Michael Palin: ‘There won’t be 10 dancing girls on stage – it’s just me I’m afraid’

Michael Palin. Picture: John Swannell
Michael Palin. Picture: John Swannell

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Michael Palin is famously well-travelled, but admits that, yes, he still gets lost in his home country.

‘Of course I do,’ he tells The Guide. ‘I get lost all the time.

‘When I travel around the world, I have a whole team of people saying: “Michael turn left, turn right.”

‘I like getting lost actually, that was the joy of some of the travels we did, but now of course you have all these satnavs and everything.’

He was talking ahead of his show at the Kings Theatre in Southsea on September 19 – amazingly it’s the first time he’s been on a solo tour.

And it is the publication of his third volume of diaries, Travelling to Work, 1988-98, that has sparked the new tour.

With previous volumes focusing on Monty Python and Hollywood respectively, this one looks at his newfound career as a travel broadcaster that began with Around the World in 80 Days in 1989.

In a time when these epithets get tossed around like confetti, Palin is a true comedy legend.

As part of the Python troupe he redefined mainstream comedy, but he has also been in numerous films, including a Bafta-winning turn in A Fish Called Wanda, and proved he can play it straight in Alan Bleasdale’s hard-hitting GBH, as well as having written a play and several books.

‘Suddenly someone rang up,’ recalls Palin, ‘I think it was Will Wyatt who was then head of documentaries, he said it was very hush-hush – it’s a whole new project, they’d never done anything like it before – you had to go round the world in 80 days, camera will be up your backside the whole time, no privacy, or anything like that.’

Palin leaped at the chance.

It transpired several others, including Alan Whicker, had been offered – and rejected – the show before it came to him.

‘I found out I was about the fifth person they asked, but they didn’t tell me until I was somewhere in India and I couldn’t get out of it.

‘Not that I minded, I can understand. Alan liked a bit of comfort – seven nights on a dhow, sleeping on peanut sacks and eating the local curry? I can’t see Alan doing that. Where would he hang his suit? And he was more of a reporter – and a very good one too.’

And he admits there were lengthy periods of ‘introspection’ during those early days of his travels.

‘We had just started, I was somewhere down the Adriatic, and I started thinking, my God this isn’t just a jaunt, there’s six hours of television to put together and it’s just me and the camera.

‘What on earth are we going to talk about, and there was a real crisis of confidence there – am I the right man?

‘I wasn’t particularly keen on doing set-up interviews and it wasn’t until the dhow episode – which I think was the third one, when I had to live on a boat with 18 Gujarati fisherman, none of them spoke any English apart from the captain and the only technology they were using was a sextant and an engine that worked with a rubber band – that I forgot about whether I was supposed to be reporting, or if I was supposed to be acting.

‘Living with these guys was so extraordinary, and when we did talk to them, we found that we did have so much in common. From that point onwards, it was just being me and all the things that go wrong.

‘Having Delhi belly, being ill, the audiences loved all that, they loved the informality of that. In the end, by default, we found the right technique.’

Since the success of 80 Days and its sequels, including Pole to Pole in ’91 and Full Circle in ’96, comedians and actors being sent to film in far-flung places have become a TV epidemic.

But ever the nice guy, Michael says: ‘A lot of these people are my friends. I wouldn’t dream of criticising them in any shape or form. There are travel shows and there are travel shows.’

He sings the praises of the likes of Madhur Jaffrey, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Simon Reeve for their televised travel exploits.

After 80 Days he threw himself into making a film based on his great-grandfather called American Friends, and Alan Bleasdale’s GBH on TV.

Palin believes that it has been a desire to push himself that has shaped his career.

‘Yes, I was consciously doing that. Most of my life I’ve been doing that.

‘Even from the Python days, I’d be up for doing things that hadn’t been done before and I’d usually have a couple of friends pushing me, like Terry Jones, or Cleese or whoever.

‘I think that early experience of Python spoiled me for doing anything predictable or conventional after that. I did the comedy series with Terry Jones afterwards, Ripping Yarns, and no-one had seen anything quite like that before.

‘I was in a privileged position where I had a certain audience out there: what can I show them that’s not been done before? and I think that’s why I took on 80 Days so readily when others had said no.’

Of course, Palin has recently been back with his old Python colleagues (pictured above) for a sold-out run of 10 reunion shows at the O2 in London.

‘The great thing was that the audiences came and they listened,’ he explains.

‘I thought they would be very enthusiastic and there would be people shouting out the sketches as they went along, but they didn’t. There was the music and the dancing and it was fantastic.

‘Then when we had little sketches like the Dead Parrot or The Argument, it felt like it was to a much smaller theatre. You could feel the audience there, you could time it, you could pace it.

‘We were all really pleased with how well it went and the fact that we could still be funny after all these years.

‘It was a wonderful feeling of the group being together and working together. We disagree on almost everything else, but when it comes to the acting and playing the comedy, it’s great.

‘We’re good at it, we know Python better than anyone else.

‘We’ll never do a show like that again, it was very expensive to put on, but we decided if we were going to do a reunion, the fact we did this in London in England, where Python originated, and we made a proper spectacular show, that was the way to go out.’

Now he is preparing for his solo tour, which takes him across the UK from Sunday.

‘I have done a number of one-night shows for charities and at book festivals. I thought this time the diaries are coming out, they always need something to hang the publicity on, so let’s go round the country doing proper shows and I can talk about my travels which started in this series of diaries.

‘And I can also talk about the other side of my life in comedy. There’s quite a lot to say and a lot of ground to cover.

‘It won’t be quite like Python at the O2 – there won’t be 10 dancing girls on stage in Agent Provocateur, I’m afraid. It’s just me, but it should be fun.’

Michael Palin, Travelling To Work is at the Kings Theatre on Friday, September 19, doors open 7.30pm. 
Tickets cost £29.50. Go to kingsportsmouth.co.uk or call (023) 9282 8282.