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Michael Palin on anxiety

Anxiety: A Very Short Introduction

By Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman


Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. But what about those people for whom anxiety is an inevitable part of their working life, such as actors and presenters? How do they cope? We asked Michael Palin, member of the legendary Monty Python team and long established as one of the nation’s most cherished broadcasters, how he copes with nerves as a performer. As it turns out, the strategies he adopts can be useful to anyone struggling with anxiety. Here’s an extract from our interview.

I think that a level of anxiety is really, really important. I’ve rarely known anybody who goes on stage without feeling anxious. I don’t feel anxiety of the kind `I’m a complete fraud and I’m going to get caught out one day.’ I feel quite the opposite really – that I can do some really good stuff and what stops me sometimes doing it the way I want to do it is that I become slightly anxious. And yet I’m aware that I need a bit of anxiety because it’s something that’s quite unusual – to go in front of people, to hold court in a sense.

The main thing is that I think back to other experiences and I know that actually in the end it’s making a show. I say it’s just like an Edinburgh revue. I’m basically going on, got some words to learn, I’ve got some fellow actors, I’ve just got to do my stuff. So you forget really. You might speculate about the number of people who see it, but when you actually do it you know it’s just like putting on a college revue or something like that. And that stuff I’ve done perfectly well before and I know that I can do. So I can now really address any situation by thinking of another situation where it’s been worse and I’ve still managed to get through.

One has to confront these situations. If you avoid them, it’s not great because there will always be that little bit in your memory, which says `I couldn’t do that; I was never able to do that’. So even if you’ve tried it and failed, at least you did it and it wasn’t so bad, actually nobody laughed and it’s been in the film and it’s one of the best scenes.

My anxiety levels seem to go up the more I’m obviously scrutinised. When we’re doing the travelling for the documentaries and I’m meeting people as we go along – people think that’s incredibly difficult. I don’t mind that: that’s fine. It’s when you suddenly have: `right, you’ve got to do a piece to camera’. If you get something wrong, they say “try it again, I think you slightly hurried that bit.” And then the anxiety begins to build up.

There was one memorable bit where I had to do a piece to camera – I think it was for the Sahara series – and we’d gone to the very top of the hill in Gibraltar and you could look across and see Africa. It was the very beginning of the series and I’d written a piece about the links between Africa and Spain. And then the director said: `Well, it’s not quite what we want, can you just…’ And I just thought, `Oh God…’ Well, I just couldn’t get it right. When I finally did they said: `Can we do it again because a pigeon flew into the shot and we won’t be able to cut.’ And then I kind of went to pieces and I just got very cross with myself.

Anxiety doesn’t ever go away. There’s not suddenly a sun-lit plateau where you’re never anxious about anything – it just takes different shapes and forms. If I’m going to do some acting, if I’m going to do a day’s work on a documentary or something like that, I don’t really sleep well the night before. I’ve accepted that now. There used to be a time when I felt `God, if I don’t sleep I’m not going to be able to be able to do this; I’m going to be on camera and it’s just going to be awful.” And that’s terrible because it’s completely self-defeating.

Now I still don’t sleep that well but I accept that what I’m doing is part of the process. I’m thinking it through; I’m preparing myself for the day ahead. So though you may be technically tired you’re actually much better prepared. But my point is that you don’t ever really free yourself of all anxiety; there’s always something else you’re worried about.

People see people like myself and they say `you have the best job in the world, you’re free of cares and gosh we’d all like to be like you and to be able to stand up and make a speech and all that.’ I don’t do any of those things without at some point feeling anxious about giving it my best and my responsibility to others.  When I was young I was quite shy. I was not first in the class to put my hand up and I’d sit at the back and watch others. I like being an observer rather than being observed – which is not good for a television presenter!

I think everything matters. To me just an ordinary day matters. People say `oh it’s just a small thing, you do lots of stuff’. But you’ve got to do it right and do it properly, otherwise what’s the point? And I think that creates anxiety but in the same way it helps you deal with it because it makes you realise I’m anxious because I’m doing something that’s important in its own way.

Daniel Freeman is Professor of Clinical Psychology and MRC Senior Clinical Fellow, Oxford University. Jason Freeman is a freelance writer and editor. Together they wrote Anxiety: A Very Short Introduction, which published in the UK this week. This interview with Michael Palin is extracted from the book.

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