Michael Palin's world... travelling man, film star and comedy legend
Monty Python star Michael Palin, who makes a poignant return to the Belfast Festival at Queen’s this week, tells Matthew McCreary why he’s obsessed with globetrotting
When it comes to television personalities, there is someone suited for every occasion, it seems. But few fall into a class of their own quite like Michael Palin.
In his 40-plus year career he has been everything from travel guide and writer to film and TV star to comedy legend.
He is one of the more agreeable subjects this journalist has ever interviewed, ahead of his return to Northern Ireland on Thursday to deliver a talk for the Belfast Festival at Queen’s.
The 67-year-old’s visit will be particularly welcomed by those who remember his now legendary one-man shows at the Arts Theatre in the early Eighties, which he brought to the festival at the behest of its then director, Michael Barnes.
“Michael wrote me a very elegant letter and laid on the fact very strongly that there was a wonderful railway museum nearby,” recalls Palin, a fellow train aficionado.
“It was about the time when the first documentary I made for television, called Great Railway Journeys, was on. He’d seen that and thought ‘Here’s a kindred spirit’. So it was partly Michael’s approach and partly the fact that it was Belfast, which was in the news for all the wrong reasons — I thought I would like to see the city.”
For many festival-goers Palin’s visits were a huge morale boost at a time when Belfast was simply not on the radar for many big artistic acts. And the fact that he chose to ever only perform his one-man show in the city gave an added resonance to the event.
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“It was a particular kind of show that had developed in Belfast and so I only did it in Belfast. It very much depended on the rapport with the audience.
“There was a connection and an intimacy with the audience which was really important and I’ve never quite known that in the same way since.”
One of the highlights of the show would see Palin don his running shoes to complete a circuit of the auditorium. But, as he reveals, the stunt was more a product of poor preparation by himself than a desire to show off his athletic skills.
“I had never done a one-man show before and had polished it to such an extent that it was all over in about half an hour,” he laughs.
“I appealed to the audience for what to do and someone said there was a tradition for performers to run around the auditorium and try to break the speed record, which was held by Sir John Gielgud.
He adds: “It was quite dangerous, actually, because you tore round and had to grab on to somebody on the back row to spin round and then jump up on stage!”
Poignantly for Palin both the Arts Theatre and Barnes are now gone, the former into lamentable decay, the latter sadly after a long illness in 2008. Palin’s visits to his friend in his final years were sad ones, he recalls.
“We had lost touch but he was a man of whom I was extremely fond. I had great admiration for what he did for the festival,” he says.
“He had become quite ill and he wasn’t taking anything in for many years. I visited him in the home where he was and I don’t think he recognised me, he was there but not there. In a sense he was no longer the Michael Barnes that I knew.”
It is in memory of his late friend that Palin will be funding a new travel bursary for drama students at Queen’s University.
It is a rather appropriate subject given Palin’s love for travel and exploration, a passion he has held since his childhood growing up in post-war industrial Sheffield.
“There was an itch definitely from when I was quite young. I just loved any information on other countries. I had a terrific appetite for information about the rest of the world but no way of realising that.
“So when the BBC asked me in 1987 to do Around the World in 80 Days it must have been the right thing at the right time. It appealed to my sense of travel, but it was always intended to be a single one-off programme and then I would get back to acting.”
Although Palin continued with his screen work, including an uncharacteristically serious role in Alan Bleasdale’s political drama GBH in 1991, his appetite for travel remained, even becoming stronger.
“We looked at a map of the world again and decided we would try another trip, which became Pole to Pole. I’ve made seven travel series now. I didn’t expect it but obviously there was something there,” Palin adds.
He does bristle slightly when I enquire if his love for travel might have been borne of a sense of escapism from the ‘grim up North’ surroundings of south Yorkshire in the Fifties.
