Michael Palin on Brazil, sex, slaves and convincing the BBC to make his shows
The former Monty Python star reveals all about his latest travel adventure in South America
Michael Palin is standing in the luxurious white suite of a Love Hotel in Rio. There is a hot tub, an indoor swimming pool and a bed the size of a football pitch. Hugh Hefner would love it, but Palin is examining the room-service menu with horror. “No tea and biscuits here,” he says, cocking an eyebrow as the camera zooms over his shoulder to reveal a selection of sex toys. There’s something rather shocking about seeing Michael Palin looking at pictures of such objects.
There are lots of references to sex in Palin’s latest BBC travel series because it’s a journey across Brazil and sex is something they’re very keen to talk about. So, as he travels the country from north to south, he’s offered a herbal version of Viagra made from Amazonian plants (which he refuses), attends the Gay Pride Parade in Rio de Janeiro with a group of transvestites and interviews one of Bahia’s most famous female chefs, a buxom lady of some charm who leans across the table as she tucks into her fish stew and proclaims that good food is like an orgasm .
I meet the former Python in altogether more sedate circumstances at a restaurant near BBC Broadcasting House in London, where the food is good but not orgasmic although he does persuade me to have a glass of wine when I had sworn not to drink at lunchtime. Having just watched the first three episodes of Brazil, I’m struck that what you see is what you get. Palin in real life is exactly like Palin on TV: warm, modest and equable. He really is Mr Nice Guy. No wonder he’s the only Monty Python member who has remained constantly on good terms with all the others.
While we’re eating, a woman comes over and introduces herself as the director of a charity that helps HIV-positive children in Africa. She tells him she is a huge fan, passes him a card and asks if he will lend his support. He takes it, smiling warmly but promising nothing. I imagine this happens to him all the time.
Brazil is the first series Palin has made about just one country. All his other travel series have been epic journeys from pole to pole, across the Himalayas and the Sahara and then through eastern Europe. So why does Brazil merit so much attention?
“It was somewhere I had never been. It’s a very large country that geographically I’d always missed on these other arbitrary journeys that I’d made. And it’s going to be hosting the next football World Cup and the Olympics, so I wanted to get in there before everyone else."
Brazil’s economic boom also makes it interesting. While Palin’s team were travelling around the country, Brazil overtook the UK as the world’s sixth-largest economy (ranked by nominal GDP). It’s the B in the rapidly growing BRIC nations, but the one that everyone seems to overlook in favour of an earlier fascination with China, India and Russia. Yet Brazil’s boom is integral to China’s. Its huge agricultural and mineral resources are feeding Chinese growth. “They continually tell you about the new middle class,” says Palin, “how 40 million people have been taken out of poverty in the past ten years.”
Brazil reminds him of Australia because everyone lives on the coast while the vast interior remains relatively empty apart, of course, from its indigenous people. The new series begins in the north east of the country, because that’s where modern Brazil was born, in the 15th century, under Portuguese colonial rule. What surprised Palin most was how African it felt, how the carnivals owe as much to African rituals and religious beliefs as they do to Catholicism.
It’s a little-known fact that Brazil had the largest slave population in the world, much bigger than the United States’. West African slaves were brought over to work on the vast sugar plantations that fuelled the country’s first economic boom, but they so outnumbered the few Portuguese colonists that they were able to preserve their African culture in a way that North American slaves could not. To this day, most of the population of Brazil’s north-eastern states, such as Bahia, is black and the West African influence can still be seen in the food, music and dance, and in animist religions such as Macumba and Candomblé.
From the northern coast Palin’s team travel inland by road, river and finally light aircraft, deep into the Amazon jungle. There they stay with the Yanomami tribe, who until the 1980s had had no contact with the outside world. Palin says it’s the first time he has met people whose lives have not changed for thousands of years.
He describes how the Yanomami are being threatened by the incursion of miners into the Amazon, who have brought with them diseases such as measles to which the tribespeople have no immunity. I ask him whether he feels guilty about taking a camera crew there.
“There’s no real answer to that,” he says. “It’s very difficult to get to, there are no tours and you have to have special permission to travel. But we are not the first to go. As soon as contact begins, change comes, and hopefully this programme will highlight the Yanomami’s plight.”
