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- Arts + Ents
Sunday 31 August 1997
Python with no venom; profile; Michael Palin
Hester Lacey on the seriously nice television traveller who takes 10 million fans on his journeys
Palin took enormous television audiences for Round the World in Eighty Days eight years ago and Pole to Pole in 1992; he seems slightly stunned himself by the phenomenal success of both series.
"We were still getting audiences of 10 million for journeys through Sudan, which is quite unusual," he says, wonderingly. "The idea of a filmed journey, where you're not selling anything or trying to get people to go there, as opposed to a holiday programme, seems to work."
He is relaxed and friendly, self-deprecating and humorous; if his television persona started out in any way an act, it has become second nature. He is also lean and tanned, but this is more likely to be from jogging on Hampstead Heath near his north London home than the 270 days he spent in the Pacific; filming was completed a year ago. "I've been working on this series for two years," he says. "Every aspect, not just the journey, but the editing, music, commentary, is important. Quality comes first. The worst insult would be to say these are badly made programmes. I think the audience can sense we've taken trouble."
He believes the other secret to the success of his travel programmes is that he is no Alan Whicker. "A lot of it is empathy. Audiences watch me and see themselves doing the journey. They don't see some clever-dick telling them what they should think about the world. They're seeing somebody coping with the journey, probably in much the same way they would, making the same mistakes with the language, finding it hard to buy a ticket, getting the runs in inconvenient places." And Palin clearly enjoys it. "When I get the opportunity to go, there has to be a very good reason not to," he says.
THIS love of inter-continental drift, the desire to always be moving on, is characteristic. "I have no game plan, no career plan, I rather let the wind blow me around," he says. "I've sort of muddled through and ended up doing what I do now: that is, reasonably good-humoured semi- exhibitionist. I avoided that area where you sign on the dotted line and say 'I want to be an accountant', or 'I want to work in flavour enhancement for the confectionery trade'. When I was younger I'd always be praying: please God don't let me have to make a decision about what to do."
He managed to avoid it; his career has dipped into film, television, radio and writing. But the intensity of his travel documentaries is, he says, the only work that has come close to the intensity of being part of the Monty Python team, with Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones. The five remaining Pythons (Graham Chapman died in 1989) announced last Friday after a "secret meeting" that they were considering a reunion, so that chemistry may yet be revived. But no date, nor even an exact format, has been decided.
The first series of Monty Python's Flying Circus was an immediate success in 1969, but not a huge money-maker for the actors. "The Python shows paid the rent. We got pounds 200 a show or something like that. It was not until the Life of Brian in 1978 that we were actually paid decent money, first- class travel, that sort of stuff. But it wasn't a bad thing. If we'd been given the glad hand and a huge fee and large limousines and a house in Bermuda, it would have been a disaster - the end of our work. We felt we were pushing against this luxurious establishment, it was the price you paid for being different - a slightly lower fee and fewer chances to make money opening fetes and supermarkets."
Palin is resigned to being asked about the early years of Python nearly 30 years later, though he does point out with a slight weariness that it was all a long time ago. "We all chose to work together; we weren't thrown together like the Monkees or the Spice Girls. There was one area in which we got along extremely well: we could make each other laugh, laugh a lot. I suppose we had a similar view of the world. But beyond that we were all quite different and you had to respect that. There were some people you could go out for a pint of beer with and some people you couldn't."
He declined an invitation to a reunion in the US to celebrate the Pythons' 25th anniversary. "I'm not keen on reunions, I'm not keen on award ceremonies, I'm not keen on any of that clutter. You are what you do. To ponce around in a dinner jacket because of something you did 25 years ago doesn't interest me, frankly. It's making the programmes, the creative part, that's interesting."
