There is, you sense, a discontent at the core of Michael Palin, one that gnaws away at him with steady purpose. It’s not to do with his manner, which is as amiable as you would expect. Indeed, when I tell him what my editor emailed — ‘God, I love her’ — in response to my email saying ‘Am interviewing Palin today’, he laughs vigorously. Says he gets that a lot and that during the US election he found it disconcerting to see headlines such ‘Palin’s daughter pregnant’. As his weathered and handsome face is carved with smile creases, you suspect laughter comes easily to him. So no, it’s not that.
Nor is it to do with him looking a little uncomfortable today because we have asked him to wear a jacket and tie, or rather The Reform Club, where we want to photograph him, requires that he wear a jacket and tie (he keeps touching his collar as he talks). This was the Club from which he began his first travel documentary twenty years ago, you see. Around the World in Eighty Days followed the route taken by the fictional Phileas Fogg, who also set out from the Club, and led to ‘a television series which stands as an unparalleled tribute to man’s ability to make life difficult for himself’.
Palin also ended that first series here amid the Club’s marbled columns and galleried arcades, or at least he tried to. ‘I came back in triumph with two hours to spare and they wouldn’t let me in because they had a function on, which I suppose was fair enough. Clubs are not there to get people in; they are there to keep people out. We had to take a spontaneous decision: do we pretend I got in, walk up to the door and cut there, or do we acknowledge what happened? As I was shagged out, I opted for the latter, a little piece to camera that worked wonders for us. The perfect ending. People love to see things go wrong.’
A few weeks ago, Palin relived the most memorable episode from that series, the one where he spent a week sleeping on the deck of a dhow as he hitched a lift from Dubai to Bombay (his lavatory was a box suspended over the stern). His researchers somehow tracked down the 18-man Indian crew that took him over in 1988 and his reunion with them is the subject of a new chapter in an anniversary edition of the book published next week. ‘There is a scene on the dhow where I am wary about being me because I think me being me will be dull,’ he recalls now. ‘I was kind of acting the role of Phileas Fogg, the old Victorian fogey, and then I got ill and just said so to camera. Said how lousy I felt and that I wanted to go home. It was a turning point because after that I could just be myself.’
And so a genre was invented… Around the world in 80 days became around the world in 20 years — with Pole to Pole, Sahara and Himalayas being among the variations on the original theme. Rating were enormous, as high as 12.5 million at times, which was unheard of for a travel programme. The books that accompanied the various BBC series sold in their millions, and continue to sell.
This popularity seems to have been down to a number of factors. 1) Palin was a former Python and everyone loves the Pythons. 2) He had a pleasing way with words, describing camels, for example, as ‘sinking down like collapsible tables’. 3) It was also to do with his sweetness of character, an obvious decency, likability and good humour that came across whenever he was in extremis, as for example when he discovered the Peruvian brew he was sipping was made from old women’s spittle. Such was the sense that viewers had of him being the ideal travelling companion, even The Dalai Lama, one of his fans, joked that he would like to be reincarnated as Michael Palin’s assistant.
In light of all this — what Palin has called his ‘ruthless niceness’ — there is an incident I want to ask him about which seems uncharacteristically cold and out of character. It concerns his wife Helen whom he met on holiday in Suffolk when he was 15, she 16, and married in 1966, eight years later, after he graduated from Oxford. When Palin was in Borneo filming Full Circle, he received a message to ring home. Helen had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and was about to have an emergency operation. He didn’t rush back. Does this surprise him in retrospect? ‘It was Helen who talked me out of coming back on the next available flight. She was very practical and sensible. She said, “I’m having the operation in four days. By the time you get back here it will probably be over. The doctor says it is a benign tumour. I’d rather you carry on.’ She was probably stressed at the thought I would be stressed.’
Must have been quite a poignant goodbye at the end of that phone call though. ‘It was very tough but she had the hardest job because there I was saying what a wonderful time I had just had up country with the head-hunters and she had to explain about the tumour and then talk me down from my shock. I spoke to the surgeon before and after the operation.’
Did he appreciate her more after that scare; find their time together more precious? ‘I was hugely relieved that she had got through it and was proud of the way she had dealt with it. I don’t think it changed our relationship. I think we felt we had made the right decision. Nothing more that could be said.’
Helen Palin trained as a teacher but in mid life became a bereavement counsellor, and Michael Palin is no stranger to bereavement. His older sister Angela killed herself in 1987 at the age of 52, leaving a husband and three grown children. Palin found the suicide hard to come to terms with and blamed his father’s withering criticisms of her as a child (she longed to be an actress but encountered only paternal scorn). Two years later he was with his friend and fellow Python Graham Chapman when he died of cancer. And when his friend George Harrison died in 2001 he said he felt as if a part of him had ‘closed down’. Given these bereavements and his response to them, I ask why his wife decided to become a bereavement counselling. ‘I don’t know, I think a friend of hers said if you have time on your hands and are good at talking to people you should do it. She keeps it quite. Doesn’t like it becoming public knowledge because when people come to her she wants them to come to their anonymous counsellor for that week, not Mrs Michael Palin.’
