Michael Palin: There are people out there who are much better at this than I am
Palin celebrates 25 years as a travel broadcaster in his typically modest and self-effacing style, writes Ian Burrell.
Michael Palin is being asked to reminisce on the many discomforting tasks he's been obliged to perform by Roger Mills, the mischief-making Oxford classicist with whom he has travelled the world.
“Do you remember when you had to drink the old lady's fermented spittle?” is the enquiry, followed by the response: “I didn’t know it was the old lady's fermented spittle until we asked what it was — I thought it was rather nice,” Palin recalls. It was pink and yoghurt-like, and he quaffed it on the banks of the Urubamba River in Peru.
“They were having a celebration. It was a welcoming thing and I couldn't turn it down; it would have been very, very rude. So I drank it.”
Aside from having to imbibe the saliva of elderly Peruvians, Palin has many reasons to be grateful to Mills — the man he calls “The Professor”. For it was this self-same Roger Mills, a seasoned and much-awarded documentary-maker, who turned the vendor of the Dead Parrot into a real-life Phileas Fogg a quarter of a century ago.
Palin was then at the peak of his 1980s success, but as co-producer of Around the World in 80 Days, Mills had the power to transform his life. Although Palin was one of Britain's most popular comic performers, he was not quite a shoo-in for the new show, which would re-create the fictional itinerary undertaken by Fogg in Jules Verne's 1873 novel of the same name. First, Mills had to dampen the wanderlust of Alan Whicker, then the unrivalled doyen of British travel broadcasting and anointed by BBC bosses for the Phileas role. Fortunately, Mills knew how to dissuade the famously smooth Whicker from taking the gig.
Over a lunch with Whicker in London's Kensington, Mills made clear what the job would entail: “Alan,” he said, “you will have to share deck space with the crew between Oman and Bombay.” From then on, Mills says, “He took no further part in the discussions. He wrote a letter the next day to the effect that he thought the pace of the show would be such that he wouldn't have time to prepare his interviews.”
That seven-night, eight-day dhow journey to Bombay — with 18 Gujarati crew but no radio or radar — was the making of Palin as a travel presenter. The audience warmed to the sight of him sleeping under the stars on deck, not to mention relieving himself via the precarious outboard toilet. “Never have I been in a situation where, for so long, I depended upon a group of people quite different from me in wealth, class, race, religion and circumstance,” Palin writes in Travelling for Work, the third and latest volume of his diaries.
As the Python and the Prof come together now to reminisce over that epic journey, first screened 25 years ago in 1989, it is clear how close they became working side by side on all but one of Palin's great television odysseys. At 77, Mills is suffering from Parkinson's and Palin is considerate of his friend's welfare.
They refer to themselves as “a married couple” and, at one point, Mills rebukes his presenter for the bad temper which viewers would not recognise. “You can get quite grumpy when things aren't going efficiently and you feel people haven't pulled their weight,” he says. “You've made me very upset at times, Michael, (although) you've said ‘I'm sorry' at the end.”
Palin (71) makes no attempt to deny it. “Everybody who knows me knows that I can be quite sparky and rather rude.” Not often, though. In a travel broadcasting career that has now spanned eight adventures, his secret has been his empathy with the people and cultures he encounters. His journeys have never been exotic freak shows, but celebrations of the human spirit in its many forms.
Readers of Travelling for Work may, however, be surprised to discover just how difficult Palin found his new milieu. “The realisation that this whole project is supported on my shoulders and demands not just my survival but my wit, energy, exuberance and enthusiasm quite terrifies me,” he records in September 1988.
He worries about his diet and his deficiencies in sleep, but most of all he is tormented by self-doubt over his ability to make good documentary television. “There are people much better at this than I am,” he writes. He further wonders what some of his peers would have been able to make of the task. “I think of seeing all this through Jonathan Miller's and Alan Bennett's and Terry Gilliam's eyes and how much sharper and more original it might all be.”
The diaries also cover the death from cancer in 1989 of Monty Python's Graham Chapman and a Pythons' meeting in London's Camden Town, earlier that year, to discuss a 20th anniversary celebration. Following the rendezvous, Terry Gilliam exclaims: “After today I know we'll never do anything together again.” Of course he was proved wrong, eventually — the troupe marked their 45th anniversary this year with the Monty Python Live shows at London's O2 Arena.
“This year everything just came together,” says Palin. We had the technology to integrate Graham into the show and we had a reason to get together — which was that Python had no money. So we decided to do it unanimously — within five seconds everyone said yes.”
The decision was vindicated, he says. “It turned out to be spectacularly right, because we got far more people coming to the shows than we ever expected.”
Travelling for Work details Palin’s enthusiasm for running and clean living, even if he clearly likes his food and references various brewers by name.
Though let's not get too carried away here: “I have never seen him pissed,” says Mills, which is no idle boast given he followed him with a camera from dawn till dusk, all over the world. “He's generous, charming and good company. Yes, he gets ratty sometimes, but then he's filled with remorse because he feels he has let himself down.”
And then, as 25 years before, the pair head out of the private club and back on to the streets of London. This time they take separate paths — though it's pleasing to imagine that their spirits will always be in step.
Some of Palin's memorable moments on the road
- On the Chinese leg of his Around the World in Eighty Days trip, Palin and companion Basil Pao enjoyed a rather stomach-turning meal in a snake restaurant. Their selected serpent was decapitated and skinned on the restaurant floor in front of them, before being dished up a short while later.
- While filming Pole to Pole in 1990, in which he travelled from the North Pole to the South Pole in just over 5 months, Palin narrowly escaped being trapped in the former USSR when an attempted coup against then Premier Mikhail Gorbachev took place, which would eventually lead to the collapse of the country.
- Palin’s attempts to travel the entire circumference of the Pacific Rim for his show Full Circle in 1997 only just fell short when bad weather meant he was unable to make it the last two miles back to his starting point of the Diomede Islands between Alaska and Russia.
- In 1994, Palin travelled through Ireland for hit series Great Railway Journeys of the World, in a programme entitled Derry to Kerry. During the programme, he attempted to trace his great grandmother, Brita Gallagher, who had set sail from Ireland 150 years previously during the Great Famine.
Travelling to Work: Diaries 1988-1998 by Michael Palin is out now, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25