Interview: The very nasty Michael Palin: Around the world, from pole to pole - and always back to Gospel Oak. The ex-Python's street is his castle, and very happy he is there. Just don't keep saying he's nice
There, that should make you read on. But of course it's all lies, just a silly joke. Once Gary Lineker is in Japan, Michael Palin will stand alone as our Nicest Living Englishman. Won't he?
To Gospel Oak, a nowhere part of north London, on the wrong side of Hampstead Heath, in a little row of two-storey artisans' dwellings, surrounded by high-rise council blocks. That must surprise the Hollywood moguls, when they come to do deals. He bought it in 1968, price pounds 12,000. He has since gone up in the world, but his feet and family remain on the same old ground. What a nice lad.
'If you use the word nice again,' he said, putting on the coffee, 'I'll call character witnesses. I'll bring forward my kids to prove I am abusive under strain and that I have bad taste in music. My wife, Helen, will testify to my groundless grumpiness and my acquisition of objects of questionable usefulness, viz, my buying of yet more chairs.'
But you must be a millionaire by now, so why do you live in this street with that council block ruining your view? Actually, he owns the street, well three-quarters of it. In 1977, to give his kids more space, he bought number 2, price pounds 17,500. That meant there was a gap between his two houses, as next door was lived in by Clare Latimer, famous chef and friend of . . . (no jokes here, I don't want to get sued). He has recently bought it from her for pounds 180,000. So, three houses out of four. Not bad. 'Altogether, they would fit into one of John Cleese's houses. They're a lot taller, but then so is he.
'Over the years, I have thought hmm, now I've made all this money, I could buy a castle, but Helen, who is practical, has pointed out I wouldn't know what do with it. London is not a real city, like Sheffield, but people are tolerant. I get very little aggravation. People have known me from pre-Python days. If I moved to the country, people would come round gaping at me. I have roots here. I know all the shopkeepers. I'm not considered a celebrity.'
His three children went to the local primary school and then the local comprehensives, William Ellis and Parliament Hill. Why was that? After all, you went to a famous public school yourself, Shrewsbury, as did your father and grandfather. 'It wasn't a political statement. I'm not against public schools. I just want the state schools to be better. It seemed so sensible when we had such good local schools just across the road. Why have all those convoluted car runs?'
Tom, 24, left school with one A-level and works in the record business. His dad has just bought him a house in Kentish Town. William, 22, is in his last year at Brasenose College, Oxford - his dad's old college. Rachel, 18, is in her last year at school, but has already been accepted by the same college, as long as she gets two Es. Jolly well done, state schools.
It was their desire to stay in the area, not leave their schools, that was the main reason for never moving. 'The other day, a taxi driver dropped me off and said: 'You still 'ere, then.' I wanted to say mind your own business, you stupid bigoted, taxi-driving twat, then I remembered, I'm a nice person, so I said, 'Yes, I still live here, actually, thank you.' '
Ahh. So it's a cover, being nice, to stop your real self coming out? 'Could be. Next time I go to the doctor he'll probably say, now take your clothes off, Mr Palin, let's have a look underneath all that niceness. Norman Tebbit's cover is being extremely nasty. Who knows what's underneath?
'I honestly don't see the benefit in being a shit. I prefer not to have rows. It's not a woolly thing, being nice. It's a way of getting the best out of people.'
So when did you last lose your temper? He had to think back, to 1988 and Round the World in 80 Days. 'It was Day 79, and we were all tired and fragile. I'd walked off the boat for one of the directors, when the other said do it again. I refused. I might have stamped my feet. Even ranted and raved. Many years earlier, when we were doing Holy Grail, I did actually go mad, after I was asked to crawl through the mud for the seventh time. It was a most wonderfully liberating moment. All the Pythons stood up and clapped. They'd never seen me bad tempered before.'
These days, there is even less chance of him losing his temper, now that he can pick his people and projects. 'I don't do cameo parts in other people's films. It smacks of being a 'celebrity', which I don't like. I don't do any advertising, either. No, it's not a moral stand. I did them when I was hard up. They are a sure way to make anyone irritable. There are too many people around who are just there to interfere. Luckily, I don't need their money any more.' He recently turned down pounds 1m for an advertising job.
At the moment, he is acting in The Dresser for Radio 4 and in April he is off to Ireland to do a one-off Great Railway Journey. There is talk of a follow-up to A Fish Called Wanda, with John Cleese. He has a novel, finished some years ago, which is with a publisher, and a stage play, waiting for backers. But no, not another mega travel series. 'I'm quitting while I'm ahead. I can't do the innocent abroad thing more than twice. Anyway, we can't think of another route. I'm lying fallow, waiting to see what turns up.
'I've never had a particular skill. I can't cook, dance, play an instrument, speak a foreign language. This used to worry me. I'd think, when I'm grown up, at 18, then I made it 21, it will be clear what role I should have in life. It never happened. I never signed on the dotted line as the sort of adult my father wanted. At Oxford, I had no idea what I was going to do. I fell into acting and then comedy. I've fallen through the net and come out rich enough to look after my family and do what I want. But I still have no qualifications.
'I think this could explain the success of 80 Days and Pole to Pole. I'm not your expert on Africa or animals or whatever. I'm not a travel writer or maker of documentaries. I was someone who doesn't know very much, trying to communicate.'
And it worked, no doubt about his enormous success, here and everywhere. Pole to Pole is now showing in the US.
And yet, wasn't it all a bit bland, a bit safe, a soft job for a clever person? He paused. Had I got him on the raw at last?
'I am very proud of those television series. A lot of hard work went into them. There was no sleight of hand. Yes, of course a recce was done a year ahead, to all the places, but that was to sort out transport and visas and the main locations. The people I talked to were people we happened to meet that day, when passing through, and I rarely did more than one take. It was not formula television.
'My heart sank when Mark Lawson in the Independent gave 80 Days a poor review, but at least he made some constructive points. It was the Observer that really upset me. Their reviewer said Pole to Pole made him want to sleep and never wake up. Well, fuck you, I thought. All the effort we've put in, yet you won't put the effort into a proper review.'
I then asked about a rumour that he'd once chucked out an interviewer for being nasty. 'Yes, it's true. This person came to see me about my film The Missionary, and was supercilious and patronising. He got on my wick so much that I stood up, walked out and ended the interview. It's strange that I did it, because I've had student journalists say much worse things to me. It was his manner that did it. . . . I don't want to be analysed. There may be monsters lurking in the dark I don't want to know about. Let's keep them there.'
Could all this travelling be a form of escape, from the devils within, or weaknesses without? 'Good try, but I don't think so. I've loved travelling since I was a train spotter with my map and notebook. I have a curiosity to know about things and record them. And you do find out about yourself, about your strength and stamina. I still plan to go on journeys, but on my own, to Mexico, South America.
'I want to see them for myself, not to sell them to viewers. OK, perhaps it is a form of escape. I am restless. I don't mind leaving this comfortable, static life. I could live a year on my own in a remote village. Helen likes holidays, but she prefers the sun, not suffering.'
I could hear her coming in from work, so I got ready to grab her, though Michael was not at all keen, trying to block my way, bustling back and forward with the coffee cups. She used to be a teacher but is now a bereavement counsellor. They married in 1966. Slender, attractive, amused eyes.
Does your old man lose his temper? 'He can be irritable, especially when machines or plans go wrong, but he doesn't confront people. I wish he would sometimes. In a way he is too nice. I think he should be cross more often.' He was hopping around in the background, making silly faces, pointing to the door. Yes, of course he is nice. No question.
But human. That's why we all love him.
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