Michael Palin: ‘Everyone said I could pass for 80, which was a bit cheeky!’

Comedy legend Michael Palin plays a man haunted by an evil spirit in spooky new three-part series Remember Me (BBC1, Sunday, Nov 23).

We caught up with him to talk about about Monty Python, travelling the world and whether he believes in ghosts…

This is your first TV drama for over 20 years, what was it about the series you liked so much?

“I get offered quite a few things, but this just came along and I liked the look of it. It was a very good script and the character was immediately involving and challenging. I felt intrigued straight away. I had to play someone 10 years older than me and he’s a very complex character, so I thought it would be a good test of the acting skills! I also love ghost stories…”

…and it was filmed in Yorkshire!

Yes, the fact that it was being filmed in my home territory was also a bonus!”

Have you ever encountered a ghost?

“I’ve never encountered one and I’m very sad about that!”

Tell us about your character, Tom Parfitt…

“The challenge was to make him convincing. He’s a slightly strange character. He turns out to be 80, but he looks a bit younger because this spirit has sort of taken over his life and kept him protected. So when he does come out he’s almost like a boy, looking at the world for the first time.”

Did you do anything to make yourself look a bit older?

“We had a lot of discussions and decided against any prosthetics, which for a moment I was a bit hurt about! Everyone said: ‘You can pass for 80 no problems!’ which I thought was a bit cheeky!”

What happens to Tom in the first episode?

“It starts with him leaving the house where he’s lived alone for decades. For some reason he wants to get out of there – you don’t quite know why. The social services lady takes him to this care home, but when she takes him up to his room all of a sudden… WHAM! Something terrible happens and she crashes out of the window. It’s a riddle, who and what’s happened? Has he pushed her out of the window? Clearly it looks unlikely that he as an old guy would have been able to do this. She didn’t just fall out of the window, the whole frame has gone and she’s crashed to the ground and lying there like some victim of the inquisition!”

Do you fear getting older?

“Well, I am getting older! I don’t feel old though. Luckily – touch wood – I’m reasonably healthy and I don’t need to go around in a chair or anything like that. If you are surrounded by people who are the same age as you then one becomes very competitive. ‘Oh dear, they’re not well!’ I am aware of what it means to be over 70. I think back to when I was in my 20s and to be over 70 was a death sentence! I find that suddenly it doesn’t happen. I feel I’m still in my 20s, in fact I feel more comfortable with life now than I did when I was in my 20s or 30s. I feel far less competitive now, far less driven. I’ve learned from experience. What to do, what not to do. What to drink, what not to drink – all those things. I do think about it, but at the moment I think of it in a positive way. I don’t fear it at the moment, in fact I’m quite enjoying it!”

Are all the Pythons competitive in terms of getting old?

“John’s very competitive, he has to be older than the rest of us. He insists on that!”

Did you get an adrenaline rush out of the live Python shows you performed in at London’s O2 earlier this year?

“Yeah I suppose it was, adrenaline is what keeps you going I guess. You can be sitting in your dressing room five minutes before going like that, and suddenly go out and Wow! That’s what happens when you go on stage.”

Do you do anything special to keep in shape? 

“No, not really. I do keep reasonably fit, but that’s because I’ve had to, especially when I was doing the travel shows. You’ve got to work very hard on that so I’ve always kept up my running for about the last 30 years, I run a couple of times a week. And walk rather than take cars, simple as that. I run over Hampstead Heath, probably four and a half miles approx. It’s great, a wonderful place to do it.”

Are there plans for any more Monty Python shows ?

“No, that’s completely it, but doing this show has brought us all closer together. We’ve realised we can’t all just exist on emails, we’ve got to meet up. Hopefully we’ll share a few ideas and stuff but there won’t, be any more performing like at the O2. That was designed to be a cracker of a last appearance. That was why we spent so much money on it. It’s not a show you can just put together anywhere else!”

Has it rekindled your friendship?

“We always got on pretty well, we just have different ideas in other aspects of life like how many wives you should have! Money, finance, you know. The main thing is, which the O2 shows confirmed, is that there’s a core bond between us all that is writing and performing. That’s where we started. That’s what we did when we were virtual unknowns, apart from John, back in the 60s. Writing comedy material that made us laugh and gradually made other people laugh. It was really nice that it seemed to work for people. No one said, ‘Oh, they’ve lost it or felt short-changed’. The ability to time and play good comedy is still there.”

Did you feel nervous backstage during the O2 shows?

