To celebrate the legendary Michael Palin hitting the House this Saturday, we asked ‘professional nerd’ and certified Palin expert Dom Romeo of Stand and Deliver to pull together the threads of Palin’s mind-boggling, craft-crossing career…
Palin returned the favour, of course. Towards the end of that decade, when a casual jam between George Harrison and some legendary buddies turned into the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, Michael Palin provided the sleeve notes to their first album under the silly pseudonym ‘Hugh Jampton’. Comedy nerds might be aware of Hugh Jampton, a pun on ‘Huge Hampton’. ‘Hampton’ is short for Hampton Wick, not just the name of a village in Richmond-upon-Thames, but also rhyming slang. Hugh Jampton used to appear in Goon Show episodes, as a means of sneaking in cheeky smut, under the radar.
Like most comedians of his generation, Palin was a fan of the Goons as a kid. Indeed, there are a number of childhood influences that clearly make their mark in Palin’s later work. Like his father’s stammer. Not only did Ted Palin’s speech impediment influence Michael’s characterisation of Ken Pile in A Fish Called Wanda in 1988, it ultimately led to the foundation of the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children in 1993. “My father had a lot of words to say, but cruelly life frustrated him,” Palin said at its opening.
The young Michael Palin also enjoyed a television program that bravely broke new ground, much as the one he helped create later on. It was a surreal sketch show featuring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan of the Goons, entitled A Show Called Fred. A particularly absurd sketch from A Show Called Fred sees Peter Sellers ‘ride’ into shot, not on horseback, but on his own two feet – while he bangs two halves of a coconut together to provide the sound of the horse’s galloping hooves. (If you don’t recognise this comedic motif from The Holy Grail, why have you even read this far?)
Hugh Jampton’s short history of the Wilburys claims they were “a stationary people who, realizing that their civilization could not stand still for ever, began to go for short walks – not the ‘traveling’ as we now know it, but certainly as far as the corner and back.” Fittingly, Palin started to make his own travels around the same time as Harrison’s Wilburys – and not just to the corner and back, either.
Rumour has it, Michael Palin wasn’t even the first choice to host Around the World in 80 Days. The person usually mentioned as initial candidate is Alan Whicker, a veteran of travel documentary who had been around so long that Palin and his mates were taking the mickey out of him in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Their version of Whicker’s World documents the little known Whicker Island, populated entirely by Alan Whickers. Each Python gets to suit up in Whicker’s customary grey and wield his thick-rimmed spectacles, pencil moustache and microphone as they intone his particular brand of interviewer-speak. Ironically, Michael Palin’s Whicker gets the best line, and the interview – with the island’s “only white man”, Father Pierre (Graham Chapman, dressed as a priest):
“Why did you stay on in this colonial Campari-land where the clink of glasses mingles with the murmur of a million mosquitoes, where waterfalls of whisky wash away the worries of a world-weary Whicker, where gin and tonic jingle in a gyroscopic jubilee of something beginning with ‘J’…”
(Father Pierre’s answer? “Well,” he says, donning glasses and whipping out a microphone as he transforms into a Whicker, “mainly for the interviews…”)
Whether or not the project was developed with him in mind, Michael Palin was the ideal host. His ‘audition tape’ would have been his episode of Great Rail Journeys from way back in 1980, entitled ‘Confessions of a Train Spotter’. It would demonstrate the added features Palin could bring to the job. They’re all there in Around the World in 80 Days: comic devices like self-conscious narration, silly voices and, when called for, mugging to camera. And, unlike the Whicker travelogues that were about the outsider interviewing locals, Palin’s journeys were always about being in places long enough to start ‘mucking in’ and actually experiencing it all firsthand.
But nobody saw Around the World in 80 Days as the start of something bigger, least of all Palin. In the introduction to the accompanying book he wrote,
“Each time I look at the map and re-trace my progress, I become painfully aware of the countries I didn’t visit, and I’m sure there would be a case for a zig-zag circumnavigation which would take in Australia and Thailand and Russia and Africa and Canada.”
There would be… just not yet. Palin’s acting career was continuing apace.
Around this time, Stephen Fry was organising comedy galas entitled Hysteria! to raise AIDS awareness. They featured a fair whack of everyone who was funny in Britain at the time. Except Michael Palin, who was forced to politely decline. “There I was, tingling with excitement at the prospect of lining up with you all on the Palladium stage,” he wrote to Fry, “when along came this bloody offer to do a film with Madonna, Woody Allen and Michelle Pfeiffer in some wretched West Indian island…”
While the Woody Allen film never eventuated there were other great projects like GBH and American Friends.
Devised by social realist writer Alan Bleasdale, GBH was about the manipulation and involvement of MI5 in the rise of local politics. Michael Palin’s role in it, as Jim Nelson, the dedicated headmaster of a school for disturbed children, earned him a BAFTA nomination – which he lost. To co-star Robert Lindsay. That’s how good GBH was.
