Actor, writer, comedian and all-round nice chap, Michael Palin talks about the fine line between success and failure
How does a celebrity make the step between household name and true national icon? Erstwhile Monty Python star and traveller extraordinaire Michael Palin is one of the few stars to have attained that coveted status, but it’s difficult to pin down exactly how he got there. It wasn’t his BAFTA-winning performances in cult comedies such as A Fish Called Wanda that endeared him to the British public, nor even his unforgettable comic contortions as the youngest member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. After all, big names such as John Cleese and Eric Idle trod the same career path without acting their way into the hearts of the populace. But, unlike the rest of the Python boys, who have spent the past few decades sniping publicly at one another from various corners of the globe, Palin has always come across as, well, just so darn nice. He’s regularly billed in the media as ‘Britain’s nicest person’, and even his wife has talked about the challenges of living with somebody who never has a harsh word to say about anyone.
“Michael,” she supposedly once said, “if you get any nicer, I shall have to leave you.”
That’s quite an accolade for any man – but for a long-term celebrity accustomed to hero worship from around the world, it’s almost unheard of. Palin himself takes a characteristically-modest view of the personality cult that has built up around him. “Actually, my wife and children would probably tell you that I’ve got a bit of a temper,” he says. “I inherited that from my father.”
Edward Palin, Michael’s father, was a Sheffield-based engineer with a notoriously-sharp temper. “He was good in many ways, but he felt himself to be some sort of failure, probably because he had a very good education, went off to India in the 1920s, married my mother at the beginning of the ’30s, and then immediately the Depression happened,” says Palin. “So he couldn’t find any work in Southern England and ended up where he didn’t particularly want to end up – in the North. He had this very bad stammer, which must have made it very difficult for him in his working environment. We never mentioned the subject, it would be like rubbing salt in the wound, but I think that caused him to be a little bit quick off the mark sometimes.”
Interestingly, one of Palin’s defining career moments was playing a stammerer in A Fish Called Wanda. The performance netted him a BAFTA and he has since invested heavily in The Michael Palin Centre – a charity set up to help stammering children. But he also credits his father’s stammer for inspiring his early gift for mimicking speech patterns and behaviour. Imitation and comedy became his way of fitting in and belonging, particularly when he was sent to public school in Shrewsbury at the age of 14.
“That was when I found out that I could act,” he explained in an interview with ABC’s Jennifer Byrne. “I could impersonate and mimic the teachers, and actually, I think that’s where a lot of comics start. I was pretty good at being able to get the movements and the gestures and the intonations. I would regurgitate this for the boys during the milk break – I guess I used humour as a way of keeping myself out of trouble.”
During his school days, Palin began to toy with the idea of acting and writing as a profession. His father was violently opposed to the idea and even forbade him to act in school productions, so it wasn’t until he started at Oxford University that he began to get involved in amateur dramatics. Then, in 1964, he was invited to be part of the Oxford University Revue at the Edinburgh Festival, as a member of the troupe that included future Python lynchpin Terry Jones. The two were spotted during one of their performances by comedian David Frost of The Frost Report and asked to be part of the writing team on his show.
“In the end, David Frost gave us a very low-paid job, but with a huge gallery of writers that included Eric Idle, John Cleese and Graham Chapman”
“In the end, he gave us a very low-paid job, but with a huge gallery of writers that included Eric Idle, John Cleese and Graham Chapman,” explains Palin. “Then, very fortunately, we did a show called Do Not Adjust Your Set in 1967 – it was a new absurdist comedy, and I was asked to be a writer and performer on it. I think that enabled me to say once and for all that I could make a living from writing and acting.”
Do Not Adjust Your Set was the predecessor of Python – a new form of absurdist surrealism with almost no precedent. With the exception of John Cleese, the cast was made up of complete unknowns, and Palin describes the whole project as a “big risk”. The BBC was initially ambivalent about Monty Python’s Flying Circus, putting the show on late on a Saturday night with no planned repeats. None of those involved in writing, designing or performing in it realised that they were taking part in something that would make their careers.
And yet it wasn’t long before the show became a hit. Python catchphrases – ‘And now for something completely different’, ‘Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition’ – were soon circling the country. The series inspired a film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which was shot on a total budget of £209,000, and later became one of the most popular cult comedy productions of all time. Monty Python’s Life of Brian followed several years later, provoking such controversy that it was initially banned by several local authorities. Along with his fellow Pythons, Palin was established as one of the UK’s leading comedic talents.
