I always wanted to be an explorer but, it seemed I was doomed to be nothing more than a very silly person
After picking up his knighthood from the Palace Michael Palin heads off on a nationwide stand up, more sat down these days, tour
Article by Andrew Thelfall
“Do you get back to your hometown, well actually our hometown, of Sheffield often, Michael?”
“One of my oldest childhood friends, Graham Harris, was up there so I’d go and see him and his family quite a bit and there are also a number of things that I am continually involved with on the charity side that are based in Sheffield. I’ll try to find any excuse to go up there and see old friends, even if it’s to do a book signing. I’m fortunate that I go there fairly frequently. You can’t really take the boy out of Yorkshire for long.”
Life, on the whole, has been kind to perhaps the most amiable of all Pythons. In latter years he has watched the painful demise of his best friend Terry Jones from dementia. He is a man bound up with the constant feeling that he deserved none of this, the adulation, the comedic gift, the free travel around the world.
“What kind of show are you putting on these days Michael?”
“I quite enjoy reminiscing about my life and travel which means I usually use a slideshow. I also talk about the Python years obviously. If people come along and have a good time then it’s a great night. It’s funny that you asked about my hometown because the Sheffield crowds were great for me. No nonsense Yorkshire in the audience. When the former Home Secretary David Blunkett asked me to take part in something called Helen’s Trust a few years ago he asked whether I, as a fellow Sheffielder, would be prepared to help this very important work. I told him that it is an amazing thing that they are trying to do, allowing people the dignity to be treated at home rather than in a hospital if the person is terminally ill. It must be a terrible thing to have to die in a hospital bed. So I’ve taken my sort of one-man show on the road before because I’ve always found it a nice way of raising money for charities rather than just writing a cheque.”
Palin is such a calming influence in real life you get the feeling that he’s seldom nervous treading the boards. Even if the audience shouts out requests for The Lumberjack Song or the Dead Parrot sketch?
“Well, it’s always a surprise because the people that turn up know me for different reasons. There are the diehard Monty Python fans, then there are the people who say that Ripping Yarns was their favourite comedy show of the 80s, and then there are the people who have enjoyed my travels and writing of my journeys around the world. What I try and do is make the show have a bit of everything. It’s great to be able to mix a bit of travel with a bit of comedy. I like the informality of getting up on stage and playing live to an audience.”
“On your travels you must have had to throw yourself wholeheartedly into taking part in local customs,” I enquire. “Even to the extent of having a tattoo or a piercing?”
“Luckily no, I don’t think I ever was compromised that far, although I’ve certainly eaten and drunk some strange brews. And if I’d had a bit too much of them then maybe I’d have ended up with a tattoo on my backside when I woke up in the morning. Luckily whenever I make those programmes I travel with a little team who make sure that Michael Palin never does anything too stupid! (laughing) I did, you might recall, agree to leech treatment in Estonia, and I’ve had a few other strange things done to my body like people walk up and down my spine as a way of dealing with stomach ache, but that was about 30 years ago and I lived to tell the tale. Yes, I suppose I have had a few intrusive moments like that but never the needle on the back. I’m not really in it for the discomfort to be honest. But I suppose that is a side effect of travelling. If you go to places that are sensational, remote and stunning then you have to expect things that are different and unusual and you’ve got to put up with a little bit of discomfort. I don’t search it out though, believe you me.”
And is he a huge fan of the Bruce Parrys, the Anthony Bourdains, embedded or realistic in their travel reporting:
“Oh, absolutely. What Bruce does I admire greatly and I often wonder what it would be like to spend longer in these remote places than I ever can, even though I’ve been to the Amazon and even the far east of Siberia with primitive tribes. I’m only really there for a day or so and I admire how Bruce stays with them for two or three weeks, and he gets to learn everything about them in that amount of time. He really does learn a lot about how they live, about their customs. And I just think he does it extremely well. Not sensationally, but in order to find out what goes on. He gets emotionally involved as well. I know in my own experience that spending eight days on a dow (boat in India) in the Persian gulf with a crew of Indian sailors living a very simple, very basic life, we had such a great bond that by the end of our time together I was very emotional when it came to the moment of saying goodbye. The captain just gave me this big hug as I left the boat and it was great. It’s very difficult sometimes when you travel because you have to keep in the back of your mind that you are always moving on, always breaking new relationships, new friendships. Like filming the one-off show with the people on the Dow. It’s hard work, quite tearful at times. I’ve felt very close to people who have a very different lifestyle to mine and that’s what happens when you travel a lot. It’s absolutely true in my case anyway and I’ve always found that the people who have the least give you the most back. I’ve met people who’ve had barely enough to feed their own families and they’ve been the first ones to make me a cup of tea or share some food with me and that sort of innate goodness and consideration and compassion that other people have sometimes makes me incredibly moved.”
“Sometimes I think we tend to forget that this exists in a world where we just want everything including more and more money or a bigger car or more jewellery and all that stuff. And sometimes I feel “Oh come on there are certain basics that we should all live our lives by.” And when you see those basic rules working of human compassion and that very human ability to share all that you have it is incredibly moving.”
I asked him if he still has to pinch himself that the BBC gave him this job of going around the world making TV programmes?
“I just did the thing and it’s only later that I thought “Oh my goodness”. The process of actually making the films just felt like work to me. It’s like a job. You have to work very hard at it and you’re not ever conscious of the overall view of it, you’re just thinking of it as a day’s work. Who I’ve got to interview the next day, do I know the material, whether I have the right questions prepared, whether I’ve got the stamina, whether my stomach is playing up! And obviously where we are heading to the next day to film and most crucially where we are going to stay the night. All of these basic things keep you going but I do sometimes quite a long time after we’ve finished the journeys sort of take a big deep breath and think “My God, have I really done this on the last trip?”
The Himalayas have been in the news this past few weeks citing the number of wannabe Everest conquerors in real danger after Nepal authorities issued too many climbing permits. Palin recalls his own experiences: “When I think back to something like the Himalayas I wonder at what an extraordinary experience it was for me and it still triggers something in my imagination so I guess I am really, really fortunate to have seen so many places and in such good company. I’ve also been blessed with great cameramen and directors along the way. I was 10-years-old when Everest was conquered and it was of course also the year of the Queen’s accession to the throne. I can easily remember the Coronation followed a couple of days later by the announcement that Everest had been conquered and it was an absolutely epic event. A colossal event really. And especially for someone like myself as I had been brought up reading tales of pluck and heroism. Even back then I loved to read of faraway places and to me the Himalayas seemed to be the ultimate challenge to humanity and to see two people standing on the summit was quite unbelievable to me. I remember it very, very vividly. Many years later I think one of the proudest moments of my life was when I went to New Zealand in 1997 after completing filming one of the series and I met Sir Edmund Hillary and he was a wonderful man, really genuine. Very gentle and very un-boastful of his achievements but also very direct in the way he spoke to me. We had a wonderful time chatting and he introduced me to his audience at a dinner as Michael Palin the Intrepid Explorer. And if you can get Sir Edmund Hillary introducing you in such a manner and calling you intrepid, then, ha ha, life can’t be all that bad after all! After he died I wrote to Lady Hilary to express my sadness and she wrote a very nice letter back to me.”
Michael Palin/ themichaelpalin.com/tour-2019/
Helen’s Trust/ helenstrust.org.uk