Michael Palin

Former Monty Python star Michael Palin discusses his new PBS series, "Full Circle."


Don George
November 19, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

Michael Palin was in Southern California recently, promoting his new book and PBS series, "Full Circle." Palin has starred in half a dozen movies, including "A Fish Called Wanda" and "Fierce Creatures," but he is probably best known for his role in the Monty Python films and TV series, beginning with "Monty Python's Flying Circus," the mind-juicing show that endearingly skewed the best minds of my generation. I have been a Palin fan since the early days of Monty Python, so when the opportunity arose, I hopped on the S.F.-L.A. shuttle and taxied to the Sunset Marquis hotel in West Hollywood. We met in the lobby, then moved to the gracious garden behind the hotel for our interview. We brought two chairs onto the lawn. I moved my chair so Palin wouldn't be looking into the sun. He moved his chair so he'd be closer to the mike. I moved my chair so I could look at his face more directly. He moved his chair so his legs wouldn't hit my legs. Suddenly we looked at each other: "This is a Python skit!" he laughed.

Palin was dressed in bone-colored khakis and an unbuttoned button-down shirt, gray socks he kept pulling up and the kind of comfortable walking shoes you would expect a world-wanderer to wear. He was cheerful and relaxed, reflective at times and impish at others, easy to laugh and so entirely un-obsessed with himself and curious about the world that sometimes it seemed as if he were interviewing me -- qualities that obviously serve him well in his journeys.

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"Full Circle" is the third in Palin's series of travel specials, following "Around the World in 80 Days" and "Pole to Pole," and is currently airing on PBS stations. The accompanying book, which we excerpt in today's Wanderlust, is available in bookstores around the country.

What got you started as a traveler? Was there something in your childhood?

I was a trainspotter when I was young, as they call them in England. I used to stand on the station in my hometown of Sheffield and look at the train and see these people come in from Edinburgh who were going to London! What sophistication! Some of them were sitting there at the second sitting of dinner, and I, who was fairly trapped in my hometown, just said, this is extraordinary -- oh, what a life! To be conveyed across the country from Scotland's capital to England's capital, whilst having your dinner! I was very excited by it all.

Do you remember your first trip?

One of the most important days of my life was when I learned to ride a bicycle. Suddenly, I was free to travel without my parents. It wasn't very far to start with, but after a while I was covering 10, 15, 20 miles. Sheffield was a grimy industrial city, but within an hour you could get out to absolutely unspoiled, rather wild, desolate, Heathcliff-type, moorland country. I remember feeling, "This is terrific, I can do this myself." I must have been 9 or 10 years old and I would go off for two hours! Sometimes I would imagine that these journeys were longer than they were. I would imagine that I was going up to Scotland on a train, you see, and I would stop at these various places by the roadside, and they would represent the stations on the way up to Scotland.

What do you get from traveling?

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I get an excitement, a buzz from being somewhere different. I am going to different places, with different languages, different climates and I don't know what I am going to find there. In a sense, it is that odd feeling of facing up to something that I have never encountered before. I feel as though it is as close to changing your life utterly as you can get while still remaining sane. I suppose that is why I became an actor. I am interested in putting myself in another situation. To me, traveling is part of drama; it is a very dramatic thing, the people you meet, and things that are new. It is refreshing and revitalizing and exciting.

You really seem to get inside the world in a way that a high-profile traveler usually can't. I think there must be something about your humbleness when you meet people, or ...

I just enjoy learning from other people. I have no real qualifications other than a history degree at Oxford. I am not particularly good at anything. I am not particularly practical. I am not particularly good at languages. What I am quite good at is getting people to trust me fairly quickly. I don't say, "You've got to fit in with the way I am." I just try and say, "Look, tell me what's going on here." Another very important ingredient in travel is to be able to be aware of how ridiculous you may seem to people sometimes. You also have got to have a sense of wonder, which I think I probably do have. I am not a great cook, I am not a great artist, but I love art and I love food, so I am the perfect traveler -- on the cultural scrounge.

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Your work in Monty Python certainly opened up my eyes to what comedy could be. It played with so many conventions, in so many ways.

