Interview with Michael Palin
The word legend is one that is bandied about a lot but it is a word that can easily describe the actor, writer, broadcaster and presenter Michael Palin.
When you speak to someone who’s effortless charm and warmth has delighted many, you feel pressure not to get an interview wrong.
The man, who is coming to Milton Keynes Theatre as part of country wide tour with his latest show, has also agreed to do only one print interview, and it’s with yours truly. So no pressure!
But his sheer affableness that comes across in his travel programmes is more than enough to put anyone at ease, and before we know, there’s more than a few laughs and fond memories shared throughout the chat.
His new show entitled The Thirty Years Tour in the course of a two hour show.
Michael said: “The show covers from 1969 which is the start of Monty Python era right through to the start of the travel documentaries.
“It did also cover when I was acting television, doing a West End play and writing children’s books.
“It will be a selection of clips, photos and looking at some of the things that people might not have known or have received less attention.”
The man has been known for his sense of humour, and while he later says that jokes are not is his strong point, when I ask why he decided to go all around the country and put on the show, he gives a funny answer.
He said: “The tour is mainly to promote the book,” before giving a laugh. But he then turned to a more serious answer.
“However I thought rather than go out to a few festivals to promote the book. I thought it would be nice to go out on the road.”
Michael isn’t perhaps as known for his theatre work as his various roles on screens both big and small. But it was a recent experience that further prompted the creation of this show.
He added: “It was inspired by getting all of the surviving members of Monty Python and performing the shows at the O2. I really liked the reaction we got from the audience and that made me want to go out and do the show like this.
“I really like working with an audience and being in a room and interacting with them. It is a wonderful thing.”
One almost gets the feeling that Michael has been frustrated theatre actor.
Michael said: “When you do something on television or on film, you always have some sort of machinery or camera getting in the way of the performance.
“It doesn’t help that you have to do things from different angles and multiple times.
“That is the lovely thing about the stage is that there is nothing to get in the way of the people that you are trying to entertain.
“The other thing is that it can be a different show every night. Sometimes the audience will laugh on one night at one joke and a different audience might not but will laugh at something the previous audience didn’t find funny.
“I like that, and the fact that you don’t quite know how it is going to go.”
The time period in the show covers some of the most momentous events in Michael’s life. The birth of his first child, the creation of Monty Python’s Flying Circus to his work on other television series, feature films and the beginning of his career as a traveller.
He also hopes the show will inspire some of the audience to start keeping a diary.
Michael said: “The attraction of a diary is that it remains in its own time. It reflects only what happened on that particular day.
“It doesn’t flatter and it isn’t distorted by what happened later. In that way it’s the most truthful record of real life. And it’s your own life and nobody else’s.
“Keeping a diary means that all that seeing and hearing, loving and laughing, excitement and embarrassment, gladness and gloom that make you what you are is not forgotten.
“A diary blows away the mists of time, and offers your life back to you. My message is simple. Get yourself a notebook. Write down whatever you want to remember over the last 24 hours… and keep on doing it.
It is probably this that leads to Michael being able to recall with confidence and without hesitancy. Indeed, throughout the 20 minutes I was allowed with Michael (he’s a busy man after all), there is only one question he slightly stumbles over. I ask him given his background as a comedy actor, does he feel the pressure to be funny when he meets people?
“That is a good question,” he said. Which makes me feel like my entire journalistic career over more than a decade has now been worthwhile. After all, for a man who has achieved as much as he has, he’s probably been asked so many questions, you scarcely imagine he’s been asked an original one.
Michael added: “I just hope that I have a particularly good answer for you.
“I am not very good at telling jokes. I am no Barry Cryer but I like to see people laugh and if there is an opportunity for humour then I will use it.
“Very recently, I did a thing called the Whipers Times which was set in World War 1 and about setting up a comic magazine and that was in the middle of a terrible event.
“I do feel the need to make people more relaxed so if there is something I can do to make them smile when they are meeting me.”
However Michael has now carved out as a niche as a traveller, presenting various documentaries for the BBC for many countries in the world.
Michael said: “I think that I wouldn’t have done them if I wasn’t a frustrated traveller. It is something that I wanted to do.
“I was happy acting, I had just done A Fish Called Wanda in 1986 and then the BBC came to me and said would you like to do something called Around the World in 80 Days then I said yes.
“It was only long afterwards that I was told I was about fifth choice to host it.”