“I speak for myself, but I feel nervous every time I go on stage, it’s part of the process. It’s something fairly weird asking 15,000 or 500 people to listen to you for two hours. So there’s an element of that on the first night. We had rehearsal, but our first performance was the very day we saw the O2. We got there at 4pm, at 7.30pm we did the show so there was a lot to worry about – stage craft, getting on and off, costume changes, would the material work for 15,000 people. We were all a little bit contained on the first night. It’s all been mercifully filmed for the DVD, from the moment we stepped out of the TARDIS or ReTARDIS as we called it. After the first night, the audience was so good – I worried about how the smaller sketches would work for a large audience – but with a good sound system, it worked. So the second night, everyone was more relaxed. I don’t think the toilets were over-used.”

Where’s the most remote part of world someone’s recognised you from MP?

“There was a strange moment flying from the North Pole to an island called Spitzberg, but it was a bad storm so we had to divert as we were in a small twin engine plane. The only place we could land was a Danish base in Greenland. It was the middle of the night, we landed and they said there’s some huts up there, they’ll give you a bunk for the night. We traipsed through the ice and these young Danish soldiers said come in, were fine until one of them saw me and went absolutely white, the blood drained from his face. He said, ‘Is it you?! This is unbelievable!’ As we went in I saw a copy of the DVD of Monty Python, they’d just been watching it. I think the guy had a nervous breakdown and had to leave the army after that.”

Lots of comedians doing travel shows, Karl Pilkington etc, what do you think of the new breed?

“It depends on how successful they are. I mean Karl Pilkington’s got his thing going and he’s very funny, but I can never work out whether he really hates travelling or loves it!”

Is there anyone you’d like to see do a travel series?

“Yeah, Terry Gilliam should do one. Any of the Pythons would be good, but he would be great as he’s got his own style that is very different from anybody else’s. He’s got this great enthusiasm. He’s very well read, he knows a lot about art and culture. But he’d do it from his own angle that wouldn’t be distant or patronising. He’d really get stuck in. I’ve always said he should go round Europe in his own particular way. You’d have to take a lot of ‘f**ks’ out though!”

Do you have plans to go somewhere?

“No I don’t at the moment. I did think about it, but I’ve done eight series now and they take about two years of work, including a book, and I don’t think I could give up two years of my life now. That is something about getting older, I’ve got a limited amount of time. I’d rather be light on my feet and do stuff like Remember Me or an arts documentary. I’ve also got two grandsons now and they’re great. Maybe when they grow up a bit I’d like to take them travelling – they’re eight and five now.”

Would you consider fully retiring?

“I don’t know what I’d retire from. I don’t know what I do – a bit of acting, a bit of writing. I can’t imagine what retirement would mean. Not writing, not acting? I’ll carry on until I drop. It’s great to have projects that test you. It’s very important to find some new resources, that’s good for you.”

Can you see yourself making a guest appearance in Downton Abbey or Coronation Street?

“I’m not very interested in doing guest appearances.”

You did Home & Away?

“Now that was good! Well remembered, yes – by the sea with a surf board. No, if I’m going to act I’d rather do something like this, Remember Me, where you’re central to the project. I think it’s quite difficult. Some people do it very well. Wander into a set where people have been working for months. It’s like going to a first day at school. This was more of a challenge.”

Will you do more regular dramas?

“I’ve always had the acting bug, but the reason I’ve done less of it is that I was waiting for a really good script to come along. Something like this is quite rare. Also I find filming itself a lot of waiting around. The great thing about travel shows is that you’re busy from sunrise to sunset. It’s full on and I love that. You work flat out. With acting you can spend half the day in a caravan and then be told you’ve got to go home because the sun’s come out. The other thing, I’ve been offered quite a lot of theatre and that’s tricky, I love being on stage in front of an audience, but everything you’re offered takes three or four months working in the evening. My life has always been around working in the day and having the evenings off!”

How do you unwind in the evening?

“I go out to eat with friends at restaurants I like. I go to films. I don’t watch much TV, but I shall watch Remember Me! I tend to like the Scandanavian stuff like The Bridge and Borgen. But a lot of TV drama now, you need such a commitment, there’s so much coming out. Of course I’ve seen drama – Ashley the director of this did The Accused, a wonderful thing with Sean Bean. I thought my god, that was brilliant. But I’m not one for sitting in my slippers in a chair watching TV of an evening. I’d rather be out and about.”

Remember Me starts on Sunday, November 23 at 9pm on BBC1


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