The world’s (and Wanderlust’s) favourite traveller talks to Lyn Hughes about Monty Python, 80 Days and the third instalment of his diaries, Travelling to Work
L.H: You've had a busy year!
M.P: It has been busy, yet in lots of directions which I least expected - I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do this year. Obviously get my diaries out, get them edited – but apart from that, I was fairly undecided. The Monty Python reunion was really not meant to happen – it only came up at the end of last year. Then this acting job came out of the blue: a BBC three-part series of ghost stories set up in Yorkshire; the script was terrific so I took that on. Suddenly the year's been gobbled up by things I least expected.
L.H: It's remarkable that you, and the others in fact, had the time to do the Python shows, because on the reading of the diaries one gets this impression of an incredibly busy life...
M.P: Well the key thing was that Eric [Idle] was very happy to put the show together, sort of produce it and put an order to us,... so without him having the free time to do it, I don't think we could've done the show. The rest of us turned up on June 16th for rehearsal, and the dancers had already done their stuff with the songs; so it was really nice to step into something that already had momentum.
L.H: If you asked people in the street what Michael Palin does, would 50% say Monty Python and 50% say traveller?
M.P: Well, I would think before we did the Monty Python reunion with all the attendant publicity, it was probably more likely 65% travel and 35% Python, because the travel programme's reached a much wider audience than Python ever did in this country. And the BBC never repeated Monty Python but the travel programmes are always around on some channel or other; I'm always meeting people in the streets “oh we've just seen you goin’ round the world and all that”.
L.H: Those people who know you for travel will probably be surprised reading the diaries at how many other things you got to do during those years. It seemed to be a phase of extraordinary energy.
M.P: Yes, some of it misplaced, but all of it done thoroughly. Travelling to Work starts with Around the World in 80 Days, which turned into something I never expected - which was 25 years of travelling. The private diaries show that I didn't think that I was the right person for that kind of job at all – I had doubts in my ability to do interviews properly and all that sort of thing.
The success of 80 Days was largely because, in the end, we abandoned doing a conventional travel documentary. They just had me, warts and all, get things wrong, getting confused, finding it difficult, trying to learn the language. Putting all this on the screen was the thing that worked. People said: “Oh, this is a wonderful new way of travelling, it's just the way we would travel. It's an everyman thing rather than all-knowing presenter telling you about the world.” That worked so well.
And then once we did Pole to Pole which had no Jules Verne-link, just pure travel, I could see that my enjoyment of travel, my enjoyment of seeing the world, my love for being in these kind of programmes, could also be an asset to the BBC and they were very keen to do more.
But at the time I thought well, I’ve got that as a basis of things to do, but I’d still like to keep my hand in with some acting and so I did a TV series, GBH. But also I was coming up to 50, so I wanted to do some things I’ve never really followed through, like writing a novel, and then a West End play came out of the blue. I was going rather wild on trying to close all the gaps in my career, because I was turning 50 - oh God!
And then of course the travel really kicked in right up till two years ago when we went to Brazil. It became much more a theme of my life than I’d expected, but I felt I had to try the other things as well - see how they turned out
L.H: Meanwhile you spawned a whole industry of actors and comics doing travel documentaries.
M.P: Yeah, I mean that’s true, quite early on I can remember talking to Stephen Fry and he said what a wonderful thing to do - to travel. I said you can't thread it in with the rest of your life, it would be your job for the next 18 months, two years. This actually stopped a lot of people from doing it.
That was always my feeling; we did it very thoroughly and we worked solely on it for as long as it took. And the book was not just a 'spin-off' of the script of the journey, it was actually my take on the journey. All that took time and I was very happy to spend the time on it.
L.H: How did you feel with the initially negative 80 Days reviews?
M.P: Well, if you try anything new or you take any new direction you're going to get clobbered in some sort of form. They won't last long, the hurtful reviews, but they do sort of fill you with indignation for about 20 minutes and then you just get on with it. But the great thing about the travel programmes is that in the end they were such an audience and rating success that it didn’t really matter. Now the critics tend to think Michael Palin programmes are always wonderful - we got awards for the ‘Best Documentary Ever’ for 80 Days!
