The ghost of William Makepeace Thackeray still stalks the grand saloon of the Reform Club in London’s Pall Mall, where he spent many of the last days of his life. His huge portrait in the Strangers’ Room is staring down now at Michael Palin, who plays him in the new ITV production of his 1848 novel Vanity Fair, and who has come to pay his respects. Palin is impressed. Thackeray isn’t. The great Victorian writer’s expression of amused contempt, understandably enough, doesn’t change.
Palin, a fan for 50 years, worries that he doesn’t look very much like him. It strikes us both, in fact, that Thackeray is the spitting image, a dead ringer, of the erstwhile Brexit secretary, David Davis. Suddenly Vanity Fair leaps out into the 21st century. Its cast of characters, whether venal and scheming, or dopey and entitled, and the way their lives play out in a never-ending fair in a town called Vanity, seems shockingly modern. That’s satire for you.
It’s a good place to bring the two together. Palin is no stranger to the Reform. The clock in the Morning Room is the start and finish line for Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, on which Palin’s famous travel series of the same name was loosely based. Verne’s hero, Phileas Fogg, made it just in time. So did Palin, but the club wouldn’t let him in.
The papers said it was because he wasn’t wearing a tie, which wasn’t true (and anyway they keep spares in the porters’ lodge for just such eventualities). Apparently, it was because they thought he would “disturb the members” – which recalls, perhaps unfairly, the world of snobbery, class and social climbing that their celebrated former member satirised so wickedly.
Vanity Fair is Palin’s favourite novel, or at least he said it was in his 1979 appearance on Desert Island Discs, when he chose it as the book he would take with him into shipwrecked exile. “Actually,” he says, “I didn’t tell [presenter] Roy Plomley this, but I’d never been able to finish it. It’s a hefty book and it goes off in all sorts of wonderful directions. You can’t rush it, really. I just thought the desert island would give me a chance to read it through to the end.”
Now he plays Thackeray “as a kind of fairground barker”, opening each episode, setting the scene and coming to engagingly unreliable conclusions about what’s been happening to the characters he has created.
“Gwyneth Hughes, who’s adapted the book for television, wanted the author’s voice at the beginning. He’s the puppet master, putting his dolls on the stage and declaring what Vanity Fair is all about.”
What it’s about, he tells us, is “a world where everybody is striving for what is not worth having”. He looks Victorian, with his frock coat and top hat, but sounds postmodern. Even the setting fused the two worlds. It was filmed in Syon Park – just across the river from Kew Gardens – in west London, under the Heathrow flight path. As they capered in their costumes, jets thundered overhead. “They were very low, and noisy. We just had to time it to the second. In an odd sort of way it seemed appropriate.”
It was all very last minute for Palin. “Gwyneth said come in and do that line, so I went, did my bit as per the script and suddenly they wanted me in the rest of the series. There was no time to learn the words; I had to read them off cue cards. At four in the afternoon I wasn’t in Vanity Fair; at four the next morning I was in every episode. It was a manic night. Exhilarating!”
It’s the mischief and the energy in this sprawling book, set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, that Palin loves. And the central character, Becky Sharp (played by Olivia Cooke), the penniless but beautiful and clever young woman who weaponises her talents to make her way in a class-ridden and male-dominated world.
“She’s so immoral, so calculating, so wilful and cruel – so attractive, in a way. It’s how she plays all the people she meets, strings them along; it’s thoroughly entertaining. There’s no character in literature who’s quite like her.”
The subtitle of the first editions of Vanity Fair was A Novel without a Hero. Palin is unsure whether Becky will seem more heroic to the #MeToo generation than the Victorians, who were shocked by her. “She’s a tough woman, not afraid to speak her mind. It’s great that [in the book] women are as devious and villainous as men – but there’s no getting away from the fact she’s really cruel to those around her.
Her ambition and unscrupulousness do seem contemporary, but Palin thinks a 21st-century Becky Sharp would take a different route to status and wealth.
“Women can take centre stage as themselves now. Maybe she’d be on Love Island? But she’s clever. She’d realise the real money is in the City, the enormous amounts that people can make for doing very little. She would probably end up running a hedge fund. She would make some colossal investment that would collapse and then become President Trump’s press secretary.”
