Sir Michael Palin (Seamus Ryan)
Interview Words : Lyn Hughes | 12 March 2019

Sir Michael Palin: "I'm still fascinated by the challenges of going places where most people don't"

Comedy legend, actor and the man who changed TV travel shows forever – we talk to Sir Michael Palin, winner of our Icon of Travel award, about 30 years on the road…

Few people have done as much to change the way we see the world as Michael Palin. While some may know him as a comic and actor, for the past 30 years his travelogues have (dead parrots aside) eclipsed even his earlier work.

In doing so, he has visited parts of the world unknown to many, treating everyone he meets in the same open way, and changed TV travel shows for good. For this and more, we presented him our Icon of Travel award and met up to talk over a part of his career that nearly didn’t happen… 

It’s been 30 years since Around the World in 80 Days (1989) first aired. Did you set out to change travel on TV?

 

There were only commercial holiday shows back then, which were really there to sell you trips, and most stayed fairly near to home. With Around the World in 80 Days, people liked not just the travelling but the fact that I was experiencing it honestly. I wasn’t trying to sell them anything, I was just trying to get through the journey and see some interesting things. If it didn’t go right, like being unable to speak Egyptian at a railway station to get a ticket, then I’d keep it in. I think that was something that was new.

 

 

How did it all come about?

There are many stories about how I was picked. One director told me that I was the fifth person they’d asked. Everyone was saying, Michael, you’re the chosen one, but they’d talked to Noel Edmonds, Miles Kington – a good writer – Clive James and Alan Whicker, who was first on the list… The BBC had originally thought that sending a comedian around the world would just not be the right thing to do – no authority or whatever.

 

That was a different time to travel in. Can you remember what preparation you did?

Well, the preparation was slightly difficult because we didn’t really know quite how we were going to do it, or even the route. They did work out a route eventually, but you didn’t know how long you were going to be in any place. A lot of time was going to be spent on ships, so I could do a certain amount of reading as we went: Jan Morris’s Venice, Rough Guide to India and all that sort of stuff, to give me some background. But I knew, basically, that I was going to be jumping off a cliff and I had to sort of just land on both feet and keep going.

Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days series begins – like Phileas Fogg in the book – at London’s Reform Club before boarding the Orient Express from Victoria Station (Julian Charrington)

Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days series begins – like Phileas Fogg in the book – at London’s Reform Club before boarding the Orient Express from Victoria Station (Julian Charrington)

Did you talk to other travellers?

We interviewed Dr John Hemming at the Royal Geographical Society, who gave some good advice: if you’re ever offered food, eat it, he told me, because it may just not happen for the next two days. You may overeat, you may have a meal now and later, but very often, you just might not. And that’s a very good tip. Alan Whicker just said, never eat with the crew – I think that’s just how he did things.

Looking out over Bombay (Mumbai) from the top of a rough extension to its Taj Mahal hotel, where Palin found himself after a seven-day journey on a fishing dhow across the Persian Gulf (Julian Charrington)

Looking out over Bombay (Mumbai) from the top of a rough extension to its Taj Mahal hotel, where Palin found himself after a seven-day journey on a fishing dhow across the Persian Gulf (Julian Charrington)

 

 

One director told me that I was the fifth person they’d asked

— Michael Palin

Was there one moment in the filming when it clicked for you?

It was the ‘dhow boat’ episode that changed the way I thought we were going to do it. Suddenly, it wasn’t a sort of gimmicky travel sequence. It was seven days on deck with 18 Gujarati fishermen, in whose hands our programme lay, going very slowly down the Persian Gulf.

You mention the dhow a lot and even went back to find the boatmen 20 years later in a follow-up show. Why has it had such a lasting impact?

Only one of them spoke a little bit of English and that was the captain. So it wasn’t a question of getting the story of their lives; it was just how they lived each day on board that boat. A lot of it would be waiting around, then someone would see a fish and they would get their fishing cord out. By the end, and I’ve never had this since, there was a kind of emotional bond between us and them. There was a moment when Kasim, who was the older man, just grabbed me when I left the boat and gave me a hug. I mean, that was so moving, and made me feel, well, this is not just what you’re seeing, it’s how you’re seeing it and the ability of people who don’t speak the same language to communicate. When I got to shore, the first night was at a smart hotel, full of rich people shouting at porters. I thought: you don’t know how lucky you are. And so, for two days I was quite depressed that I’d left my guys behind.