But it is worth remembering that a lot of people in the beginning thought “Oh no, what's he doing, how dare he, this is rather dull.”. They were probably right, because we didn’t really find our feet on 80 Days until the third episode on the dhow. I think that was a game changer. Suddenly people could see the real jeopardy, it wasn't just me going on the Orient Express. This was something very, very different. One of my favourite critics was Mark Lawson who was rather critical of the first episode of 80 Day, then came back and re-reviewed it after the third one, and said “Hey, this has got something very different from the usual documentaries”. A critic giving you a second chance is very rare.
L.H: But you must have been even more satisfied when you got terrific audience numbers, and the book was no. 1 in the charts, and then you went on to win awards for the programmes and the books.
M.P: That was an extraordinary run of success with the travel programmes. It was a great feeling that there was an audience out there who wanted to go somewhere with me and with the team. We managed to carry along a very appreciative audience. People from all parts of the world, all races, creed, and colours, love the journeys. That’s been one of the great satisfactions of doing the series’ - to appeal to an international audience. Which is something you tend to slightly forget, that there is an audience out there, beyond British television. One of my great regrets is that there isn’t a very good marketing setup to get these programmes to places like India and Ethiopia and other places I’ve been to, and I think that’s a pity. They go to the major countries: America, Australia and it’s Europe but I’d love to see the programme shown in Nepal and Bhutan, Vietnam... some of the places that we've been to but where they probably haven’t seen the series.
LH: Had you always wanted to travel?
MP: The journeys opened up the world for me. I hadn't travelled a great deal before 80 Days to be honest. We'd been to Tunisia for the Life of Brian; we'd been on family holidays to the Seychelles and African game parks.
And I'd travelled dozens of times to America, but usually to an airport to a hotel to a studio - very little time to see the country itself. So really it was a sort of wonderful chance, for somebody who'd always loved travel and the idea of remote parts of the world, to be able to sample all these places.
L.H: We see in the diaries that when working on Pole to Pole the realities of travel and a busy schedule really hit you. That was a mammoth journey, wasn’t it?
M.P: It was like the old journeys of the past; a journey for no other reason than to see the world. It was exciting, but it was tough, very, very hard - all the way from Russia right through Africa was fairly tough, and of course the Soviet Union was all collapsing behind as we went along. But there was an excitement and it was painful and difficult.
I cracked a rib in the Zambezi white-water rafting so I had to go to the South Pole with a cracked rib... but what I was seeing, what I was doing, was always in the end a stronger motive than everything else. And so in the depths of gloom and pain and discomfort, I would have to think that as a whole this was a great adventure and I was a very lucky person to be able to do this.
L.H: You say that you felt very different after the trip, and hope that you'd transformed a bit as a person. Has that feeling stayed?
M.P: Well, yes. I'd done Python and then did some very good films that were successful - Fish called Wanda and Life of Brian, so I had all that behind me and I wasn't really quite sure what the rest of my life was going to be.
What these journeys did make me realise was that actually I didn't need to do a lot more - they were so satisfying and so demanding, and so fully engaging in their own right, it felt great. They brought the best out of me physically and mentally, so what's not to like?
Having done the longest journey, Full Circle, one of the great things to have done, I felt that I'd made something of the middle of my life, and that made me feel less competitive, less of a need to fight for this and that.
For a while I was the only person doing this sort of travel journey. Now lots of people are doing them, and very well - Simon Reeve and others - but at that time people were waiting for another Palin series because that was their way of seeing the world. So it was a very popular series.
L.H: You had problems with Full Circle on deciding its name. Why did you choose ‘Full Circle’ over ‘Palin’s Pacific’?
M.P: Oh, it was ridiculous - you can do ten months of travelling, and yet then spend ten months worrying about the title! I never liked having my name above the place that I was going to see: the idea didn't appeal.
Palin’s Pacific sounded nice but it’s not mine – that’s not the way I wanted to do it. I wanted to make the place and the people the main theme. So when it came to Pacific I just agonised over it. I deliberately wanted to put my name below the title because I feel that the important thing was the place, not me.