Fair enough. She must be a good listener because according to John Cheese Palin is a good talker: ‘“Yap, yap, yap”, he goes, all day long and through the night… and then, when everyone else has gone to bed, he writes a diary.’ Palin gives his room-filling laugh when I remind him of this Cleese quote. ‘Put it this way, there were no silent Pythons. We all had a lot to say and one person who has a lot to say notices when another person who has a lot to say interrupts them. John talks an awful lot. Doesn’t like to be interrupted… It’s true, though, I am a chatterbox. Can’t help it. I get enthusiastic about things. John and I were on holiday in Spain and I became obsessed with doors — leather and brass — and by the end he was pleading with me to shut up about the doors.’
Making travel documentaries was, of course, the second half of an already illustrious career. The first half could not have gone any better either. He was in the comedy equivalent of the Beatles, after all. In fact the Beatles, along with Pink Floyd and The Who, became not only fans but also friends. ‘Yes I was quite surprised by this extraordinary link between Python and the rock music world. Our comedy appeared to be provocative and mischievous and I suppose the rock bands identified with that spirit. I remember hearing very early on that Paul McCartney would always stop recording when Python was on so that he could watch it. We thought that was terrific.’
In his diaries, Palin gives a sense of how the Pythons behaved like rock stars, in terms of their competing egos at least and their demands for first class travel and special chefs when on location. ‘We were and we weren’t,’ he says now. ‘In America our fans would wait outside hotels for us. A small band of very enthusiastic women. There was also the whole subculture of Python fans who were mainly college kids. If you do comedy you have to see the absurdity of adulation. We weren’t like rock stars in the sense of playing big stadiums, though I think we would have quite liked to have been. I suppose we did do the Hollywood Bowl but it wasn’t like we were going on stage every night and performing the dead parrot sketch. Our work was done on film and television.’
He writes in his diary about how he smoked grass in his Python days, but did he also do the harder drugs his rock stars friends were doing? ‘No I didn’t really. Not sure why that should be. Partly because Helen and I had been married ten years by the mid Seventies. We had three children and that kept my feet firmly on the ground. We drank a lot of wine. I was aware we were drinking a lot and didn’t want to end up like Graham [an alcoholic who would go on binges with Keith Moon]. I didn’t want to reach a point where I couldn’t function. Sometimes I could see Graham being loud and objectionable and I knew it wasn’t like him. I thought, I don’t want to be transformed by drink like that. I’m not very good at that drink/drugs thing anyway because beyond a certain point I become catatonic. It doesn’t make me witty or better company, just leaves me with a headache. I think it’s in my character. I’m fairly straight.’
When he says his three children kept his feet on the ground at this time, was it that he was trying to be a better role model to them than his father had been to him? ‘Yes, I wanted to set an example. I love the children and watching them grow up, and going to school plays, and taking them on family holidays was very important for me. I think because I was away a lot, travelling to the States four times a year, it made me feel the importance of coming home. It’s only when you go away that you realise what home means to you.’
His own father had been a frustrated man who had felt himself a failure. Cursed by a terrible stammer, he had never achieved the success he expected from having been to Shrewsbury and Cambridge. Palin used to shrink away with embarrassment when he brought friends home and he says he longed for his father to be like any other father. ‘He hadn’t imagined that he would end up a minor manager in a Sheffield steel works and I think he wanted to hang on to the old structures as much as he could. So even though he couldn’t really afford to do it, it was very important for him to send me away to boarding school. He wasn’t lacking in humour or emotion but he kept a lot in reserve. He saw acting as a terrible waste of my education and potential.’
Palin’s hero is the rugged Ernest Hemingway and, tellingly, the central character in Palin’s novel Hemingway’s Chair adopts the writer as the father figure he never had. Palin senior had one thing in common with Hemingway, a very quick temper. Palin junior recognises that he probably overcompensates for this by being nice to everyone. When filming Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the director asked him to crawl through the mud for a seventh time, and he had a little outburst. The other Pythons were so surprised they all stood up and clapped.
Palin went to Shrewsbury, too. Why didn’t he want to continue the family tradition and send his own children there? ‘Well I had been happy at Shrewsbury but my wife was certain she didn’t want to send her boys away to school. I suppose we might have had some discussion about sending them to a private school in London, but it was the Seventies. We all thought public schools were going to disappear. We felt politically that it was the right thing to send them to state schools. I’ve no regrets, but I do discuss it with my children sometimes and ask them if they ever wished they had gone away to public school and they all have said there is a certain confidence that people who have been to public schools have. It’s because you have a top-of-the pile mentality. But there were drawbacks. I can remember after Shrewsbury feeling a certain awkwardness when meeting people further down the social scale. A very English thing. How do you talk to people who live on council estates? I thought, I don’t want my children to have that barrier.’
