What happens when you stop a traveller from travelling – for a whole year? Would I find Sir Michael Palin snappy, resentful? Nope. Turns out he’s quite enjoyed lockdown. He refers to the restrictions of 2020 with the same boyish optimism with which we watched him encounter many a slippery ice floe or heaving deck. Comfortable in his grandfatherly chair by the bookshelf of diaries and maps – a pose now familiar from his Travels of a Lifetime that cheered us through October and returns for Christmas – he explains his benign mood.
“The great surprise is that I’ve been extremely content to be in the same place for some time.
“I had heart surgery last September and was told to have rest and recuperation – then lockdown came along. I accepted it rather happily, it’s been like a huge doctor’s note. Anyway, coming home has always been the best part of the process. We live near Hampstead Heath in London and near friends.”
He even had some work. “I did an extract of Waiting for Godot with Robert Lindsay for Lockdown Theatre [in aid of the Royal Theatrical Fund] and now there’s a series of theatre readings.
It’s as if the entertainment world became a cottage industry this year: no studios, no cars waiting outside, everyone at home.” Then came the recent BBC series looking back at over 30 years of his TV travels.
“The BBC were desperate for any archive material that didn’t involve coming into studios. It’s turned out better than we expected.” It has: he sits with old diaries and tapes, while fans like Sir David Attenborough commend him for his warmth and originality. It’s oddly comforting, even as we all chafe for a chance to travel again.
Is he, though, a natural looker-back? “No!
I thought I was no good at it. All my life everything was about moving on to the next thing. But it’s been a rewarding process. Remembering it made me see that we covered an enormous amount of ground, saw wonderful landscapes, were let into people’s lives in a way few people could do even before the pandemic.”
Watching highlights from those four series –Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle and Sahara – it was certainly driven home that Palin’s travel programmes broke the mould in their informality, spontaneity and willingness to be uncomfortably diverted round war zones (as in Sudan). There were real dangers from bandits, pirates, train roofs, even the Chernobyl fallout (the Russian guides wouldn’t accompany him to a blighted maternity hospital). Was he ever afraid, even resentful of what was asked of him? He’s a family man, married 54 years to his teenage sweetheart Helen, with three children then growing up.
“Fear, yes. Sometimes I did question on camera why I was on light planes in vast open spaces feeling I had no control. At the North Pole we had to land on a moving ice floe, and then get off and then fly to Svalbard for the night. I just felt the whole thing was hideously wrong and I should have been safe in, I don’t know, Peterborough or somewhere. We didn’t have enough fuel. But that meant a rather wonderful ending: we had to land on the nearest base at the tip of Greenland in the middle of the night. We went into a hut and one of the soldiers stared, blood drained from his face. They had the DVD of Monty Python and the Holy Grail on the table…”
Now, a 90-minute special for Christmas covers his travels in the Himalayas. There’s a kidnap, much trekking and another memory of his previous career when the Dalai Lama says: “I know your face; your face very famous from BBC.” The other famous moment is starker: “In Nepal the Gurkha officers looking after us were abducted by Maoist guerrillas. Quite frightening at the time, though one looks back and thinks ‘storm in a teacup’. But it was a remote village, and these gentlemen took our director, plus the officer and one other person, into the woods, and we didn’t see them for hours. The officer, Adrian, wasn’t released for three more days and nights: no British officer had ever been taken before by the Maoists.
“The sad bit was that then the village really wanted rid of us, quickly. Normally, everywhere we went, people were welcoming. But the tension was high.”
After all that, this year of compulsory self-coddling must have felt odd: BBC producers must have been terrified at the idea of infecting a 77-year-old national treasure recovering from a life-saving heart operation. “Oh yes!” He laughs a bit. “But I suppose it was right to take care. The interviews and the commentary were done under strict BBC regulations. I wasn’t allowed to touch anything they had touched. The microphone transmitter was sent first and I would put it on myself. My temperature was solemnly written down at the beginning and end of every session. Actually at one point my thermometer went wrong and came up as 34.2. No one seemed to notice, so it was only later that I realised that if it was accurate I’d be dead of hypothermia.”
