Michael Palin: I wanted to bring the curtain down on Monty Python shows – not everyone agreed
The Monty Python and travel man declares his love for fellow Python Terry Jones – and his hero, writer and historian Jan Morris
"Hang on, not yet. No!” Michael Palin stops me just before I step in front of an oncoming moped. “Wait,” commands television’s most intrepid traveller. “Yes, now, quick. Go!”
We’re trying to cross one of London’s busiest intersections, a confusion of motorbikes, buses and cyclists.
I’ve never quite got used to the capital’s hurtling madness but Palin, 73 years old and as nimble as ever, is in his element, bringing 25 years’ experience of navigating some of the worst traffic in the world, in “teeming cities like Istanbul, Cairo and Kolkata”, to the chaos of Cambridge Circus.
He’s only been really scared on the road once, and that was in an empty city. “I was in Houston at night and someone followed me down a deserted street,” he says, as we step onto the pavement safely.
“I was convinced I was going to be mugged, so eventually I went into a bar and gave my wallet to the barmaid and said, ‘Can you look after this?’”
What? A man who has hacked through jungles, traversed deserts and scaled mountain ranges. A man, moreover, who has actually pooed in a barrel on the South China Sea. “I know,” he says, shamefaced. “And in the end, I don’t think my pursuer even put his head around the bar door.”
We’re meeting to discuss another traveller – the author, journalist and historian Jan Morris, who was born James Morris, but made the transition from man to woman in 1972.
“That was very courageous,” says Palin when we reach the sanctuary of his Soho club. “Morris ended up having to go to Casablanca for surgery and she wrote very eloquently about her last moments as a man in this little room when the light goes out.”
But there is another piece of life-changing news we must address – Terry Jones, Palin’s fellow Python and friend since they were at Oxford, has been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a form of dementia that will rob Jones of the power of speech.
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“I’ve known that Terry’s memory was fading for a couple of years,” says Palin. “This is progressive and the loss of the ability to speak is one of the things it brings. I grew up with a father who stammered and that was difficult enough for him. But for words just not to even be there, not to utter anything, it’s a terribly sad thing to befall anyone.
“I saw John [Cleese] yesterday and there’s nothing much we can do but stand there and say, ‘Oh God, what has happened to our friend?’ But the Pythons will rally round.”
Somewhat subdued, our conversation returns to Morris, who at 90, conversely, remains a sublime communicator. “I read her book Venice in 1966 and was quite bewitched by it,” Palin says. “It caught my sort of imagination, my love of foreign places; it became the pinnacle of writing about places and people.”
Morris, who lives in Wales, is also responsible for writing Pax Britannica, a groundbreaking history of the British Empire based on personal accounts and diaries as well as some truly epochmaking journalism.
“As James Morris, she was the only reporter on Hillary and Tenzing’s Everest expedition in 1953, reporting the successful attempt on the summit on the morning of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. During the Suez crisis of 1956, she broke the story to the world that the French and British were going to bomb Egypt. She is a very brave person.”
I ask Palin what the bravest thing he’s ever done is. “That’s a very difficult question.” But it’s not that difficult actually. “Going on stage at The O2 in front of 15,000 people at the age of 71,” he says, referring to the ten Monty Python Live (Mostly) shows in 2014.
“Having to be as good as we were 40 years ago or people would say, ‘Oh, it’s a load of old farts just staggering on stage.’”
He is that rare thing – a relentlessly cheery Yorkshireman. The Sheffield-born Palin says, “Some Yorkshiremen go on a bit too much about God’s own country, but I don’t have any chips on my shoulder.”
Despite this handicap Palin was still voted Yorkshireman of the Year in 2000. “Apparently Geoff Boycott was very miffed,” he says, his voice just the right side of delighted.
Palin was always the diplomat in Monty Python, the persuader in a gang of six egos that, at the height of its fame in the golden 1970s between Monty Python and The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, threatened to dominate the world.
“One had to be a diplomat,” he says. “Some people wanted to split off and do other things. Other people got quite disillusioned, enthusiasm waned, then peaked. There was a lot of diplomatic activity to keep Monty Python together.