So. This gnawing discontent. I reckon it is to do with a feeling he has that he has never left his mark, not properly. Never really done anything worthwhile. Never quite caught his own attention. Ultimately, it seems to be connected to the long shadow cast over his life by his father. Though Palin has been outrageously successful in two careers, he still hears a nagging voice — his father’s presumably — which tells him he has never had a proper job. Is that the case? ‘All the time, oh yes. Forty years without a proper job. What have I done with my life? What are my qualifications? I can make people laugh. I can talk to people. I can do a piece to camera without falling over. But these are not great talents. I should have learned something. I should have learned languages.’
He feels shallow? ‘I feel fortunate that I am able to do what I feel I want to do, but I’m not sure it amounts to much. I look at people like David Attenborough and think he doesn’t just travel, he is an expert in his field. He knows a lot about his subject. What do I know a lot about? How to make people laugh? Well that’s not much. Always the pupil never the professor.’
Has he considered pursuing the sort of academic life his fellow Oxford man and Python Terry Jones pursues? ‘I think I am too much a jack-of-all-trades. You’ve got to put in the time. Terry is very knowledgeable about medieval history. He has written serious books about Chaucer. There was never anything where I had that expertise. That focus. No equivalent. I think it is a character flaw.’
So he never had a clear idea of what he wanted to do? ‘I still don’t and I’m 65.’ In 1977, Palin recorded in his diary: ‘I don’t really want to do comedy all my life.’ So he proved himself as an actor instead, starring in two of the best British films of the 1980s, A Private Function and A Fish Called Wanda. Then he reinvented himself as a travel documentary maker. Now he says: ‘It is a question of what you are. What am I? Am I just me doing things? I don’t want to be a television celebrity. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m not a bad actor, but I’m not a great actor. I’m not a bad television presenter, but I’m not a great television presenter. They are all thing I know I can do, but I don’t know where the point is where I can say, “I’ve done that” and can walk away.’
Blimey. Angst. Delivered with firm-jawed cheerfulness. He has done documentaries on subjects other that travel, notably on painting and, most recently, a moving Time Watch about the last day of the First World War. But you have to wonder why he doesn’t feel he can say ‘I’ve done that’ and walk away. Surely his record-breaking book sales alone are enough achievement for one lifetime? ‘There again, I never feel secure. You are only as good as your last book. I mean my Himalayas book might have sold, I don’t know, something like 600,000 to a million in hardback but my last one New Europe was different, it sold about 250,000 to 300,000 in hardback. You can’t take the euphoria too seriously.’
That sound you can hear up and down the country is authors falling off their chairs in astonishment. A good, healthy sale for a hardback is 5000 copies. If it sells 10,000 that is enough to get you onto the bestseller list. I ask about his motivation again. He can’t need the money. ‘These days, who knows? The people at Lehman Brothers thought they were comfortable. I’m fairly cautious with money so I’m fine but…’
Palin doesn’t play the stock market. Doesn’t understand people who change cars and houses all the time. Still lives in the three railway workers’ cottages, run together like carriages, in Gospel Oak that he has lived in for more than 30 years. He is, he says, ‘no good at extravagance’.
I ask whether he fills his days with work, even though he doesn’t need the money, as a way of avoiding melancholy. ‘I have good and bad days. I could happily spend my days swanning around galleries enjoying slowing down, not rushing at it, long lunches, but I would have to have something to keep me going, some project.’
The current project is the second volume of the diaries he has kept since 1969. The first covered ‘the Python years’ up to 1979. To him the exercise of keeping a diary is about proving to himself he has not wasted a day. He refers to his diary writing habit as a ‘tenacious parasite’. ‘It’s nerdy of me to keep a diary, I know. I do it to remind myself not to waste time. You hear of people giving up weeks where not very much happened. But I don’t want to be oppressed by time either. I want to spend time with my family and friends. What I don’t want to be is public property.’
He says he hates the invasion of privacy that comes with fame. Wants to watch the world. Doesn’t want the world to be watching him. Occasionally, though, when he says this, his wife gets exasperated and says, ‘Well, don’t sign up for a 10-part series when the camera is following you around the world if you don’t want to be recognised!’ ‘
Clearly Palin has paradise syndrome, the name given to a psychological condition which gives the sufferer a sense of dissatisfaction, even though he may have achieved his ambitions. The question is why. Why does he feel hollow and unfulfilled? I think it is partly our fault, the fault of his adoring public. We project a lot onto Michael Palin, turn him into a loveable national institution he doesn’t feel he is or deserves to be. He cannot understand why he is so popular because, paradoxically, while we all like him, he doesn’t seem to like himself all that much. Indeed he finds himself dull company — this business of ‘me being me’ — and says he has a low boredom threshold. His tragedy, then, is that while much of his high-achieving life has been lived in compensation for the life of his low-achieving father, he seems to have ended up just as frustrated. Well, perhaps not a tragedy. A pity.