After the Pythons went their separate ways, he appeared in several more high-profile films – but the compromises involved in working with Hollywood quickly galled him.
“I looked back on things like the Holy Grail, where we recruited students to be the army in Scotland and backlit them so you couldn’t tell they were wearing their own clothes, and I thought how much I enjoyed doing it that way. I think some of the fun went out of it when you had to appease Hollywood.”
It was while he was wondering what to do next that the BBC decided to run a show called Around the World in 80 Days. The idea was to follow in the footsteps of the Jules Verne story, to discover whether a round-the-world trip could still be accomplished in 80 days and how it might be done. Four other well-known presenters were asked and turned down the role before the BBC offered it to Palin. It was the beginning of a travel obsession that would take him to the four corners of the globe. To date, he has filmed seven travel series, visiting everywhere from the two poles to the Sahara, the Himalayas and the South Pacific in the process. His most recent travel project, the 2012 hit series Brazil, had average viewing figures of around four million per episode.
“Age should be no barrier to anyone looking for travel adventures, provided you’re careful and don’t try and run up and down Everest”
Palin is 71 now, but claims that he has no intention of slowing down any time soon. In a discussion with the users of Gransnet, a social networking site for grandparents, he said that travel would always be an important part of his life. “It keeps me up to the mark, both mentally and physically, and the interaction with the rest of the world and the people I meet makes me feel that there is much more that unites us all than divides us,” he explains. “This is a useful antidote to media stories which might give you the impression that the world is falling apart. Age should be no barrier to anyone looking for travel adventures, provided you’re careful and don’t try and run up
and down Everest.”
While he recently dabbled again in television drama with a part in The Wiper Times, a one-off show based on the story of a satirical newspaper produced in the trenches during the First World War, Palin now sees himself mainly as a travel writer and documentarian. Most of his travel series have been accompanied by sleek, coffee table-style books – all of which are available to read free of charge on his website (www.palinstravels.co.uk). Palin’s Travels is one of his pet projects, based on the idea of making his work freely available to anyone with a love for adventure. “The idea behind it is that you can share information across the world,” he says. “I want the website to be about me as a mirror reflecting the world to anybody who’s interested in travel.”
His position as the world’s most famous dromomaniac has netted Palin a series of prestigious accolades. He has been awarded the Livingstone Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, a gold medal for achievements in geography by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and, most recently, the Outstanding Contribution Award at the British Travel Press Awards. He was also president of the Royal Geographical Society from 2009-2012, and has two trains and an asteroid named after him.
But the ex-Python’s most significant achievement has to be his universal global appeal. Millions of viewers from around the world tune into his travel series, and his books have made it into the bestseller charts. The remarkable spike in popularity experienced by the destinations he visits during filming has become an established phenomenon. And yet the man himself still worries about the long-term impact of his books and programmes. “I just hope that the work I do does leave a mark, and doesn’t just blow away like the dust,” he says wistfully.
That’s certainly true if his forthcoming venture is anything to go by. In a surprise statement from Michael and the three remaining Pythons late last year, the comedians sparked a huge amount of excitement among fans when they announced a return to stage in a one-off live show this July. And such was the demand to see the Pythons reunite, a further nine dates were added.
Ironically, Palin credits his success in part to his obsession with failure and disenfranchisement. “I always find the odd ones out more interesting,” he explains. “I find failure as interesting as success. When I’ve travelled the world filming, I’ve found that the best sequences we’ve ever done have been in pretty rough places where people are completely ignored, and to me these are the most inventive and resourceful people you’ll ever meet.”
Perhaps it’s this affinity with those living outside the celebrity circle that has kept Palin so grounded through all those years of fame. He still lives in the Gospel Oak house that he bought for £12,000 back in 1968, sent his children to the local primary and then the nearby comprehensive, and likes the anonymity that his long-term residency gives him.
“Over the years, I have thought ‘Hmm, now I’ve made all this money, I could buy a castle,’ but Helen, who is practical, has pointed out I wouldn’t know what do with it,” he once admitted to the Independent. “London is not a real city, like Sheffield, but people are tolerant. I get very little aggravation. People have known me from pre-Python days. If I moved to the country, people would come round gaping at me. I have roots here. I know all the shopkeepers. I’m not considered a celebrity.”
Many stars, of course, claim to eschew celebrity, but with Palin you get the impression that he really does mean it. His agenda is simply to continue making the programmes he likes – “I’m not interested in celebrity as such, I’m interested in what I can bring to the world in terms of information, education and entertainment.”
And that, of course, is why we love him.