American Friends was, like The Missionary, another period piece written by, as well as starring, Michael Palin. However, it was a serious love story rather than a comedy. It was inspired by real events in the life of Michael’s great-grandfather, Edward Palin. The film is a treat for hardcore fans since one of Palin’s co-stars is Connie Booth. You might remember her as Polly in Fawlty Towers, which she wrote with her co-star and husband at the time, John Cleese.
Despite these excellent vehicles for his acting, wanderlust was soon drawing Palin back to travel. Having already circumnavigated the world in a predominantly easterly direction, Pole to Pole (released in 1992) saw him travelling from top to bottom – quite literally from the North Pole to the South Pole, “along the 30 degree East line of longitude,” chosen because it “crossed the greatest amount of land”.
But that was nothing compared to Full Circle (first broadcast in 1997), which took a few months shy of a year to film. It traced a route around the Pacific Rim, covering, Palin says, “around 50,000 miles, more than all the mileage on 80 Days and Pole to Pole put together”. The title suggests a fitting conclusion: when something comes ‘full circle’, it has covered all the ground and returned from whence it began. Since the Pacific Ocean covers “one-third of the world’s surface”, around which “one-third of the world’s population” lives, then perhaps this massive journey was the fitting conclusion. After all, it included a visit to Australia, enabling Palin to make a cameo appearance in Home & Away. Whatever could be left?
Just a couple of years later, Palin chased down the legend of Ernest Hemingway. Studying Hemingway’s novels in school served as a rite of passage, but Palin forgot about them until some 30 years later, when he was given an anthology of stories. Reading them, he realised travelling the world gave him the same sort of “buzz” Hemingway’s literature first gave him in his adolescence. So why not combine the two? The Hemingway Adventure (1999) allowed Palin to ‘zig-zag’ from the United States to Europe, Africa, Cuba and back to the US.
But that’s the thing with buzzes. After a while, you need to do more to get the same buzz, and it takes a bigger buzz to satisfy as much as the initial buzz. Perhaps that fuelled Palin’s next choice of destination. Rather than countries linked by a single ocean, he opted for the ones linked by a single desert – the big one: Sahara.
As a child, Palin recalls, his father – in charge of the Export Department of a steelworks – would receive a box of dates every Christmas from their agent in Algeria:
“The illustration on the packet fuelled powerfully romantic fantasies of somewhere hotter, drier and even more exotic than south Yorkshire; a place where men with turbans, baggy velvet pants and wicked moustaches reclined under palm trees with veiled and sequined ladies, whilst their camels stood in picturesque silhouette against the setting sun.”
The actual experience of travelling across the desert offered a starker reality. It was, Palin wrote, “a challenge, and by no means an easy one. It embodies scale and mystery, the thin line between survival and destruction, the power to take life or to transform it.”
Palin survived Sahara, returning transformed. How would he follow up such a journey, his most difficult yet? With something, you might be tempted to say, completely different: Himalaya. Tracing a route through snow-capped mountains couldn’t be more different than a sandy desert – although the journey was just as challenging. So much so that Michael Palin’s seemingly final travelogue, New Europe, looks like a comparatively cushy trip. Almost a holiday.
Rightfully recognising his travels had neglected Europe, despite it being more-or-less on his doorstep, the New Europe journey – undertaken in 2006 to 2007 – was made interesting by sticking predominantly to those mysterious nations that had lain hidden under a veil during the Cold War. But don’t be fooled: Palin ultimately found his New Europe journey to be, in many ways, his “most complicated”. And so you can’t begrudge him for seeming to stay put once it was completed.
It’s been five years since that last journey. During this time, Palin’s other television work has still been predominantly of the documentary variety. “Would you do something like GBH again,” I once had the opportunity to ask him. Palin replied, “I would if it was offered to me, but they don’t make television like GBH anymore.”
Meanwhile, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society has awarded Michael Palin the Livingstone Medal, and made him a Fellow. He has also served as the President of the Royal Geographical Society. These are fitting rewards for his contribution to travel and geography.
Although, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that Michael Palin was always destined for them. The proof is in some of his earliest work. Consider the Python sketch ‘Scott of the Sahara’: it’s Michael Palin playing the role of Scott. In the ‘Cycling Holiday’ episode, cycling holidaymaker Reg Pither – who somehow finds himself riding with Trotsky in the USSR – is portrayed by none other than Michael Palin. He is also Mr Brian Norris in ‘Mr & Mrs Brian Norris’ Ford Popular’ – the sketch that sends up Thor Heyerdahl’s ethnographic adventures by tracing the emigration of residents from Surbiton to Hounslow. And of course, the Ripping Yarn entitled ‘Across the Andes by Frog’ sees Michael Palin attempt to cross the Andes. By frog. Palin was always the intrepid explorer.
If Brazil – large and varied enough to contain the equivalent of four separate countries – is the final place Palin need visit to say he’s travelled the world, the question is, where to next?
There’s only one place: the final frontier. Michael Palin ought to start making travelogues into outer space. First one can be to Mars. They can even call it The Road to Mars, seeing as Eric Idle has already published a novel with that title.