If anyone can claim to have “been there, done that” Michael Palin can.
But the self-effacing travel presenter who’s been dubbed “Britain’s nicest man” still has an amiable – and insatiable - curiosity about the world and its people.
The actor and comedian made his name as a member of the iconic and much-loved Monty Python team of more than 40 years ago before he turned to globe-trotting.
From a part in the BBC’s 1980 documentary Great Railway Journeys of the World, he’s been down well-trodden paths as well as trackless terrain in television series including Pole to Pole, Sahara, Himalaya and Michael Palin’s New Europe.
There’s also a yet-to-be-aired series on Brazil in the pipeline.
Palin’s been honoured as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to television and has just stepped down after three years as president of the Royal Geographical Society.
He’s penned both fact and fiction, including his latest novel The Truth and at 69, his only concession to ‘slowing down’ is to consider shortening his journeys.
As a former member of Monty Python, what is the line from their comedy sketches which is most often quoted back to you?
I do tend to get people shouting “welease woger” at me (from The Life of Brian). “The Dead Parrot” also tends to be endlessly quoted.
Did you enjoy playing the straight man to John Cleese, or doing more animated performances like “The Lumberjack’s Song”?
There’s no greater pleasure than doing comedy with John Cleese. I knew that the straight man is often the one who sets up the laugh. But then purely fooling about and being silly is something that is quite close to the surface of my consciousness, so doing something like The Lumberjack’s Song is hugely enjoyable.
“The fish-slapping dance” is one of my favourites....
This is the thing I am most proud of because when we rehearsed it - it was shot beside a river lock at Shepperton, near London – the lock was full. We were so busy trying to get the dance right, that when it came to the ‘take’ and they shouted ‘action!’, I suddenly realised that the lock had emptied and there was about a 15ft drop that I was going to have to go into. At that point I probably should have said ‘Hang on, can we wait until the water has come up a bit’. But then I suddenly thought “oh, go for it” - with the wonderful irresponsibility of what we were then in our late 20s. That fall I made head-first into the lock with my pith helmet on and heavy boots is probably the thing I’m most proud of in all my acting life. I think John (Cleese) and I wrote that sketch on the spot. If you want to test whether someone has a sense of humour, show them “the fish-slapping dance”.
You were “crucified” in Tunisia in the movie The Life of Brian and then revisited the country as part of your Sahara series. That must have been a strange feeling.
The ribat at Monastir is 1200 years old and, on my return, I felt mostly amazed that the Tunisians had let us use it to make The Life of Brian. It was very tolerant of them and very central to the film which was supposed to look like old Jerusalem. The actual crucifixion scene was shot out in the desert near the troglodyte dwellings which we did revisit on Sahara. I didn’t exactly say to them ‘I was crucified on that hill’ but it’s a wonderful landscape out there, with people still living in caves.
You have had two British trains named after you but how does it feel to have an asteroid with your name on it?
All of the Python team have been given asteroids. We didn’t ask for them – someone sort of named them because we have a lot of fans out there in the nerdy world. There is a computer language called Python and the name for unwanted email comes from the Python’s “Spam” sketch. We’ve had a major impact on the scientific world which I don’t quite understand but it’s totally Pythonic to have people who dress up as ladies have an asteroid named after them.
Do you feel you were unfairly criticised for your portrayal of stammering animal lover Ken Pile in A Fish Called Wanda?
The knee-jerk reaction was that it was an attack on people who have speech problems. Of course, it wasn’t at all. It was a comedy film about a gang heist. To take that character out would have been to miss the whole point and spirit of the film. On the other hand, people who stammer have a difficult time. I know it all too well because my father had a very bad stammer throughout his life but that doesn’t mean that they should be ignored and it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make a film in which someone has a stammer.
And out of it came the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children
Yes, and apart from my fall in the Fish Slapping Dance, it is the other thing that I am most proud of in my life. The therapists have done such good work and I have heard from parents and children that it has changed their lives. I’m proud to have my name associated with it.
Why do you travel so much?
I was brought up in Sheffield just after the War and the idea of the outside world was going to Nottingham 20 miles away. Travel was not an option for people then so I travelled in my mind, read books and collected stamps and my Aunt Betty who lived in Sydney at the time used to send us food parcels. I just loved the fact these food parcels had come from Australia across the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal. So when the BBC came to me in 1987 to ask if I would be, essentially, the victim of a new kind of documentary where a camera would follow me around the world for 80 days, I just said ‘yes’. It was that same feeling of excitement as it was when I was on my bicycle going out from Sheffield into the Pennines just west of Sheffield. So my main enthusiasm is my work which is great. For so many people it is the opposite way around. They can’t wait to stop work so they can do what they really want to do. I can’t wait to start work so I can really do what I want to do.
What is the most memorable place you have visited and why?
There are two places - one is the South Pole. As a child, the stories of Scott’s terrible, tragic expedition to the South Pole fascinated me the most. The other place was Lhasa in Tibet and seeing the Potala Palace, which has always struck me as a fabulous building. I had just met the Dalai Lama himself in India in exile and he said to me that when he was growing up in this magnificent palace he had felt very cut off from the world. He loved looking at atlases and he had a globe and loved looking at foreign countries. It was a double memory – seeing the Potala Palace and meeting a great man.
Your latest novel The Truth is about an environmental writer. Is it social comment or just a good yarn?
It’s essentially entertainment. I wanted it to be a good story and have the pace of a good thriller but there’s no point in having a novel unless some of the thoughts and feelings you have about what is happening in the world or that you see around you aren’t expressed.
Is your wife Helen keen for you to continue travelling?
We’ve been married for 46 years, so we know each other fairly well and we don’t have to sit down and debate over many things. I don’t imagine doing long journeys. That is something that has happened over the last 15 to 20 years. Now we have two grandsons and we love being with them and watching them grow up. Helen is wonderfully tolerant and she knows I love travelling and people like to see me travelling so she never stops me going but I don’t think I’d do long journeys. I would keep it down to a month maximum or something like that. But both of us realise that the most important thing is for one to be doing what you really want to do – that’s what keeps you young, that’s what keeps you going and we are both lucky enough to be doing that still.
Michael Palin’s novel The Truth (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) is available at good bookstores. Michael will be in Australia promoting his new BBC series Brazil in November 2012.
This article was written by Rosemary Desmond and originally published in the October/November 2012 edition of 50 something magazine.