Picture the scene. Michael Palin kicking his heels in a deserted North Korean airport waiting for a delayed flight to arrive. With him are his ever-present team of stern, muscular, suited minders and his young, female, Government appointed English-speaking guide. How to pass the time? What about a clip from Monty Python that one of his film team had brought along.
“They knew nothing about it (Python) and they didn’t know who I was,” says Palin. “They knew I was some great British star but they didn’t really know what that meant.”
Cue the fish-slapping dance sequence featuring Palin and John Cleese. Response: total bewilderment. “Her only comment at the end was ‘was that a live fish’? I said ‘no’ – no fish were harmed in the making of this sequence.”
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Palin was talking on Thursday night at a Bafta screening of his new two-part documentary for Channel 5 in which he travels – albeit permanently monitored – around North Korea. The access took three years to achieve and Palin admits being nervous before entering the country from China in April this year.
“I didn’t get a wink of sleep on the train. It was a very volatile time. That week happened to be a week of handshakes and rapprochement, but it could easily have gone another way and Trump could have said something, [president Kim Jong] Un could have let off a missile and we may well have been stuck there for a long time and that was always in my mind.
“But once we got there the anxieties fell away; we were well looked after and well treated. Even the minders who were cold and cool to start with turned out to be not as robotic as we thought.”
The first episode of the documentary observes life in the capital Pyongyang, the second sees Palin travelling into rural areas.
“What I’d expected was conditioned by the general idea that this was a dark place, a grim place, repression, lack of freedom. I felt that it was going to be an interesting but threatening experience and that just didn’t happen.
“We decided that the way to do it was to be as straight as possible with them and to win their trust. If they caught us being deceitful in any shape or form, or opportunistic, things would have been very, very difficult and we wouldn’t have been able to operate in quite the same way as we did in the next 13 days. We didn’t break the rules – we abided by the rules.”
With the travel itinerary tightly controlled and certain subjects off limits, this is an observational rather than investigative film, as Palin acknowledged.
“We were not going to be able to discuss politics, we were not going to be able to discuss weapons. For me, when you are filming a country it’s not really the big statements or the big policies that you are hearing about that make the difference, it’s the way people move, people talk, people eat. There was no way that our minders could control everything that we saw, nor did they really try to.”
Although there was a momentarily tense encounter on the very first day of filming.
“We were in front of the monuments of the two great leaders and there are various rules meaning that you have to film them in their entirety, and there are various ways you have to behave. I did my first piece to camera and I was quite pleased with it. But [the minders] went over to the director and said ‘you have got to do it again because he had his hand in his pocket and that was disrespectful’.”
Palin, who celebrated his 75th birthday on the trip, describes the capital as “an extraordinary calm, tranquil city – there was a certain amount of serenity to it.” But he admits the rural areas looked desperately poor.
“The fields are all tilled by manual labour, there are very few tractors. There is not a lot of food outside the capital and I can see that that is something they know has to change and I think they want to change it.”
Palin grew fond of his female guide Li So Yang, 28, and even invited her to visit him in London – though recognised that wouldn’t be possible.
“We did talk off camera about what she knew about the West – things you are not allowed to talk about on camera. She was curious about London and I showed her pictures of my grandchildren – and she was fascinated by that. I said please come and visit us – I know she can’t at the moment. But I don’t think she would have gone as far as she did unless she felt there was some change in the air.
“We travelled in on the day the Presidents of North and South Korea had this momentous handshake. When we got to the hotel we couldn’t get a waiter because they were looking at the TV screens replaying this great moment and throughout the time we were there they were replaying constantly every single aspect of that meeting and people were absolutely goggle-eyed. It was something extraordinary for them. People were looking at it not in disapproval, but actually looking at it with, dare I say, some hope.”
There will inevitably be criticisms of the documentary for not attempting to show – or discuss – the human rights abuses that have gone on in North Korea. A report by Amnesty International last year said that 120,000 people continued to be arbitrarily detained in political prison camps.
But Palin, with the help of a wet fish, might just help make a small difference.
“I didn’t feel that doors were closed everywhere we went – I thought in some way we opened some doors and let some light in and that was surprising.”
Michael Palin in North Korea starts on Thursday 20th September at 9pm on Channel 5