Michael Palin on his inventive TV travel shows and how his epic adventures have changed his life…
Michael Palin changed the face of TV travelogues forever back in the 1980s.
Amid a sea of commercial travel shows designed to sell holidays and programmes showcasing places close to home, the Monty Python star took up an epic challenge to follow in the footsteps of fictional adventurer Phileas Fogg for BBC1’s Around the World in 80 Days.
His warm, personable and slightly chaotic style was an instant hit with viewers, and since then Michael has embarked on many more once-in-a-lifetime trips.
Now, with the help of personal diaries and archive footage, he’ll be reflecting on his four most successful expeditions – Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle and Sahara – in a new series for BBC2, Michael Palin: Travels of a Lifetime.
Here, Sir Michael Palin, 77, tells us how exploring the world has changed his life…
How does it feel to revisit your travels?
Michael Palin: “It’s a great experience. I’m very fortunate that over the years for different series I have seen an awful lot of the world. Having the chance to look back is great as I can relish the things we did and appreciate the people we met in some detail rather than it being a great big attic full of dusty travel memories.”
Was the leap from acting to travelogues unexpected?
MP: “I was working continuously all that time. The Pythons kept going with the movies until the early 1980s and then I did a number of films including The Missionary in 1982, which I wrote myself, and Brazil in 1985, which was written and directed by [fellow Python] Terry Gilliam. It was only after A Fish Called Wanda in 1988 that there was a limbo period and I thought, ‘What am I going to do next?’ Then, quite by chance, the finger pointed from the sky at the BBC and said, ‘Ask this man to do a travel series!’ And that’s how it happened!”
Viewers instantly fell in love with your ad-hoc presenting style. Was it genuinely chaotic?
MP: “We definitely were winging it! The first thing that happened on …80 Days was the Orient Express was stopped at Innsbruck and we all had to pile onto a coach to go over the Alps. Then, in Egypt, we missed the ship to Saudi Arabia. I learnt that buying a ticket doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll use the ticket! I think that’s what gave the show its edge – it was a series of crises all the way along, and that worked better than an every day holiday programme!”
You often got recognised during filming – any standout fan experiences?
MP: “Yes, in Athens we were filming the marching of the Evzones – the ceremonial guard – and it was absolutely riveting. Suddenly, I heard this voice, ‘I know you! I love you! I love Monty Python!’ It was a very voluble American fan. Everybody ignored the Evzones and started watching me and my fan – I felt quite embarrassed!”
Were there any moments on a trip that you felt in danger?
MP: “I remember on the Himalayan journey [for 2004’s Himalaya with Michael Palin] getting bad altitude sickness climbing up towards Annapurna. We found a hut at about 15,000ft and, utterly exhausted and ill, went to sleep. I woke up and it was absolutely pitch black and silent. I couldn’t think where I was and genuinely thought, ‘This is it, I’ve probably died.’
“Then, I suddenly heard the most wonderful noise – our photographer Basil Pao gave out this terrible wheezing cough. There was someone else there!
“Another extremely hairy time was the flight to the North Pole in Pole to Pole. A twin engine plane had to land on a moving ice flow. The pilot kept abandoning the landing and trying again. I thought, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this…’ So, yes, there were some dark moments, but we kept going.”
Has travelling changed you?
MP: “It’s changed my way of looking at the world. If you talk to people on the street or doing ordinary jobs you learn a lot more about a country and about its people. I always found it really interesting meeting people with a very different way of life from my own. Rather than being afraid – which I thought I might be because I didn’t know languages – I suddenly found it was a great liberation. People were very welcoming. The world wasn’t a closed place. You could go to almost any country and create a kind of friendship. I feel to this day, it’s important that we speak to each other and people in other countries, not to see them as foreign or other.”
Michael Palin: Travels of a Lifetime starts on Sunday October 4th at 8.00pm on BBC2 (see our TV Guide for more shows to enjoy).