Watching the old clips alongside shots of the 2020 version of Palin is poignant. He was only 45 for Around the World in 80 Days but, with his friendly, innocent manner and curly, dishevelled hair, looks more like a gap-year kid seeking adventure: nice lad, well-mannered and hopeful, but a bit lost. Is that odd for him, too?
“I don’t usually look at myself, because immediately after any programme I get hyper-critical, why did I get that line wrong, why am I sitting like that? But years later you’re just a figure in beautifully shot landscapes. But yes, I was young, and watching it I just want to be that person. Who is that man without a grey hair on his head, not a wrinkle on his brow? I want to speak to him, know what the secret is. I still feel pretty fit, and I am the same person. But…” A slight sigh. “I suppose for a long time I felt I was 27, until suddenly I was 76, the heart problem came along and I felt older, and vulnerable – though the surgery didn’t worry me. I had implicit faith in the team.”
There’s a parallel he doesn’t notice: all through our conversations about the TV series he has spoken with respectful admiration of the director and cameraman. He’s a team player. “But yes, the heart thing made me think about vulnerability, and how we work. This little device inside you, your heart! You’ve got to look after it. Like your kettle.”
Palin is at pains to acknowledge the privilege he feels at being allowed (and paid) to undertake these adventures.
“I felt fortunate, still do. Nobody knows when we’ll be able to travel the world again in relative ease. I really feel for the adventurous young, who for some time won’t be able to experience it. But I didn’t even leave England until I was 19, or really travel until I was 45. They’ve got years.”
But did he feel guilty about the “Palin effect”, which saw tourists flooding places like Machu Picchu?
“It’s a difficult one. But it mainly applied in fairly remote destinations: I didn’t send enormous cruise ships or 747s. It was more adventurous travellers to places like North Africa where UK tourists are few, and that sort of travelling I thoroughly applaud. Mass tourism is a sort of deception: wanting British three-course meals wherever you are and meeting people from your own country. That’s not opening yourself to the world, more increasing suspicion of it.”
The trips meant long times away from home, “In Pole to Pole I came back for three days, then off again for four months”, and he was homesick. “The first week was always the worst, comparing the bed, the food, the people, with the comforts of home. But then… the newness!”
Ah, wanderlust doesn’t wear off. That began in his Sheffield boyhood, looking at trains: “I still get a thrill when I see a railway line. There’s a selfishness innate in motorists which you can’t have on trains and boats. On trains everywhere you get a complete mix of people, from professionals to people carrying crops or animals. I travel by train whenever I can.” I tell him that when possible I have made several train journeys from London to Brighton, and he cries, “Oh, how is it? Are they still running all right?’ as if I had told him I’d trodden the golden road to Samarkand. I reassure him: it’s OK, trains are running. It’ll be all right.
We talk about the more terrible journeys of today, for refugees. “People dying on refugee boats is one of the most horrible things we have to deal with. All the people on my travels were hospitable, shared anything they had. They wouldn’t be doing this unless they were really desperate, doing for their family what I would do. There’s got to be a better way. They are not threatening our country. I hate branding those people as “them”, foreigners. They’re people, same as we all are.”
Is he a worrier? “I’m an optimist. I love life, and where I’m living, and our friends, family, books, television programmes, box sets, galleries when one can go… so many things we can enjoy that people couldn’t when I was growing up. Life is better in most ways now. I still keep a diary in longhand and I like letters and old telephones. But the way people talk about, and understand, each other is better, kinder than it used to be. Of course there are dreadful things, and sometimes you feel like going down to the basement to hide. But”… a thoughtful pause… “We haven’t got a basement!”
Finally, how about Christmas? “We don’t know… it was our middle son’s 50th birthday, we postponed celebrations. I suppose if it’s dangerous for the nation’s health we’ll have a minimal one. I’ve got four grandchildren…” He brightens up. “So we might have a rolling Christmas, like a relay race!”
Very Palin: everything can be a good game, so get out and play it.
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.
Michael Palin’s Himalaya: Journey of a Lifetime airs on Sunday 20th December on BBC Two. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.