We were a small group, and because there were six of us, who really did everything, apart from directing the television shows, we could kind of fight for what we thought worked, for what we thought was right, and our editorial independence seemed very important. We didn't feel at the time that we were being revolutionary. We were being a bit "silly," which was the word we used all the time. I think we always felt that the best we could hope for was some sort of transitory success, before somebody else found the technique and did the same thing, but better. And one thing that really intrigues me about the way Python has worked is how we did the little bits of animation on our own: Terry Gilliam was literally at home, cutting and pasting and talking into a tape recorder, doing all his own stuff and moving it. And how now, the technology of television has moved forward so rapidly, you can make almost anything happen on the screen.

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Oddly enough, it was our old technique that has become so valued -- it's more warm and accessible than anything you can do now. I think Python struck a very fortunate time, when television was just beginning to be sophisticated but hadn't really got the modern technology. It was a bridge between the old, conventional presentation of comedy shows and the no-holds-barred technological stuff you can do now. The fact that there were limitations caused us to be more inventive than we would have been nowadays.

What in particular do you remember that stands out?

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"Conrad Poos and His Dancing Teeth." And also, the Venus de Milo with the leg turning 'round. Terry Gilliam's ability to do absolutely anything with artwork: how a hand comes out and turns her nipple, and then there is music, and the leg spins around. I liked those. My favorite sketch to perform was the "Cheese Shop" with John Cleese. John comes in and asks me if I've got cheese, and I say "Yes. Finest cheese shop in the district." And I have none of the cheese he asks for. He goes through about 100 cheeses, and I'm just "No, no, no." I could never do that without cracking up. Comedy has got to be funny when you do it. You have to really be on the edge of laughter, otherwise I think you have beaten the thing to death.

The important thing about Python was that we were the writers of the material, we didn't have other people write it, so we didn't have that friction between what we thought we could do and what others wanted us to do. And although there were egos within Python, they were not the conventional ego of "The Big Star." John probably was the biggest star of the group, but John was very democratic. He tended to dominate in the performance, but no one disputed that because he could do a certain role in a way that was funny. But it wasn't a star thing. John never thought himself too big to attend a meeting. Until later. And that is another story ...

Is there a pull to get back together?

Well, there is business, always -- largely because of the fact that Python remains alive and well in the world. It is quite extraordinary that our comedy has jumped generations, so you've got 9- or 10-year-olds watching the stuff we did before their parents were even born. That does mean that we have a "viable product," as one would say in marketing now.

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Tell me about your documentaries and your books. How did they come about?

"Around the World in 80 Days" was a great surprise. It was much more successful than we ever hoped it would be, both in Britain and internationally. So there was a lot of pressure to do another one, so we did "Pole to Pole." Then we said, "That's it." Then, somehow, the idea of a trilogy crept in. And also because the Pacific was one area of the world that we hadn't really touched. Everyone was talking about the Pacific. It was sort of desert islands and palm trees and hula hoops. We looked at the map, and it was this wonderfully interesting and diverse chain of countries, so we said, "OK, let's go for it. Let's make that our last one." That is how "Full Circle" happened.

How was your relationship with the BBC?

They are prepared to take a risk on programs that other people might not be. And there are no commercial interests involved, so I don't have to carry sponsorships on my bags, or do things where I thank Philip Morris for letting me do this.

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When you travel, are you constantly taking notes?

When I am not on camera, I scribble down what I can in a notebook. The book is from my own observations, which I try to keep as fresh as possible. But at the same time, I feel that I've got to inform. This is the trainspotter in me -- I've got to give some information, some detail about the countries. It is not just a wacky guy going around saying: "Hey! What's this? Wow! That's crazy!" I am a bit aware of noting down the time of year, weather, what I have eaten, how far I have gone that day.

Have you ever been in any dangerous situations in your travels?

Yeah, physically I have. When we were filming "Pole to Pole," on the North Pole, during May, the ice was beginning to break up. It was just a series of ice floes, on which we had to land. We were 500 miles from any kind of help and twice the pilot put down, and twice he aborted the landing because he couldn't see clearly what was on the ice floe. I had never felt so strongly that "We shouldn't do this, let's go. We don't have to land here." The third time we put down, it was OK.

