrous, murderous Stalin because he’s too stupid? ‘I don’t think he can. He’s a salesman really, Trump. That’s what he’s good at, doing deals.’
That’s a breathtaking insult from the normally affable Palin, founder member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and famous for movies such as Brazil and A Fish Called Wanda as well as the many spectacular travel programmes he has made all over the globe.
Today he’ll talk movingly about the plight of his fellow Python Terry Jones, who has a form of dementia that is robbing him of speech. But for now we’re discussing his superb new movie from Armando Iannucci, creator of the political satires Veep and The Thick Of It, so comparisons with the modern day and Trump are inevitable. And Palin has a punchline, an even bigger insult for the President.
‘I see Trump as more like Mussolini. Mussolini always juts his chin out and turns away at the end of a speech. It’s frightening actually how similar it is.’
Michael Palin as Molotov in The Death Of Stalin. Palin is brilliant as Molotov, a loyalist who can’t bring himself to speak up against Stalin even after death
The Death Of Stalin is a new black comedy about the Kremlin inner circle’s jostle for power after the brutal dictator’s death in 1953
Simon Russell Beale (centre) and Palin (on right) in The Death Of Stalin
Palin says Trump’s personal style is similarly over the top to the Italian dictator’s.
‘Yes, slightly puppety, it doesn’t quite feel real. It’s like Trump has read five rules of “Being In Power”. Shout a lot. Turn away so it looks as though you’ve said something of enormous consequence. And jut the chin out. Mussolini was always leading with his chin, and it made him look rather ridiculous. Stalin would never have done that.’
Despite that faint praise for a man who murdered millions of his fellow Soviets, the new movie ensures Palin won’t be welcome in the Kremlin either. He is brilliant as Molotov, a loyalist who can’t bring himself to speak up against Stalin even after death.
Stalin’s crimes were many but he is still adored by some Russians. ‘Well, yes, the film has upset a few people already. There was a report of concerns at a high level in the Kremlin that this is being deliberately released to provoke a reaction, to destabilise the current Russian government. It will make some enemies somewhere, but fair enough.’
Michael Palin and Terry Jones in 2005 (right) and in 1984 (left)
As we sip tea together in the quiet study of Palin’s north London home, with the trees rustling outside the window and the sound of schoolchildren playing in the distance, I ask this mild-mannered chap if he would like to confirm that he is not part of a Western conspiracy to overthrow Vladimir Putin? ‘Yes!’
Palin doesn’t look like a trouble-maker in his cream slacks and French-blue shirt, with his swept-back hair silver at the temples. He doesn’t look 74 either, by the way. But he is very proud of this controversial movie.
‘It’s quite unlike any other film I’ve ever been involved in or ever even seen. To get that mixture of a fairly solid historical basis and the savagery of what went on, and at the same time make it very funny, is a great feat. I think it’s marvellous.’
He was, of course, in Life Of Brian, the movie that provoked protests by people who thought, wrongly, that it was blasphemous about Christ – so Palin knows what he’s talking about when it comes to upsetting the faithful with satirical versions of real events.
‘My only worry is, you know, how will people take it? Will they worry it’s not serious enough, or not funny enough?’
The cast is incredible, with Steve Buscemi (a favourite of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers) and Jeffrey Tambor (of Taxi, The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development) alongside Paul Whitehouse of The Fast Show and Simon Russell Beale, one of our finest stage actors, now given the movie role his talent deserves as the ice-cold head of the security services in the Soviet Union.
FIVE MORE FILMS TO SEE THIS AUTUMN
Andrew Garfield as Robin Cavendish in Breathe
Out October 27 Andy Serkis directs this life-affirming, true-life tale, which stars Andrew Garfield (right) as Robin Cavendish, who is paralysed from the neck down by polio and spends his remaining months helping others with chronic illnesses.
The Killing Of A Sacred Deer
Out November 3 Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman star in this psychological horror, which won Best Screenplay at Cannes. This is director Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to his surreal, multi-award-winning The Lobster.
Film Stars Do n’t Die In Liverpool
Out November 17 Annette Bening stars as real-life Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame, and Jamie Bell as Liverpudlian actor Peter Turner in this story of love bridging an age gap. Julie Walters and Vanessa Redgrave also feature.
Battle Of The Sexes
Out November 24 Another real-life tale as Emma Stone plays tennis queen Billie Jean King, who was challenged by male chauvinist player Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) to take part in a highly charged contest in Houston in 1973.
The Man Who Invented Christmas
Out December 1 Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens takes on the role of Charles Dickens at the time when he wrote A Christmas Carol, while Christopher Plummer appears as an incarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Andrea Riseborough of Made In Dagenham fame is magnificent as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, and Rupert Friend plays his wayward son Vasily.
Despite being set in Russia the movie was mostly shot in this country – Stalin’s country home was built among silver pines in the woods behind Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire – so did that fabulously funny cast get to socialise together?