“In about 1972, at the start of Python, John wanted to go off and do a television series of his own, which turned out to be Fawlty Towers. That was quite a difficult time. I’ve done more conciliating in the Pythons than the others have done.”
The Pythons, and Terry Jones in particular, spent a lot of time dressing up as women. “Yes, I know! Yes, yes,” Palin says. “I don’t know if it gave us more understanding of Jan’s transition or not. The Python women were cartoonish, like you might find in the Beano or Dandy.
“We also we had people like Carol Cleveland, she does a real woman very well! Almost as well as Terry Jones.”
Are we all a bit more gender fluid than we thought? “I think we’re finding out now that you can be whatever you want. We’re realising that gender identity is very complicated. It isn’t absolutely what we were brought up to know.”
Palin has the metropolitan view of the world that one expects of a Hampstead liberal who sent his children to state schools but went to a top public school – Shrewsbury – himself.
“One of Britain’s premier schools,” he says. “Founded in 1552 and all that sort of thing. I would have liked to grow up with more girls around, that would have probably helped, but my teacher said, ‘Think for yourself, don’t let anybody put you into a box.’ It was freethinking and independent.”
He wishes the rest of us were a little more freethinking and independent. “Too many people walk around with their heads down in their mobile phones,” he says.
“I like to look at people, have eye contact as I walk along the street. I’m an optimist. I presume they are not going to punch me.”
The same cheerful outlook characterised his approach to his BBC travel films, which, he points out, “got a vast audience, eight to ten million viewers”.
He says there are two way of making travel shows. “The Karl Pilkington way about how awful it is, or my fairly celebratory way.
“I mean, I’m a fool – I go somewhere and the food may be rather strange and we may have to do some odd dance but I never complain, and I get an enormous enjoyment out of doing stuff. That’s probably the difference and why people like what I do.”
He says most of the people who watch travel programmes have never travelled. “They’ve said, ‘We don’t want to be in the back of a banging old bus or eating camel kidneys. Look at him, he’s about to throw up. Well, that just proves it.’ I’m aware of that.”
Some of his best television moments have been in the great outdoors, but what he really likes are streets.
“It’s all very well going through a bleak mountain pass with the wind going up your backside at 70 miles an hour and you’ve still got 1,000 feet to go before there’s a yurt.
“But to me, its far more interesting to walk down Kentish Town Road where there’s always strange things going on and people of all of sort of colours and creeds.”
He frowns when I mention the post-Brexit surge of attacks on Eastern Europeans. “I don’t think the British as a whole are racist at all,” Palin says.
“But there are some who are pretty vicious, and I’m ashamed of the racial attacks and people being shouted out in the street or told to go home, ‘Now it’s our country.’ “But these are shameful people and it makes me think, with Brexit, where is the better land that we’ve got? What is this better world? Is it really any better, or is it just a world where people can be abusive?”
Racism in the ascendant, Terry Jones’s illness, the country turning its back on the EU… the tide seems to be against Palin, is it time for him to slip away? “I’d quite like just to get old.” Palin says, mock wistfully.
He doesn’t mean it; he wants to keep on working. “I’d like to die in harness. Halfway through a meal on camera. Like Tommy Cooper did on stage.” No more Python shows? “I thought we should bring the curtain down after the ten shows we did. I wouldn’t say everybody in the Pythons sympathised exactly with my view, but I think everybody understood it. There were no recriminations.”
So everyone is still friends? “Oh yes, we sit with our pipes and slippers saying, ‘Oh, I used to go on stage in a dress.’ It was great and remarkable. We are not a very sentimental bunch but I think that’s the bond that we all feel,
“‘My God, we’re the only ones that have ever been Pythons.’ No one else can ever experience it.”
Like the men who walked on the moon, almost? “I suppose so, yes, like astronauts. Though we never slept with each other’s wives. We’re very dull. Very, very dull."
Artsnight: Michael Paline Meets Jan Morris is on 9pm, BBC2