Michael Palin on David Attenborough, travelling the world and his Python pals

‘It’s amazing we’ve still got all these fabulous 90-year-olds”

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Michael Palin and Prince Philip walk into a room. It sounds like the start of a joke – two right royal men of mischief together – one a Prince of Comedy, the other the Duke of Edinburgh. Except this meeting really did take place, and not long ago. “I told him I was off to Korea,” explains Palin in his book-lined study at home in north-west London.

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He replied, “Oh, God. Don’t start a bloody war.”

“I’ve seen him in action and it’s amazing we’ve still got all these fabulous 90-year-olds. Prince Philip is 95 and just look at David Attenborough, he’s 91!”

Sir David will star as himself in Palin’s new Radio 4 play, The Weekend, reading some very rude lines about the mating habits of insects. “All of David’s TV programmes are about sex and violence,” Palin twinkles. “OK, the action all takes place in the natural world, but that’s just how he gets away with it.”

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As we meet, the 74-year-old Python turned TV traveller is preparing for his latest trip to Australia. “I love everything about flying. I just went to the Falkland Islands with the RAF.” The 16 hours by plane involved a stop at Ascension Island, and when I tell him many of us would hate such a flight, his face lights up at the prospect. “It’s fabulous! I still have that glee. Just the excitement of transporting myself from one place to the other, it still gets me.”

So it’s odd to think that this man – who, like Attenborough, loves to travel the planet – has written a very British play about one weekend near one very English seaside town. It was in just such a place (Southwold in Suffolk) where Palin met his wife-to-be, Helen.

“Southwold has a feeling of strong identity. It’s a sturdy place, there’s only one road into it, it’s a state of mind. It’s a cross-section of life.”

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The play centres on a disastrous family reunion. The father, Stephen Febble (played by Palin), loves a drink and is very grumpy with the world. His wife Virginia (Penelope Wilton) makes everything work for and around him. As the play begins, Dad shouts at John Humphrys on Radio 4 for interrupting his guests on the Today programme. “Just let them finish!” he barks.

“You can find this grumpiness in many older men who feel life’s not really all it was meant to be,” he explains. “My own dad had this on top of his stammer and I think life just never lived up to his best hopes.

“He used to check the upcoming programmes in Radio Times armed with a blue crayon for the people he wanted to listen to, and then a red one for the people he hated. He once sellotaped a piece of paper over the face on the front cover of a presenter he despised.

“He was a difficult man.”

But here the comparisons end between fact and fiction, as Palin has famously written many other works including his own diaries, which talk more explicitly about his dad.

But I can’t help thinking that there is another real-life character looming large in Palin’s life who does seem to get very grumpy indeed, especially with the BBC. I ask him about this man, another Python and his lifelong friend, John Cleese.

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“When I first met John we were walking down the road and he just gently pushed Terry Jones over a wall, quite lightly and gently, into someone’s garden in Shepherd’s Bush. We all laughed… it was so silly. I love to see John at his silliest; he shouldn’t be taken too seriously.”

“One of the great joys of the Python reunion was John. Just seeing him in dreadful drag, enormous bosoms, awful skirts, legs apart talking about penguins on the TV. He was collapsing with laughter. It was joyous.”

Cleese hit the headlines after he agreed to work with the BBC (in a current Radio 4 show and upcoming BBC1 sitcom) despite announcing in 2015 there was “no way” he’d ever do so again.

“John has these very strong opinions, which I know are only going to last 15 minutes.”

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So would he be happy if his old friend had now made his peace with the BBC? “Oh, yes. I know John spends a lot of time abroad, but he is quintessentially an English comedian. He’s brilliant at the little fine detail of English life, so where should he be but on the BBC?”

When Palin’s play hits Radio 4, it will be the latest chapter in a lifetime striding across the screen or popping up in print. “Do you ever fail at anything, or do the critics ever attack you,” I ask the man said to be the nicest in Britain.

“Yes.” He instantly names the late TV critic AA Gill. “I was on his hit list. He had it in for me, as he did for Mary Beard and many others. I think he wrote, ‘What is Michael Palin for?’ It upset me, but because it was all typed in this fabulous prose, you start off thinking this is ridiculous but then you wonder, ‘Well perhaps he’s right! What is the answer to that?!’”

The Weekend was first performed on the stage in 1994 and this new version has been abridged for the radio. But by chance, a new theatre production will open in Norfolk 11 days after it airs on Radio 4. “I don’t know which is more important to me, Radio 4 or Sheringham!” he beams. “We had ten years of family holidays there, and I’m a supporter of the Little Theatre. I’m delighted it’s still going.”

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No matter how well-travelled Palin may be, he just loves his home country. He loves its churches, its beaches and even its manners and reserve, which the Pythons used to mock on their famous television series.

Perhaps he just loves the British Middle Class? “Oh yes, I invite them all for tea,” he flashes back with a grin. Palin and his friends broke many of the established rules in the 1960s and 70s, so this joke is a reminder that he may be a globe-trotting grandfather, but you can’t take the Python out of the man.

Before I go, I ask about one more friend from those days, Terry Jones, who has gone public with the news he has dementia. Palin says this means we can talk about him, even though the obvious instinct is to protect his privacy.

“He’s my friend. I’m as confused as anybody else about his dementia. When we meet we have a good old hug. We sit and I just natter away and that seems to work. Terry can’t talk much and he tunes in and out. Lots and lots of friends and family spend a lot of time with him.

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“Maybe there will come a time when he doesn’t recognise people and that would be very hard to take. I just feel I don’t want to lose him.”

I check for directions as I leave, having first got lost finding his house for our meeting. “Take the left, then the right, then straight up to the lights for the bus,” he gestures.

And so – just like he does for his millions of TV viewers, and of course his lifelong friends – he helps me on my way.

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Drama: The Weekend is on Saturday at 3pm on Radio 4