The Florentine’s culture editor Jane Fortune recently met with Michael Palin when he interviewed her for his upcoming BBC art documentary on Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi. Since then, Jane swears that the media has done right by christening Palin ‘Britain’s Nicest Man.’ When asked about this title, Palin laughingly shakes it off as ‘a joke’ and ‘a terrible slur.’ Yet, his grace was further proven when the world-famous comedian and presenter agreed to ‘have the tables turned’ and be interviewed for The Florentine. Palin’s ability ‘to work with collaboration rather than confrontation’ has admittedly helped make his televised journeys some of the best-loved on the small screen. ‘I am in awe of Florence,’ Palin says of the city where Artemisia spent her most productive years.
Jane Fortune: Is there a reason you chose Artemisia as the subject of your next documentary?
Michael Palin: When I first saw Judith and Holofernes, I was very taken with it. I’d never seen a painting like that before—it was so graphic, so incredibly powerful and dangerous. I’d never heard of Artemisia and I also didn’t know any great female artists from the post-Renaissance period. She intrigued me. When we approached the BBC, they said, ‘Ah, we’ve already done Artemisia Gentileschi. She’s already been in a film about great women painters.’ ‘One film?’ I asked. ‘It’s absolutely ridiculous! Can you imagine a series called “Great Men Painters?” This is precisely the point we want to make,’ I told them. ‘You’ve only given her six minutes among five other female artists over four hundred years!’
JF: Six minutes!?
MP: There’s more to explore, I kept saying! So, we eventually won the battle and they gave us the go-ahead for this program.
JF: What hopes do you have for the film?
MP: All I hope for is that it creates an impact…that it might attract, entice and enchant people about the work of Artemisia. One of our motivations for making these art films is the chance to take someone who is not known to our audience and to introduce them—helping to make these artists more visible, be they men or women. This concept was true for our programs on Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi and Scottish painter Anne Redpath—the first in our series. The programs are also meant to offer a way of looking at art that’s accessible and popular; not too academic. But, it’s not about talking down to people. I’m just saying: this is the experience! I’m enjoying it, let’s all enjoy it. If we get away with that, it will give us a calling card for the next one.
JF: You’re well known for Around the World in 80 Days and your extreme travelogues. You’ve visited the North and South Poles, the Himalayas, the Sahara… How does making an art documentary differ from creating a travel show?
MP: The travel documentaries were not about visiting one particular thing. They were always about the actual journey: how to catch a train in Tanzania or how to operate in Northern Siberia. The question was often about what to connect. We’d been around the world, so North to South Pole was the next obvious choice. Sometimes my desire to do a particular show would be hinged on a hunch: the Sahara had to be something more, I knew, than a huge brown empty space on the map. Five hundred years ago, it was a big area for trade. So we set out to trace the ancient civilization there.
Each program was a bit of a gamble but the more difficult the trek, the more audiences liked it. The art documentaries are the same, in a sense: it’s always about putting the artists in the context of where they lived and worked. Surroundings are important. We want to film the journey—to get out of the studio and into the streets. After Florence, we’ll also be following Artemisia to Rome and Naples.
JF: You’ve done so many different things in your life. In addition to your work as a presenter, you’ve also been a successful film actor. It’s been said that Monty Python were to comedy what the Beatles were to music. Out of all of your experiences, how would you most like to be remembered?
MP: Ah! Well, I think I’d like to be remembered as someone for whom life is a constant learning process. That would be the thing! Mind you, just to be remembered would be nice. In my life, one of the things that I particularly treasure is that usually a television company wants to put you in a slot: Michael Palin is a comedian. The impact of Python was something that grew up around us… Why has it stayed in the public arena? I think comedy today tends to be more introspective and talk about how dreadful life is. Python was uplifting. We just wanted to make people laugh. We didn’t want to make people think or they didn’t have to think. It was just an instinctive feeling they got from it.
I then did comic films like A Fish Called Wanda and, for a series of circumstances, ended up doing travel and art documentaries. Oh, Michael’s now a travel presenter. Professionally, I’ve had the opportunity to do a variety of things and I’ve done them entirely because I’ve wanted to. That’s true for the art documentaries as well. They are solely born from our own enthusiasm…Artemisia is the sixth one I’ve created with producer and director Mhairi McNeill and Eleanor Yule, and they’ve all come from the heart. I love learning something new every day.