‘Well, we did have a few nights – very few – at a sort of motel near the M40 where we all stayed. That was as debauched as we got. Lots of different people started appearing at different times, as happens on a film. You’ve been in the bar for an hour and you’re about to go home and suddenly Steve Buscemi appears and you’ve got to have another drink.’
Palin unexpectedly turns into a bit of a fanboy when he talks about co-star Paul Whitehouse. ‘Paul is a very good character actor, which is what I always find the funniest thing. Not someone telling endless jokes. I find that quite wearying.’
But then Palin was always the nicest of the Pythons, particularly compared to the irascible John Cleese, the Lennon to his McCartney. They had as much of an impact on comedy as The Beatles did on pop music. Their reunion show in 2014 sold out ten nights at the O2. ‘We came on stage and there was a kind of roar. It enveloped you completely. It wasn’t just one or two people standing up and clapping, it was a great surge, the vocal equivalent of a small explosion.’
They were immediately offered eye-watering sums to go on tour. ‘There were so many offers from all over the world that we could have gone on and done Australia, America, Sweden, Finland, Germany. Sold out everywhere.’
There have been rumours about which of the Pythons said no, but Palin reveals today that it was him. Was that easy to do?
‘Easy for me, yeah. The money thing wasn’t so important to me because I didn’t have quite so many outgoings as John did, because of his divorce and that. Poor old Terry Jones had bought a house and he’d divorced and had quite a lot of expenses. For me it was just the sheer enjoyment of it that would have been the main thing. And I felt we couldn’t surpass what we’d done at the O2. London was the place where Python was created. It was a British show about British things and it seemed the right place to be at the end.’
From left: Eric Idle, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Terry Jones on the set of The Meaning Of Life, 1983
Poor old Terry Jones, as he calls him, has since been revealed to be suffering from a form of dementia that has robbed him of the power of speech. There will definitely be no more reunions now. Palin’s eyes fill with tears as we talk about him.
‘Terry’s got a progressive form of dementia so he’s never going to get better. It’s not going to suddenly be reversed, so really it’s a question of just how much contact one can make with him, and that is tricky because the symptoms of his particular form of dementia are to close down your speech for a start.
‘For someone like Terry, debating, talking, joking, arguing, it was all absolutely part of his life. That’s a very difficult thing. And it’s also extremely difficult, if you’re with him, to know whether he’s taking in what you say or not. He’s quite strong and healthy anyway. He walks over the Heath still. But the communication system is closing down.
‘I think the difficult thing would be if he didn’t know who I was. I still see him and he gives me a big hug. He knows who I am and I assume that things are going in so I just talk about whatever’s been going on and all that. And chat away. Whether he’s taking it in or not I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does really. It’s very, very tough.’
It’s the vanishing away of the person you love that hurts, even while they are still here.
‘It’s not like somebody with a physical illness or even a cancer or something like that, where you can see their determination. With this, it closes you down. They’re kind of receding into the distance. Oh it’s horrible.’
Does this make him think about his own mortality? ‘I do think about that, but only occasionally. I’ll come into my room here and think, “My God, I’m never going to read all these books.” I’ve only got another ten years, maybe not even that. So that gives you a jolt. But I kind of ignore it and try to carry on in the spirit I’ve lived most of my life.’
And how would he describe that?
‘I’m quite home-based, despite all the travelling I’ve done. Or perhaps because of it. We have strong family ties. All our children and grandchildren live in London. That’s important. The rest of it is just about being in the fortunate position of being asked to do all sorts of different things and being able to indulge all sorts of interests. So it’s a pretty good life. I try to do as much as I used to, but you’re reminded every now and again that you can’t, so you have a bit of a lie down.’
Palin has no tricky divorces to pay for, having been married to Helen for half a century. Their three children have grown up. They still live in the same quiet backstreet, in the white period corner-house they bought in 1967, although they’ve also bought the one next door and the one next door to that and knocked them all through.
How has he stayed married for so long? ‘Inertia! Well, inertia and humour actually. We do have occasional rows but generally we both have quite a good sense of humour so we can defuse things. Or rather you don’t go over the top in a row because you know you’re going to get laughed at.’
He has learnt to adjust to other people calling him a legend. ‘Or a Leg End, as I always call it. I don’t know what it means. A legend is something that probably didn’t happen, so that seems fair enough!’
And Helen keeps his feet on the ground. ‘We do have situations my wife particularly cherishes. We’ll be in a cab and the driver will say, “I know you from somewhere, don’t I?”
‘And there’s no point beating around the bush, so I’ll say, “Yeah I’m Michael Palin.” And he’ll say, “Who?” ’
He laughs, genuinely pleased. And when I ask if he would be brave enough to go to Moscow to promote the new movie, he says: ‘Will they recognise me? I hope not.’
It’s a measure of the man that Michael Palin, the legendary Python about to star in a film about the death of Joseph Stalin, genuinely seems to think they won’t…
‘The Death Of Stalin’ is in cinemas Oct 20