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Michael Palin: I have a curiosity and my mind is busy all the time

As his third volume of diaries is published, broadcaster, actor, author and all-round good egg Michael Palin speaks to Hannah Stephenson, and reveals a more determined side to his happy-go-lucky image

He has travelled pole to pole, been around the world in 80 days – well, in 79 days and seven hours to be precise – and most recently played to sell-out crowds at The O2 with his Monty Python pals.

Yet Michael Palin seems to be always searching for more, looking for that greater challenge, hoping that some new adventure will provide the fulfilment he seeks each time he steps out of his comfort zone.

"I always feel the best is yet to come," admits the genial TV journeyman, actor and writer, who has long been deemed 'Britain's nicest man', a nickname which he says doesn't irritate him, although he remains a bit baffled by it.

At 71, there are no thoughts of retirement. He's currently on his first ever solo tour of 21 UK towns and cities, is about to appear in Remember Me, his first lead role in a TV drama for more than 20 years, and is thinking of writing another novel.

"I'm always re-inventing. I've been revisiting the past a lot more as I get older. You realise what a long history you've had and it's very gratifying that people want you to talk about things you've done 25 or 30 years ago, but at the same time I'm thinking, 'What's new? What's the next new thing I can do?'

"I do feel I've made a mark. Ripping Yarns and films like A Private Function, A Fish Called Wanda and the Monty Python series, and then seven or eight successful travel shows, you think that's quite enough for a lifetime.

"But that's not how I look at it. I have a curiosity, my mind is always busy. I like the fact that I can do acting one week, an arts documentary another week, write a novel. It's great to have these possibilities and that's what keeps me going."

He's just released Travelling To Work, the third volume of his diaries which take us from 1988 – when he was being lauded for his funny performance as a gangster's stuttering, bungling right-hand man in A Fish Called Wanda – to 1998, when the Monty Python team decided they were not going to do a reunion tour.

In that decade, he also packed in a new career of travel presenting, firstly with Around The World In 80 Days and later with Pole To Pole and Full Circle With Michael Palin, starred in several movies, played the lead as a schoolmaster in the hit TV drama series G.B.H. and starred in a West End play, The Weekend, among many other adventures.

There were also personal dramas, including the death of his mother and the death of his friend and fellow Python Graham Chapman, which are charted in honest detail in the book.

Palin has long been everybody's 'Mr Nice Guy', but there's a steely Yorkshire grit about him (he was born in Broomhill, Sheffield), and seemingly, not much stops him from pursuing his dreams, least of all his wife Helen, a bereavement counsellor to whom he's been married for 48 years.

When he was filming Full Circle in the Borneo jungle in 1996, she phoned him to tell him she had a brain tumour. He didn't head for home immediately, although he says that was at her insistence.

"At the time, it was a sledgehammer shock, but she was very fortunate in that it was benign and outside of the brain. It wasn't, as the surgeon said, a complicated operation. It just made me aware of where I should be and shouldn't be, and should I stay at home or not.

"Helen was very sensible about the whole thing and didn't want me to stop doing what I was doing and come and stand at the end of the bed. That is, in general, the way both of us look at the journeys I do.

"There's no point in staying at home in case someone gets ill, but it did make me aware that you can be a long way away, and if something worse had happened, God forbid, I would have felt almost guilty about being so far away."


"But my wife doesn't want me to have the guilt thing. We took it in our stride."

These days, he doesn't like to be away from home for too long, because he doesn't want to miss his two grandsons, Archie and Wilbur, growing up.

"With Pole To Pole and Full Circle I was away for three to four months at a time. I wouldn't do that again. When we did Brazil, we were away for three weeks at a time, which seemed to be enough."

He finds it easy to slip back into family life in between his travels, he reflects.

"It's the way I've always been. I did travel when we were making Python. When we did Life Of Brian I was away for 10 weeks. I was a dad who travelled. All the time the children were growing up, I was travelling a lot, away in LA or New York, and we coped with that and it seemed to work.

"The family's very strong. We all live nearby and see the children [he has three grown-up kids; Tom, Will and Rachel] on a regular basis. They live in London too. There's a very strong family support network without me."

He has said many times he's going to cut down on his workload, although it isn't evident.

Earlier in the summer he reunited with the other surviving Monty Python stars for a string of sold-out live shows at London's O2 arena, which he thoroughly enjoyed, but has no wish to repeat.

"When it sold out very quickly, there were offers to go all over the world, but I personally didn't see it as a way forward. Python is one part of my life but there are many other things I want to do. We decided to do 10 big shows, spend a bit of money to make them unforgettable and stop there."

Was there not a hint of sadness when they were performing the last show?

"No. When we were doing the last number, Always Look On The Bright Side... I caught sight of a few people in the audience swaying and holding hands, which showed it did mean something to the audience and to myself. Then it's just back to practicalities."

He says he doesn't have many plans for 2015, but mentions that he will be travelling.

"There are four or five things on hold. I will travel, but maybe doing single documentaries, rather than the longer series. I may go to cities that people don't know very well. On the other hand, I really want to write another novel.

"I can't conceive what I'd do in retirement. My wife wouldn't want me around the house...

"My goals? I'm always looking for something which is absolutely perfect, that no-one else does in the way I do it, and it's done really well.

"I can't tell you what those exact goals are," Palin adds. "The main thing is, I've got to really want to do it and I've got to do it really well. Easier said than done."

But you get the feeling he'll never stop trying.

Travelling To Work: Diaries 1988-1998 by Michael Palin, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £25. The Travelling To Work Tour runs until October 22.

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