There’s always a comedown. It must have been odd going back to normal life afterwards.

It was at least a week before I adjusted to being back home. I couldn’t just go on about my trip. Everyone had their own things: the children had exams, there were problems with the plumbing. Everyday life goes on and you just have to fit in.

Michael samples his first ever hookah in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (Julian Charrington)

Michael samples his first ever hookah in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (Julian Charrington)

You mention your family. Were they supportive of you doing more series after Around the World in 80 Days?

The success of the series had been quite exciting for everybody, and the book sold half a million copies or something like that. Totally unexpected. So, there was a feeling that there were some economic advantages to me doing another series. But also, I think my wife kind of understood why I wanted to do another one. I wanted to just test whether it was the gimmick of the book format or whether you could use the techniques of travel that we had adopted along the way on something that was just our own journey. I talked to producer Clem Vallance and he came up with Pole to Pole. It was an epic thing to try to do, and my wife was excited that I was excited, but I don’t think she was terribly keen that I was going to be away for a long time.

 

You then did Pole to Pole (1992) and Full Circle (1997). It was a fascinating time to travel, as the world was changing fast then.

Standing (and shivering) at the North Pole as part of 1992’s gruelling Pole to Pole series (Fraser Barber)

Standing (and shivering) at the North Pole as part of 1992’s gruelling Pole to Pole series (Fraser Barber)

In terms of political change, it, was extraordinary. The Soviet Union was still in existence when we left Odessa. Within three months it had collapsed and Odessa was part of the Ukraine. We went into Africa and the Ethiopian Revolution had just happened – all the boys from Tigray were swarming towards the capital where they defeated the dictator. In Zambia as well – President Kenneth Kaunda was replaced after 25 years. Then we went into South Africa and apartheid was beginning to crumble, but still hanging on.

After the ‘big journey’ series, Sahara (2002) and Himalaya (2004) were very different in terms of pace – you kept to a region, for a start. How do you view them now?

Himalaya is the most beautiful of all the programmes I’ve done. The crescent of the Himalaya was there all the time; it’s always present. But Sahara was a big surprise to people. From what I’d read, I felt it wasn’t a blank; there were a lot of trade routes that, historically, went through there, so there had to be things to see.

Was Sahara a harder sell, then?

When I went to the BBC with the idea, I expected them to say: can you go somewhere where it’s not just sand and rocks? But I managed to persuade them – though I was far from sure how it would go down… If people knew that for the next half-hour they’d be watching life in Mauritania today, you’d think it would be a switch-off. But 8 million people watched that episode in the UK.

People were gripped. And then you did New Europe (2007) - a complete about-face in terms of setting.

Yes, that was fascinating. Mainly because we were going to what were the Iron Curtain countries. I realised that throwing off the yolk of communism, and being free and liberated, didn’t suit everybody by any means. Many were very happy under the Soviet Union. They were given decent-sized apartments, a pension, food – albeit not a great deal of it – but they had security. Now that was over and their children had gone abroad. I think that’s interesting: what wealth and freedom does to a country does not always make it better.

That must have been good preparation for your recent North Korea (2018) series?

Sir Michael Palin with his Icon of Travel award (Seamus Ryan)

Sir Michael Palin with his Icon of Travel award (Seamus Ryan)

What’s happening with North Korea (DPRK) is different. They’re trying to engage with the rest of the world and let people go abroad yet keep control. The sort of people I spoke to wanted to know about London, but weren’t allowed to say that on camera because the regime depends on denial of almost everything else outside it. But you know that’s going to change. What will happen is they’ll be flooded by Chinese tourists. But whether the wealth will filter down, I just don’t know. Maybe it’ll simply reveal the extent of poverty and hardship. So, there you go.

 

Had you always had a fascination with North Korea?

I’m always really interested in places that people say you shouldn’t go to. I’m just drawn to that. It’s rather like when I was at school and teachers would say, “Stop laughing, Palin”. It was fatal – I’d just laugh even more. So, when someone says that you shouldn’t go somewhere because there are horrible people there and it’s a disgusting regime, and blah blah blah. I say, well, I’m afraid I want to find that out for myself, if I can. I wasn’t intending to go to North Korea beforehand and, in fact, I’d had some doubts because the Americans and North Koreans had been shouting abuse at each other; rockets were being brandished and it looked as though there might be a global war because of what was happening. My confidence had been a bit shaken, but then things began to change and we just had to take a bit of a gamble.