And since the Pythons went their separate ways, there has been much creativity. His television successes have included the Ripping Yarns series and, in a rare departure from comedy, the Alan Bleasdale-scripted GBH. He wrote the film The Missionary, and starred in A Private Function, and A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures with John Cleese. His play, The Weekend, opened in the West End in 1994, and his first novel, Hemingway's Chair, was published in 1995. "I'm sure I'm a jack-of-all- trades. But I rather like Jonathan Miller's comment: he doesn't like being criticised as a jack-of-all-trades by people who are scarcely jacks of one. Versatility in this country is considered to make up for the fact that you can't do anything well."
The Weekend was panned by the critics; he feels that, scenting a chance to be horrible to that nice Mr Palin, crashing uninvited into the West End from television-land, they were unnecessarily vitriolic. "The play is fine, it's not the best play ever written, fair enough. With Hemingway's Chair, which was a real departure for me, I was very pleased that most critics treated it seriously at all."
A long-time Labour supporter, in 1995 he was quoted as being unhappy with Tony Blair and considering transferring his allegiance to the Liberal Democrats. Now he says, "I've voted Labour in the last four elections. To me, politics is a bit like sex, it's private. Generally I find the conventional aspects of authority very tiresome. The status quo is something I would always challenge. But I'm very wary of politics itself - it's a very strange profession. I find politicians the most difficult to get on with of all people, they are difficult, defensive, aggressive and in many ways false - because they have to be. I really hope it works out for the Labour Party. But there are so many romantic dreams tied up with politics - that one party represents freedom, truth, honesty and the other doesn't. It's bullshit, absolute bullshit. It's an extremely practical business of how you retain power."
None the less he is political, even if the issues that engage him are at a more grass-roots level; he is president of Transport 2000, the anti- traffic pressure group, and has campaigned for stammerers, the trees at Kenwood House in London, the Camden Parkway theatre - although he claims to be wary of using his name for causes. "There was a brilliant sketch John and Graham did ages ago which summed up the way celebrities take up causes - they had this grand person who was pro-good-things and anti- bad-things."
And yet he seems almost to be Mr Pro-good-things himself. Even his personal life seems beyond reproach. Certainly, his desire to be constantly on the move - geographically and artistically - would have been a lot more difficult to achieve had there not been one area of his life where he doesn't dart around.
At 54, he has been happily married for more than 30 years. His wife Helen, formerly a teacher, is now a bereavement counsellor. His three children have scrupulously avoided any scandalous behaviour, are all grown-up and settled in careers. All this is much to the exasperation of dirt-digging interviewers, who are all forced to conclude that he is a perfectly nice man and an exemplary husband and father - perhaps because his own background was more difficult.
In previous interviews Palin has hinted that his father's abrasiveness contributed to the depression of his older sister, who killed herself 10 years ago. "My father was a difficult man with a very quick temper, partly because he had a terrible stammer. In those days if you couldn't speak properly, there went your career. I took my mother's way of dealing with things, which was that it's better to make friends than enemies. My temperament is quite conciliatory. Helen and I have been very happy for 30 years - whether as a reaction to my father I don't know. My mother and father had a very confrontational relationship, but they remained married and maybe that told me you have upsets, rows, and yet something very basic keeps you together."
It's hard to imagine the extraordinarily even-tempered Palin upset or rowing. When he was filming in Borneo, his wife was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He didn't panic or rush home. Did he feel that fate had caught up with him? "No! My wife got ill, that's all. It's not that I deserved bad luck or anything like that. She calmed me down on the phone to Borneo, told me it was benign and operable. She was very brave."
And he finally appears just a tiny bit needled at the suggestion that his happy-drifter lifestyle is one that many would envy.
"Yes, I've had a pretty fortunate life. I'm doing what I want to do, on my own terms, and I'm now 54 - over the worst. But I've had very sad times in my life, as most people have. I don't go through life mindlessly grinning 'Hello trees, hello sky'. "
The first episode of 'Full Circle' is shown tonight at 8pm on BBC1, and repeated tomorrow at 10.40pm
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