Then finding an alternative, we couldn't quite get one that worked, and for a while I just thought Pacific - but of course it wasn't really about the Pacific, it was about the edge of the Pacific.
Early on we had come up with the title 'Full Circle', meaning we'd go right round and come back to the same place again, which was the idea of the journey. So that was the name in the end. Unfortunately, it kind of missed the place and there should have been a mention of Pacific in there somewhere - and so I got that wrong.
L.H: Which has been your favourite series?
M.P: It's jolly hard to pick one really. I think possibly Himalaya. I would say Full Circle because I saw more of the globe on that one than any of the others; an extraordinary array of countries from eastern Russia to Colombia - I mean it was an incredible list of places.
But there was something about going along the Himalayan range from the west to the east, breathtaking scenery throughout. It hadn’t really been done before, and I just thought the seven programmes knitted together an awful lot of good material.
The culture as well as all of the spectacular geography, and each episode showed something very sharp and solid. I think the opening programme of Himalaya, largely in Pakistan, still remains my favourite episode of all the series I did.
The other thing about Himalaya was that it was quite tough travelling. We went to places that people didn't go to very often, like Tibet and the northwest frontier of Pakistan, and Bangladesh. People don’t really go to Bangladesh; you just hear it in the news for some emergency, or floods. I found out much more about the country - it was a journey into unfamiliar places.
L.H: The diaries talk about the joy of coming home: does absence make the heart grow fonder?
M.P: It is absolutely true. I’ve only been abroad for a week and I look out of the window and I think: “Well, this is a pretty beautiful place to live, the British Isles.” I do love my home; I love my base here, because that’s where I collect all the information I’ve gathered, put my plans together for future trips and that sort of thing.
And of course seeing family and Helen [Michael’s wife] again after I've been away for a long while is great. You're renewing how lucky you are, what relationships you've got. Which begs the question: how often should one go away to really enjoy life at home? That’s an interesting one! I’ve not really worked that out yet.
L.H: You're doing a tour this autumn?
M.P: It's based on evenings I've done for charities, where I do a two-and-a-half hour show. The first part is about travelling, thus the diaries are called Travelling to Work. Travelling is the main theme thoroughout. So the first half of the evening is reminiscences, stories, descriptions of all the journey I've done, using about 70 of Basil Pao's terrific photographs. The show is led by these amazing pictures, which recall the memories.
The second half is about my personal life in comedy; how I got to where I was from being a shy schoolboy at Sheffield to ending up doing the O2 every night. But also reading from material and talking to the audience, so it's a much more open and improvised second half.
L.H: Any chance of doing a novel again?
M.P: I'd like to do a third novel; it very much depends on finding something, a good story you really want to write about. A lot of my last novel was based on a journey I did to eastern India. The journeys have left me with an enormous amount of material and stimulating ideas.
L.H: Have you got any other travels in the pipeline?
M.P: I don't have any specific travel plans at the moment. For now there's the Diaries - these days everything depends on publicity tours, so I've got quite a bit of publicity to do in the run up to Christmas. In February (2015) I’ll be doing a short tour of Australia and New Zealand for Travelling to Work.
After that, all I can say is that I'm 100% certain that I shall travel - whether I make a programme out of it or whether it will be research for the novel I'm not quite sure. I just know that once you're bitten by the travel bug it's always itching away, so I will go somewhere!
I'm pretty certain I won't do any long journeys again; a two-year commitment is something I don't want to take on. I'd rather be freer to do shorter journeys here and there. I've always want to go and do single programmes of 60 minutes in a city or somewhere off the beaten track, and I might do some of those.
L.H: Sounds like a good idea!
M.P: There's so much to see and also to say. Over the years I've made so many good contacts with people around the world, and I still get people saying “Oh, please come and do another programme about our country!” I'm enormously lucky to have made that contact and will continue to benefit from it. I look at [David] Attenborough going out there and still standing on glaciers and interviewing polar bears at the age of 80 – I can’t give up yet!
Travelling to Work, 1988-1998, the third volume of Michael Palin’s best-selling diaries, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£25 hardback, £12.99 e-book). His one-man theatre tour of the same name runs until 22 October 2014. For further details go to www.palinstravels.co.uk.
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