Anxiety as a performer - Michael Palin and Graham Taylor: Everyday anxiety and how to cope with it

Anxiety: A Very Short Introduction - Daniel Freeman, Jason Freeman 2012

Anxiety as a performer
Michael Palin and Graham Taylor: Everyday anxiety and how to cope with it

In the first three chapters of this book, we defined everyday anxiety and set out the key theories that have been developed to understand it. In Chapters 5 to 11, we’ll look in detail at the major anxiety disorders and the methods used to treat them. But before we leave our discussion of everyday anxiety behind, we present two real-life accounts, interviews conducted specifically for this book. This is the sort of thing you won’t find in the textbooks!

To really bring the discussion alive, we wanted to hear from figures who have had to cope with anxiety almost every day of their working lives. We chose two people who, since childhood, have been very important to us. We’ve long been fans of Michael Palin’s work, from Monty Python and Ripping Yarns right through to the present day. We were fascinated to know how he coped with the nerves that we imagined must be inevitable for actors and presenters. Graham Taylor managed the football team we support, Watford FC, with unprecedented success — and no little charisma. We thought he would be ideally placed to explain how one deals with anxiety in a group of people.

With characteristic kindness, Michael and Graham each gave up their time to record interviews with us. It may seem risky to meet people you have always looked up to: fond illusions may take something of a battering. But our meetings with Michael Palin and Graham Taylor were every bit as pleasurable and instructive as we could have wished.

Michael Palin is an actor, writer, director, and television presenter. Born in 1943, he became famous worldwide as a member of the Monty Python team in the late 1960s. Besides his work with Python, Palin has appeared in numerous feature films and television comedies, many of which he has written and directed. He has also presented several much-loved travel documentaries, and in recent years published two bestselling volumes of diaries.


5. Michael Palin

As you’ll see from the following interview, Palin isn’t prone to excessive anxiety in his professional life. But neither is he totally free of it. Partly, it seems to go with the territory of performance: as he remarks to us, he’s rarely met an actor who is free from nerves. Yet he can also become anxious at the thought of how other people may be perceiving him, particularly when he disagrees with the way in which he believes he is being viewed (’national treasure’), or senses that it may be critical (triggered, for instance, by a piece to camera going wrong).

Here, he is experiencing what psychologists call ’self-focus’, and it can often play a big part in anxiety. When we turn our attention inwards, any worries we might have about our performance can multiply. Images of how we suspect we look to other people may pop up to plague us. Because we are preoccupied with checking how we’re coming across, the panicky feelings of anxiety, and our negative thoughts, we don’t notice how things are really going. Were we to look outside ourselves, we’d almost certainly discover that our anxiety is unjustified. A vicious cycle can churn into life, in which our self-focus actually causes the problems we fear (drying up in front of the camera, for instance), which in turn only increases our anxiety. As it happens, one of the techniques psychologists use to trigger self-focus in people is to point a camera at them. Almost everyone in this situation starts wondering how they are being perceived by other people. The best way to combat self-focus, as Palin has discovered, is to concentrate on the task in hand.

Palin’s strategies for coping with anxiety are psychologically astute. Rather than worrying about his anxiety, he understands that what he is going through is normal and even necessary (therapists call this ’normalization’). He boosts his self-esteem, for example by reminding himself that he really can do whatever it is he’s worried about. The positive thoughts and images thereby triggered (memories of a successful performance, for instance) crowd out and dampen down any negative thinking. He is a walker and a runner (physical exercise is a proven means of reducing anxiety). And he has discovered quite correctly that alcohol dampens anxiety only in the short term and is not good in the long run.

Moreover, Palin is determinedly positive, inquisitive, and purposeful: ’I think everything matters. I think that creates anxiety but in the same way it helps you deal with it because it makes you realize I’m anxious because I’m doing something that’s important in its own way.’ This attitude helps Palin to face tasks that he might otherwise be tempted to avoid — ’like crossing bridges on your hands and knees’ — and thus prevent his anxiety really taking root (for more on the problems caused by avoiding what we fear, see p. 26). It also enables him to escape self-focus and concentrate on what he knows really matters: the task in hand.

Nervousness about performance didn’t seem to be anything that worried me when I was young. The first time I performed in front of an audience for any long period of time was really in my gap year and I was in Sheffield — people didn’t go very far in the gap year; I only went about four miles — and I joined one of the amateur dramatic societies in Sheffield and I could deal with that. They were quite long plays, quite a lot of words to learn. I don’t remember being particularly nervous. I can’t remember being particularly nervous when we did the Edinburgh revue in 1964 which decided me to take up acting. I thought: ’I really enjoy this; it’s something I can do’. Even when we were doing Python it didn’t seem to matter at all. It happened slightly later after Python was successful. I became a bit more self-conscious about the process.

I think for a long while you’re yourself, or who you think you are. And then you become something which is somebody else’s and it is their view of you. So I’d be on a programme because I’m a celebrity and I’d think: ’I’m not a celebrity — I’m me’.

Occasionally I can deal with that quite happily. You just act it. But other times it got to me and I thought ’I’m not being able to be myself’. I think that’s the key to a lot of my anxiety. And the work I do is actually trying to remember who I am and what I can do rather than become a sort of figment of what people want me to be. People say: ’You’re a great star; you’re a national treasure; you’ve done all this brilliant stuff’. It just embarrasses me. It’s not the way I feel about myself.

On the other hand, 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. I’m fortunate because I think I’m generally positive about the world. I’ve not had many moments where I’ve had the screaming abdabs and said ’I can’t do this. I want to change my job.’ I’ve always quite enjoyed my job — whatever it is!

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.

On the Python shows we always used to go and have a drink before we did recordings — a little relaxant. I remember we used to go to the BBC bar and drank Ringners lager — we’d have a couple of those and it was absolutely fine. Somehow the lager sort of dealt with the adrenaline. When we were doing films like Life of Brian, partly because we were in Tunisia and there wasn’t much drink around, but it then became acceptable not to drink if you were going to do a scene and nobody did. Ever since then I’ve always avoided taking drink before I perform. I’d never use alcohol to get over anxiety now because I don’t think it really works in the end.

My anxiety levels seem to go up the more I’m obviously scrutinized. 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.

But I don’t think there are many situations where I’ve said ’no, I can’t do that’. I’ve just done it and been a bit terrified — like crossing bridges on your hands and knees. But at least you’ve done it and you usually find that someone else around you is equally terrified, which is such an important thing in the whole business of anxiety, because if you see someone else with anxiety, not only does it make you feel you’re not alone but in some cases it can make you feel slightly better: you’re not as anxious as they are and so you can help them out.

For all that, 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 realize I’m anxious because I’m doing something that’s important in its own way.