A FISH CALLED WANDA
Michael Palin cements his Nicest Man In Showbusiness rep by taking time out to listen to our daft questions about his Baftawinning turn.
MICHAEL PALIN HAS two BAFTA awards on display in his office at his London home. Well, “slightly concealed”, says the ever-bashful former Python. One marks an Academy Fellowship, awarded to him in 2013 for his TV work. The other is testament to perhaps his single greatest performance, as the stammering, lovelorn Ken Pile in John Cleese’s classic comedy A Fish Called Wanda, for which Palin won Best Supporting Actor in 1989. “I’m not sure which one is the Wanda one,” reveals Palin. “I think it’s the one that needs polishing.” With the movie about to turn 30, he told us how he approached playing the film’s secret weapon.
“John and I met up fairly regularly between other work,” says Palin of Wanda’s writer/star, and fellow Python. The duo had just finished working together on Monty Python’s The Meaning
Of Life when Cleese casually mentioned he was writing a comedy (then called A Goldfish Called
Wanda). “He was very interested in having a character who stammered,” recalls Palin. “He knew my father had a stammer and John, with his penchant for research, felt he should talk to me about how a stammer might be played, so he could get it right. He said, ‘I’m going to write this part and you’re the obvious person to play it.’”
Palin’s father, Edward, who died in 1977, was afflicted with a terrible stammer, but Palin gently dismisses a suggestion that he played Ken as some sort of tribute. “I don’t think I did,” he says. “I don’t know if I would have taken on the part if my father had still been alive, to be honest. I’ve often thought about this, and I think it probably would have been a bit difficult for me.” Palin took the role on one condition: that Ken’s stammer, while often used for comedic effect, would not completely define the character. “There’s a fierceness and a strength in Ken which makes him more than just the butt of jokes. I didn’t want him to be that at all.”
Working closely with Hazel Pethig, who had been the Pythons’ costume designer from the off, Palin developed Ken’s distinctive look, from “slightly tight trousers which were a little too short” to a wondrous perm. “We did a few tests where I curled my hair,” says Palin. “Every time, steam was rising from my head. My hair was burning! So I went to a hairdresser and he gave me this dreadful perm. I think it shocked John, but then it made him laugh.” Palin’s decision meant he had to sport the hairdo in real life throughout the film’s eight-week shoot. “My marriage nearly broke up,” he jokes. “I had to sit very far away from my wife on the other side of the bed.”
THE KISS “A very pleasant form of acting,” is how Palin describes the scene where Ken is kissed by Jamie Lee Curtis’ Wanda, in his bestselling diaries, Halfway To Hollywood. “It was the single greatest kiss in my movie career, but there’s not much competition!” he laughs. The scene was shot twice, once at the beginning of filming and again at the end as a reshoot, although Palin insists it had nothing to do with him. “I don’t think I had that much influence!” The idea that the kiss unlocks Ken, who briefly loses his stammer in the aftermath, came from Curtis. “She’s very sharp,” says Palin of his co-star. “It was a very nice scene in which you realise that underneath it all, this man wants a bit of love.” THE INTERROGATION Ken’s signature scene sees him suffer at the hands of Otto (Kevin Kline), who tortures him for information (“It’s a chip up the nose!”), while eating Ken’s beloved pet fish. If it looks uncomfortable for Palin, tied to a chair throughout, that’s because it was. “It was okay, I knew there was great comic potential,” he says. “At one point Kevin shoves an apple in my mouth, which wasn’t in the script. So I could barely breathe, but people screamed with laughter.” The chips up the nose didn’t help, either. “You try to put French fries up your nose and retain them for three hours. It can’t be done.” The proposed solutions — chips with rough edges, plenty of Vaseline — removed the skin from inside Palin’s proboscis. In the end, “the only way I could do it was by enormous feats of nasal muscular retention.” Don’t ask where the ketchup went. THE AFTERMATH While Ken’s stammer led to some criticism, it was largely accepted within the stammering community, and had an unexpected boon. “I became involved with a group of people who were trying to start up a place for therapy for stammering children,” says Palin. That eventually became The Michael Palin Centre For Stammering Children, still based in Clerkenwell, London. “That was the very good side of it, where I felt I’d done my dad proud.”
left: Palin’s petty thug Ken Pile is bowled over by his piscine passion; Puckering up for that kiss with con artist Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis); Madness sets in as Ken attempts to kill OAP Eileen Coady; Wanda’s boyfriend Otto (Kevin Kline) and his unique chip torture; Wanda, Ken and Otto are joined by barrister Archie Leach — Wanda writer John Cleese.