“Careful, don’t slander my home town,” he half jokes, adding: “That world we were growing up in then, my parents had been through two world wars and the worst depression in a lifetime,” he says. “Everything was scarce: you had to have some imagination or vision, especially if you were young. You had to dream of things and of being actors or musicians.
“In a sense it was partly an escapism but also a glimpse of a world in which there were exciting things happening, rather than a world that was closed in on itself
trying to get through very difficult times.”
Perhaps it is that drive for seeing other things that has shaped Palin’s easy-going charm and genuine rapport with the people and places he visits, and which have made him an ideal travelling companion for many television audiences.
He is, however, wary of naming favourites among the places he has visited, instead finding something unique and special wherever he has gone.
“I particularly liked our trip in South America when we went from Cape Horn up to Cartagena in Colombia.
“Also, Patagonia and some parts of Chile are very beautiful — striking lakes, mountains and glaciers.
“Equally well there is a Russian far east, the Kamchatka Peninsula, where there are about 25 active volcanoes, rivers full of salmon, and hot springs.
“There are the most incredible things and very few people go there. But I’ve also been very happy in cities like Sydney and Melbourne.”
He confesses there is nowhere he wouldn’t go in the world, even places which are off many traveller’s to-do lists.
“There has been a question sometimes about pariah countries with awful governments. But I don’t think the traveller has to be a politician. The traveller goes where other people don’t go.
“I feel it is very important to see places, but not to confuse a country with a regime because if you do then you are playing the regime’s game. You have to try and get below the wire and meet some of the people there.
“I’ve been to Burma, and the people with us were quite chatty and we got to know them. It’s important to bring that back.”
After earning a coveted place at Oxford University in 1962 to study history, Palin was to make his first forays into comedy in student shows. It was also the first step towards meeting the group who would become his colleagues in Monty Python — Terry Jones, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam.
The Python years shaped modern comedy like no other show has done before or since, and one could argue every modern sitcom owes a little something to them.
Yet it is sometimes hard to equate Palin, the star of such zany routines as the Spanish Inquisition, the Fish Slapping Dance and the Parrot Sketch with this avuncular and easy-going Yorkshireman.
It may be almost 30 years since he last performed regularly with the troupe, but they are years he is fond of remembering.
“I miss the fun of Python but I don’t think that could be recreated. Doing something like the dead parrot sketch was really enjoyable, a great kick to do with John (Cleese), both of us trying to make each other laugh while having to stay straight-faced. That was terrific.
“But I feel I was very lucky to be with a group of five other people who wrote and performed material that I liked.
“We shared a sense of humour together which was terrific, and still is. Even when we get together now we make each other laugh in a way that other people don’t,” Palin adds.
“I feel very happy to have done that and now being able to do something else. I don’t think you lose your humourous take on the world. My attitude to the world is the same as it was when I was doing Monty Python.
“I look at the world with a wry smile. But what I’m doing now with the travel is an evolution in one’s life, I’m moving on and being given the chance to do things I didn't before.”
In this the father of three grown-up children — sons Tom and William and daughter Rachel — admits he is fortunate to have had a family so understanding of his career and his explorer’s nature. But in spite of his unquenchable desire for travel (and his current position as president of the Royal Geographical Society), as he settles into his late sixties he says he is happier to spend as much time as possible at home.
“Family’s been very important to me — my wife Helen in particular is very grounded. I’ve been allowed to go off and do these big trips because she realises that’s what I want to do.
“She quite sensibly decided it was better to have me off and doing that than have me wandering around the kitchen kicking the furniture and saying ‘I wish I was in Patagonia’. She has a practical outlook on life.”
He continues: “My three children are off now doing their own different things, which is great. They’ve avoided being the children of a famous person; they’ve taken their own course in life. And they all live in London so we see each other often.
“I have two smashing grandsons now. I never knew my grandparents at all and I love being with my grandsons. That limits the amount of time I want to spend away.”
Michael Palin, Whitla Hall, Thursday, 8pm. See www.belfastfestival.com for details