The success of Around the World in 80 Days led to Pole to Pole in 1992, Full Cirlcle with Michael Palin in 1997, Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure in 1999, Sahara with Michael Palin in 2002, Himalaya with Michael Palin in 2004, Michael’s Palin New Europe in 2007 and Brazil with Michael Palin in 2012.
With a passport positively overflowing with destinations, surely he has been to all four corners of the globe?
Michael said: “I think people believe that I have been to all of the corners of the globe but it is not quite true.
“I would really love to see parts of southern Russia, western China and parts of Mongolia. There is some fascinating pieces of history from that period of the world and it is something I don’t think has been explored a lot.
“What I think also would be interesting, albeit very difficult, but because it is the start of civilisation as we know it, is to see Iran and Iraq and go there. It is terrible things that are going on there at the moment and the places that are being destroyed.”
He also said that throughout his travels, he has been afforded a warm welcome even in the most dangerous of locations.
Michael added: “I often find that when you go to countries which are perceived as being dangerous, you will get a friendly welcome. I went to Pakistan when the invasion of Kuwait was going on. We had all sorts of warnings about going there.
“However the people there were very pleased to see us and happy to talk to us.”
After a few moments of eruditely trying to make everything right in the world, I decided to ask Michael about the favourite moment in his long career.
Michael said: “The fish slapping dance we did for Monty Python. There was something about the timing of that sketch that I thought we were creating something memorable.
“It is such a short sketch but it is silly. I think that is something you could show to any sentient being to check that they have a sense of humour.”
But while it might have been one of the best moments, it was one that was still packed with danger.
Michael said: “We did that in a lock and we did the rehearsals and then by the time I came to film it, the water in the lock was 15 foot lower than previously. But I thought it was a good fall.”
One of the lesser known comedies among the mainstream audience he did after Monty Python was the series Ripping Yarns. I delight in telling Michael that the episode Golden Gordon has become infamous in our house. There is one sequence where a wife hears her husband’s football team has lost and she responds by hiding the clock.
I tell Michael the phrase is used in our family whenever Manchester United have lost. Although he responds dryly with: “you must have a lot of clocks in your house.”
Talking about how the show came about Michael said: “We were looking for something to do after Monty Python which hadn’t made any of us millionaires by any stretch of the imagination.
“I was talking to Terry Jones who I was writing a lot of the sketches and it was his brother Nigel that had this book called Ripping Yarns.
“Both Terry and I thought it would be something fantastic to do and would be a very gentle kind of comedy.
“The 1920s and 1930s is something that we always feel very nostalgic about and Ripping Yarns tapped into that.
“We made those until the BBC told us to stop because we shot them all on film and that made it a very expensive show to make.”
He hasn’t also been short of parts in films appearing in all of the Python films, Time Bandits, A Fish Called Wanda and the controversial science fiction film Brazil.
The film’s director, fellow Python Terry Gilliam, called his character Jack Lint, the most evil man in the universe.
Michael said: “I remember talking to Terry Gilliam about Brazil and we discussed what evil was and could be.
“Someone evil might not necessarily have scars or anything like that, it would almost be someone nice, someone who has a stutter and that was an ingenious twist.
“I really like stepping out of my comfort zone to play those different parts. I played an old man in a series called Remember Me 18 months ago which I really enjoyed doing.”
Most recently, his soothing tone of voice can be heard on the recently revived children series The Clangers and can’t resist getting an answer to my godmother’s question of which one is his favourite.
Michael said: “I love them all equally but the one I identify with the most is Major Clanger. He is trying to be authoritative while constantly being upstaged by the younger ones.
“I do also rather like the Iron Chicken as well.”
It also seems to be a show where he proud to be the narrator.
Michael added: “When I say that my career has reached a high point with the Clangers, I am not entirely joking.
“I thought it was a lovely series and Oliver Postgate did such a fantastic job of narrating the original series.
“It was a real honour to be asked to take it on. It is classic children’s television and find myself gravitating towards the television at 5.30pm to watch The Clangers.”
The final question I ask Michael is all about the tour and he sums it up like this.
Michael said: “It is going to be fresh and fun evening. It will be completely original and it will be like having a conversation with the audience. It will be fantastic and I will be looking forward to talking to people who come along.”
Michael Palin will be appearing at Milton Keynes Theatre on Wednesday September 30 starting at 7.30pm.
Tickets for the show cost £33.40 with a booking fee to be applied if tickets are bought online or on the phone.
They can be booked by calling 0844 871 7652 or visit www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes.
Michael Palin will be touring across the country throughout September and October.
Visit www.themichaelpalin.com for further details.