DPRK is a notoriously difficult place to film in. Were there problems in setting it up?

For a year or so, nothing really happened. Then I found I had a three-week window free at the same time there was that rapprochement between the Korean presidents – when they shook hands – and it all just happened. While we were there, the Americans even turned up in Pyongyang, and [then CIA director] Mike Pompeo was in our hotel trying to get hostages released. We just had three weeks when it all seemed to be so much easier.

Was it as you expected?

I’d expected to see soldiers all over, but it wasn’t like that. There was no uniform style and the food was reasonably good; they liked to drink, they liked to dance – the same as in South Korea. Those showing us around were minders and guides; they were proud of their stoic little country, which had weathered Japanese invasions, the Americans bombing it flat and the Russians standing them up. Yet they were still there and they were pleased with that. But I think that there’s a dark side we didn’t see.

 

Sir Michael Palin (Seamus Ryan)

Sir Michael Palin (Seamus Ryan)

 

 

I was brought up in Sheffield and the rest of the world was a very different place

What do you look for in a trip?

Well, I look for “difference”, I think, from where I am and from where I live. I just love the physical difference of the landscape and the country, and also cultural differences with the people. I think that’s what ignites my curiosity, which is there anyway, but I love to know why people eat this particular food, why they dance this particular dance, why they dress this particular way.

Where does it come from, this curiosity you have?

I was brought up in Sheffield and the rest of the world was a very, very different place. I didn’t expect to see much of it, to be honest – maybe a bit of Europe or something. There was this whole period in the 1950s and ’60s when the British Empire was collapsing, and you weren’t quite sure what you were supposed to feel about that, but it seemed as though people didn’t like us anymore. So there I was, very cautious about what it would be like to travel. So, to be able to go and find out that all these things didn’t matter gave me a feeling of elation and liberation.

 

What keeps you going on these long trips?

A sense of excitement is really important. It is hard work, day in, day out, and you’re filming all the time. You have to make sure that you don’t waste any time. You’re only going to be, usually, in an area for one day or two days at most. You’ve got to get all that material and it’s got to work out, and it’s got to go home, and it’s got to be developed and all that… So, there’s a lot of anxiety there in getting the material. And everybody is fairly knackered. But it’s worth it for those special moments.

When we went up Annapurna, I was ill. I’d just had a cold, and that combined with the lack of oxygen as we got higher and higher made feel really sick. It was pretty grim but I staggered on and made something of the fact that I was poorly. But before we got up to the highest point, we stayed in a hut. I went to my room about 3.30 in the afternoon, coughing and snivelling, and went to sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night and there was total silence and darkness. I couldn't see a thing. I didn’t know where I was, and I thought, oh my god, I’ve died; this is what it’s like. It was quite pleasant, but also rather frighteningly lonely. And I just lay there for a bit, trying to piece together what had happened, and then I heard Basil, our photographer, in the next room, and I heard his terrible bronchial coughing. And when I heard his cough, it was so delightful. I’d never experienced such pleasure at hearing another human sound. As he was clearing his lungs out, I realised I was alive. And the next morning I just opened the shutters and there was the Annapurna Sanctuary. The sun was shining bright on these spectacular mountains. I just felt revived. I thought: you can’t get away from this. You can’t say I feel ill. God, it’s terrific. It’s feelings like that, mornings like that, which you just don’t get at home.

Sir Michael Palin (Seamus Ryan)

Sir Michael Palin (Seamus Ryan)

Your series tend to be less about the big journeys now.

A lot of people have done the sort of travelling that I’ve done. That genre, as far as I’m concerned, of doing the long trip from coast to coast is better done now by Simon Reeve, for instance. And I don’t feel the same interest in doing a long journey. But I’m still fascinated by looking at the world; the challenges of going to places where most people don’t go. So I think I might do that. But I don’t think I could be away from home now for five or six months.

So where is next for you?

Well, I mean there are all these places. I suppose I ought to go to the Galápagos and Argentina and Sri Lanka. I wouldn’t say I’ve seen the whole of India, either. Or Russia. But I think we’ll do more on Korea. There’s unfinished business there. We’ve still got to tell the other side of that story and I think it’s fascinating. Will Kim Jong-un open his borders and what will happen when he does? We will be there or be square.