He sees parallels everywhere. The way Thackeray throws so many storylines into Vanity Fair “reminds me of the Monty Python days,” says Palin. “We’d say: ‘Is that idea going to work? Well, let’s just chuck it in and see.’”
The characters, drawn to the point of caricature, seem to him strikingly like the political world today. Nobody emerges from Vanity Fair with much credit, but Thackeray keeps his deepest contempt for the aristocracy, whom he ridicules as buffoons and gives ludicrous names, such as Lord Tapeworm.
“It’s a rather modern attitude,” Palin says. “You can see how Peter Cook and Spitting Image did exactly what Thackeray was doing, 150 years before. I was brought up on The Beano and I think most of the politicians around at the moment could have had a twopage spread in it. You’ve got Lord Snooty, we know who that is… [I assume Jacob ReesMogg]. You’ve got Biffo Boris, and Theresa in there somewhere… All so ripe for caricature.”
He worries, in his mild-mannered way, about how satire and comedy are going, generally. He was politely annoyed by the BBC’s comedy commissioner, Shane Allen, who recently said, when talking about next year’s 50th anniversary of Monty Python, “if you’re going to assemble a team now, it’s not going to be six Oxbridge white blokes”.
“It’s been 50 years,” says Palin. “Talk about beating us up when we’re down. He was obviously manoeuvred into saying something silly. What does he mean? If you’ve had a good education and you’re white you’re not able to write comedy?
“What are they going to say? ‘Oh God! The man who wrote that’s an Etonian.’ ‘But it’s hilarious.’ ‘It’s no good, he’s an Etonian!’”
At least, he says, the BBC’s attitude to Monty Python has been consistent. “They didn’t want it in the beginning and put it out late at night when they thought nobody was watching. It’s known all over the world yet they still find it difficult to deal with. Great. Far rather that than a pat on the head and our busts in bronze in the BH [Broadcasting House, the BBC’s London office] foyer.”
Times have changed, he says. “Then, a couple of people liked what we did and gave us 13 shows. There were no conditions. Nobody said, ‘Can we see a script?’ Now it has to go through half-a-dozen stages. They want to know what you’re writing about, how long it will take, how much it will cost. It has to be checked for political correctness, ‘compliance’, ‘diversity’. It’s much more controlled.”
He keeps in touch with the surviving Pythons. They did a roadshow in 2014, Monty Python Live (Mostly), incorporating the voice and images of Graham Chapman, who died of cancer in 1989. “When we got up on stage it was as if we were all 29 again. But that’s it, I think. I’m glad it’s the last thing the Pythons will do.”
Terry Jones had trouble remembering his lines during the tour, and has since been diagnosed with a form of dementia. “He’s the one I see most,” says Palin. “He can’t communicate his thoughts any more. It’s sad. I’m very fond of him and I enjoy going there and hanging out. Occasionally things click and we can understand each other.” Terry Gilliam “comes crashing in now and again. Terrific manic energy; he’s the Don Quixote of our times, forever charging at windmills.”
John Cleese’s recent decision to emigrate didn’t surprise Palin. “He’s always emigrating, looking for the perfect place to live the perfect life. He laughs at me travelling the world but he’s become a nomad himself. He’ll be back.”
Travel still excites him. He’s just been filming in North Korea: “Vanity Fair, in a way, at least for the leaders. It wasn’t as grim or as dangerous as I feared. The regime is impenetrable but we got glimpses of life there.”
There are parts of the world he has yet to see. He wants to go to central Asia, to the “Stans”, and ride a little pony across the plains. “They’re fascinating countries in their own right, but so much of our history begins with an invasion from the steppes.”
There are also favourite places he wants to go back to. A canyon in Peru, above the rapids in the headwaters of the Amazon, called Pongo de Mainique – “absolute peace, with every vision of nature around” – and, more prosaically, the west coast of Scotland: “Very wild, but very accessible. Besides, I like the Scots.”
He’s 75 now and doesn’t plan for the future. But he never has. “There’s no scheme. I’ve always relished being able to do lots of different things. I get bored very quickly. I want to be open to every opportunity. Just like Becky Sharp, come to think of it.
Vanity Fair will begin airing on ITV on Sunday 2nd September at 9pm with episode two on at 9pm on Monday 3rd September. It is will continue broadcasting the rest of its series (episodes three to seven) on Sunday evenings