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I don't want to dramatize situations, but I suppose there were times during "Full Circle" when I felt that I was a bit out of water, out of my depth. For example, we were in Seoul and there was a demonstration, and suddenly there was riot police, black shields and all that, moving up the side of the street, while people were walking down the middle. Now, I was caught up with the people in the middle who I thought were the sort of people I shouldn't be with; you could just see it in their faces. There was that very thin line between the aggression of the marchers, the determination to put forward their point of view, and the tolerance of the police. It was a tricky moment, but in the end it passed off peacefully.

Once I took a day trip in Tunisia, when we were making Monty Python's "Life of Brian." It was just very tricky because everywhere you went, people thought: "A man on his own. He must have money, or he must be looking for another man." So I was sitting on this huge beach -- where for miles there wasn't anyone -- reading Thomas Hardy and this man walks right up and sort of sits very close to me and says, "Hello. What is the book you are reading?" And I said it is a romantic story about old England. And right then, I knew I shouldn't have said that.

One of the many beautiful descriptions in your book is a memorable image of children in Vietnam holding their hands out in the rain, begging, and their palms are filling with rainwater. When we travel we are constantly encountering beggars and others who are less fortunate than we. How do you deal with that?

I identify more with the people who have less than the people who have more. The people who I am most embarrassed about when I am traveling are not necessarily the poor holding their hands out; it is groups of tourists who just get off the coach, bristling with cameras. They look like people from Mars. They are dripping with money and they get taken to the nearest bazaar and get ripped off. Those are the people I feel most sorry for. But I sometimes feel worse for people who are like waiters in hotels. You think, "Oh, they have a good job, they're being looked after, they're not on the street" -- and yet they are trapped, paid absolute minimum. They are really taught to kow-tow. That is almost worse, that institutional inequality, than just someone on the street begging.

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I always find that these kinds of encounters make me reassess who I am, that this reassessment is at least partly what travel is all about. Do you agree?

Yes. I am an Englishman, so I am very apologetic. We all go around saying sorry all the time. "Sorry we did this to you, sorry we did that to you. Sorry I am here at all." As I go around the world, I am constantly seeing people who lead better lives than I lead, or people who lead lives that are screwed up because of what I represent.

When you were traveling for "Full Circle," were there any great travel surprises that stand out in your mind -- things that were very different from what you thought they would be?

The sharply defined difference between all the Rim countries, without exception. I mean, going from Japan to Korea to China, for example. In my ignorance, I saw that as a bit of a blur -- same language group, same Asiatic people. Well, they're utterly different -- the alphabets, the histories, the animosities. So, I am now much more aware of the differences between those three countries.

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South America, again, from Chile into Bolivia, a complete contrast. Chile is a fairly thin, narrow, erect country, largely influenced by the Spanish, which is also sort of run in a fairly thin, narrow, erect manner. It's very authoritarian but a reasonably comfortable place to move through its beautiful countryside. Bolivia has a largely Indian population, is much poorer, more chaotic, more like a third-world country -- just cross the border and you know instantly. Peru is sort of halfway between the two. Colombia is manically lawless but at the same time very affluent, probably the richest of all those countries that we went through in one sense.

This is why I enjoyed the series so much. It is what you want out of travel: to cross a border and to find that border means something.

How about the flip side of travel -- the people you leave at home? It's one of the dilemmas I wrestle with all the time: Was it hard to leave your three children and your wife? Of course, you had to leave, it was your job, but still ...

Yeah, it's hard. But I didn't have to leave. I could be doing something else, I could be writing comedy. But I think my family actually likes the fact that I am versatile. That's what Dad does. He looks reasonably happy, he doesn't look frustrated, he doesn't kick the cat. So, maybe we'd rather have him like that than doing what he doesn't want to do.

When you look back on your travels and on your career, do you have any regrets?

I sometimes have a sort of regret that I didn't have a more varied acting career. There were parts that I would have liked to have done. My heroes when I was young were the Marlon Brandos and the Paul Newmans. I have ended up playing vicars, and that sort of character. I would like to do something quirky. I love those slightly weird, off-the-wall American independents like the Coen brothers. I thought the performances were absolutely marvelous in "Fargo." So for me, heaven would be playing a heavy in a Coen brothers movie. But I don't really want to do "Henry VI" -- or "Evita," thank you very much! Not that I'll ever be asked!


Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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