The series also reveals Britain’s role in Brazilian history. On the positive side, we gave them football. On the downside, it was a British explorer by the name of Henry Wickham who stole thousands of rubber tree seeds from a plantation near Santarem and took them to Kew Gardens, where they were grown into seedlings and exported to British colonies in Ceylon and Malaysia thereby undermining and ultimately destroying the Brazilian rubber boom of the late 19th century. Palin goes to see the relics of that boom in the Amazonian city of Manaus, where the rubber barons built a magnificent baroque opera house in the belief that they would create a version of Paris in the jungle.
Further downriver, Palin finds another ghostly reminder of that era: the ruins of a purpose-built industrial town called Fordlandia. It was built in the 1920s in the middle of the jungle on the orders of Henry Ford, who wanted to secure cheap rubber production for his car factories. The experiment was an epic failure when disease killed both the workers and the rubber trees.
The Amazon trip includes a 14-hour journey on an overcrowded ferry. The air is hot and humid. Sweat can be seen dripping off the passengers. As he steps onto the boat, Palin turns to the camera and asks, “Can I survive this?” It’s the sort of travelling that’s fun when you’re backpacking in your teens and 20s, but at 69 must be getting tough.
He bats away any such suggestion. “A bit of discomfort makes for the best bits of the film because it means you’re getting places most people wouldn’t get to." This is his eighth big travel-based series since he made Around the World in 80 Days almost 24 years ago. He always travels with the same team. “We’re all getting on now. Nigel the cameraman is 65. I call it Saga filming.”
The arrival of grandchildren makes him less inclined to travel. “My grandsons are six and three and I love watching them growing. It reminds me of being with the Python team – I can be silly and irreverent.”
There is something quite old-fashioned – in a comforting way – about this Palin series. There’s no element of the freak show, neither are there any snide remarks about strange foreign customs that are so common in reality TV shows these days. His model, he says, is David Attenborough, who gives the audience information without getting in the way. He says the greatest compliment he ever had was from an Ethiopian who thanked him for showing his country in a positive light when most TV crews came only when there was a famine.
But I wonder aloud why the BBC keeps commissioning Palin’s shows, given that one of the TV controllers is reported to have said the corporation didn’t want any more travel series featuring white, middle-aged celebrities. Palin’s response is that all his seven series hitherto have had good audiences and the accompanying books sell well, too.
He admits, when pushed, to having to justify his programmes to BBC executives more than he used to. “They want to know all the details in advance about what they’re going to see,” he says. That must be problematic, I reply. He wriggles uncomfortably in his seat and glances guiltily at our minder from BBC Publicity. Michael Palin hates any hint of conflict and is either too nice or too wise to bite the hand that feeds him. He admits that the budgets are smaller and that does show at times.
Has travel changed much in the 25 years since he started making these programmes? “Communications have changed and that’s taken a lot of the adventure out of it,” he says. “We used to go for up to a week without any contact with London. Now you can talk any time you want [via a satellite phone].
“I phoned my wife from the top of the Tibetan plateau to tell her how breathtakingly beautiful it was. Unfortunately the plumber was round, so she wasn’t that interested!”
As for flying, the man who pioneered global travel doesn’t think that there should be a third runway at Heathrow, even though he has spent many an hour circling London when the airport was overcrowded. “I think we should restrict air travel in the UK instead. There is no need to fly to Manchester or Glasgow. We can take the train.”
He says Brazil will have to sort out its infrastructure before the 2014 World Cup and the next Olympics. The traffic jams in Sao Paulo are notorious and the Metro in Rio currently has only 33 stations compared with 270 on the London Underground. And then there are the notorious slums, or favelas, that cling to the hillsides above Rio’s beaches.
“The favelas have traditionally been controlled by the drugs gangs, so it’s like St Tropez surrounded by Mogadishu,” says Palin. “But they’re driving out the dealers and putting in electricity, sanitations and community centres. I’m sure they’ll succeed because there is huge public enthusiasm for these sporting events. The Brazilians are great at celebrations. They have an Olympic Opening Ceremony every other day.”