As a small boy, Michael Palin conjured monsters from the creaks and shadows in his family home. “It was a tall, dark house in Sheffield – my father was one of those people who only had one light on,” he recalls. “I always remember running a bath and it made such a noise that I was convinced there was something coming for me.
“Fear of the dark is a primal response and part of the reason we react so strongly to ghost stories. A good ghost story is a very powerful thing – when it works you can feel physically changed by it.”
So when the hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he read the script for BBC1’s supernatural thriller Remember Me (episode two on BBC1 tonight), Palin knew he was on to a winner. “It’s not unlike good comedy,” he says. “You’re getting that direct reaction – a shudder, like a laugh, is a visceral thing.”
It’s more than 20 years since Palin, 71, took a leading role in “serious” drama (he played a politically conflicted headmaster in Alan Bleasdale’s GBH in 1991), and his appearance in Remember Me brings the viewer up short. We are used to Palin, the best-preserved Python, the travelogue host, bounding about foreign parts with the enthusiasm of a gap-year student. When the opening scenes of Remember Me focused on an agitated octogenarian, the initial reaction was, “That’s not Michael Palin, that’s an old man!”
The Monty Python team onstage at the O2 arena earlier this year
“I thought it was going to sound strange when my character, Tom, announces, ‘I’m 80-odd’, but I think I get away with it. Very few people have said, ‘Oh come on, you can’t expect people to believe you’re that age.’”
There’s no shade of ruefulness here. Palin approaches the ageing process as another fantastically interesting phenomenon. “Acting old has to be more than a make-up job. It’s about the way you hold your shoulders, it’s about other people’s reaction to you. And the interesting thing about Tom is that you’re actually playing against his age, because he, like so many of us, doesn’t see himself at all as an old man. In fact, he doesn’t actually like old people. So there was a lot to get my teeth into.”
Tom’s admission to a care home on the Yorkshire Moors triggers a chain of chilling events. Apparitions emerge, linked to his past and, on his first day at the home, he’s the only witness to the mysterious death of a social worker.
“I’m not interested in the supernatural in the sense that I go to mediums and that sort of stuff,” says Palin. “Nor have I ever seen a ghost or had any kind of psychic experience. But I’m interested just because so many other people have had these kind of experiences. I think that in a good supernatural story, the most shocking moments are not always when the ghost goes, ‘Woo!’ Something just happens to make you think, ‘God, this is terrible’.”
Michael Palin in Remember Me
“You’ve got to draw the viewer into the story, balancing ‘normal’ life with paranormal happenings to keep that element of believability, and our writer, Gwyneth Hughes [Five Days, The Girl and Talking to the Dead], does this extremely well. I think it’s a brilliantly haunting drama.”
The three-part serial was filmed around Scarborough and Huddersfield, which was another powerful draw for Palin. “Yorkshire is a great place to come from, but it’s also a great place to go back to. We were shooting not that far from where I was born and brought up, so yes, there’s an emotional pull. Any excuse, I try to get back to Sheffield. I find London, where I’ve lived for 50 years or so, exciting, vibrant, stimulating – all those words– but it’s almost as if London is so vast that you can’t really get a sense of the city.
“When you’re in Sheffield you can see the hills around you and there’s a real sense of what Sheffield was – a big industrial city. There’s a definite identity still, which goes right through all the people I know from Sheffield, rich or poor. They’re proud of Sheffield, in a slightly stroppy sort of way. They know that Leeds is more successful and that Manchester has the TV and radio industry, but Sheffield really doesn’t care what the world thinks about it – and it’s a big enough and successful enough city to be able to have that kind of attitude and get away with it.
“So when I go to Sheffield, I look around at the stone walls and the hills and I know where I am. Whereas in London, I feel kind of rootless.”
Scarborough, on the other hand, was “an absolute revelation,” says Palin. “I’m embarrassed to say it, as a Yorkshireman, but I had only ever spent about one afternoon in this amazingly beautiful place. I keep thinking to myself that I ought to explore a bit more closer to home, because when I do go round the UK, it’s really beautiful. And not to know it better is really rather shameful.”
Michael Palin in Brazil
Would he consider a travelogue closer to home? “Well, the first thing I ever did, the first documentary that wasn’t a Python send-up of documentaries, was a railway journey [Confessions of a Train Spotter in 1980] up to Scotland for the BBC. That’s what kicked the whole travel thing off. Since then, a lot of people have said, ‘Oh, do it. Go right round the country,’ but it’s a little bit difficult because I’m quite well known now.”
“If you’re going to stop and have chats with people about all the other things you’ve done, it would be a very different kind of programme. Whereas if you go to Pakistan or Sudan or somewhere, nobody knows who you are, which is what I prefer. I’d rather be the observer than the observed.”
Filming drama is not unalloyed joy. “Part of the reason I enjoyed making the travel programmes is that you’re engaged every single day. You’re constantly busy. Whereas with film you can spend a lot of time in a caravan, waiting to go on. There was a bit of that with Remember Me, but on the whole all the elements seemed to work so well that it has really made me enthusiastic again about film acting.”
The gold standard of acting jobs, however, remains his part in the 1998 Hollywood romcom You’ve Got Mail. “That was just the greatest week of filming ever – hanging out on the West Side of New York, playing scenes with Meg Ryan. Fantastic! Then they rang up and said, ‘I’m afraid your performance was so brilliant that we’ve had to cut it.’” Palin laughs delightedly at the memory. Clearly a love of the absurd trumps amour-propre.
“One of the great things about getting older, is that you just don’t feel as competitive any more. In my 20s and 30s, I was really competitive, all the time. Now I think the work I’ve done, I’ve done. Judge it one way or the other. Now it’s time to relax.”
Playing Tom, vulnerable and solitary among well-meaning strangers, invites careful reflection on the care of the elderly. “My mother never went into a home. My mother-in-law, who is over 100, has not gone into a home. My father was in a home for a bit, and however enlightened the people and friendly the care, I just was aware that he had lost something.”
“And I know that if I was taken away from my home to go and live somewhere else, even if I needed the treatment, a whole part of my life would have gone; my connection with the past and all the objects that I’ve collected. Keeping people in their own home environment for as long as possible is really important.”
For a 40-year-old actor, ageing up to 80 is a matter of professional curiosity. When you’re 71, that curiosity is arguably more acute.
“I suppose,” says Palin. “I looked at Tom and thought, ‘I’m not going to be like that’. Undoubtedly the years go by, I’m aware that I read the medical pages more carefully, follow the great statins debate and that kind of thing – but to be honest, it seems to me my life is much more enjoyable, certainly better organised, now than it was when I was young. I think I have benefited, as I approach my 70s, from the jolts and jars of earlier ages.”
It sounds as though Palin has entered the best phase of his life. “So far… Definitely the best, so far.”
Remember Me is on BBC1 tonight (30th November) at 9.00pm