Interview: Monty Python’s Michael Palin

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Michael Palin 2First published in HK Magazine on November 07, 2013.

Comedy fans may have immortalized Michael Palin for his work as an actor and screenwriter, but his post-”Monty Python” career as a writer and travel documentarian has taken him around the globe—to both poles, the Sahara Desert, the Himalayas, and Brazil. It’s been 25 years since the BBC first asked Palin to hop on a boat as host of “Around the World in 80 Days,” and he’s had the Hong Kong photographer Basil Pao as his travel companion ever since. Palin was in town last week to unveil “Around the World in 8,000 Days”—a stunning exhibition at the Maritime Museum that displays Pao’s finest snaps from a quarter-century on the road. We sat down with Palin to chat about why he’s still traveling, and why the Palin-Pao connection is so strong.

Sean Hebert: Few people establish such a successful second career as you did with your travel documentaries. How did you go from comedy legend to globetrotter?

Michael Palin: The documentaries happened kind of serendipitously. The films I made in the early 80s—“A Fish Called Wanda” with John Cleese, and “Brazil” and all that—all required publicity. It was getting fairly predictable, with Python being successful and the films being successful: you see the same faces and the same places and the same theaters and the same studios, so you’re not really seeing the world. Someone just rang up from the BBC by chance and said, “We’ve got this series called ‘Around the World in 80 Days’—would you come and be the presenter? We’ll follow you around the world.” Going around the world and someone else pays? It sounded great.


(Left) An afternoon jog over the Patriot Hills, Antarctica. This was one of the final stops on
Palin and Pao’s six-month trek from one pole to another, which took them through Iceland,
Scandinavia, the Middle East, East and South Africa, and Patagonia. (Pole to Pole, 1991)

(Right) Palin and his television crew traverse the caiman-infested waters of the Rio Negra
in Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands. The photo was snapped in late 2011 on the pair’s latest journey;
the four-part BBC series “Brazil with Michael Palin” aired last fall in the UK. (Brazil, 2012)

SH: How did your relationship with Basil Pao start?

MP: In 1978, Basil was a designer in Los Angeles, and one of the Python team—Eric Idle—asked if he would design the Monty Python [“Life of Brian”] book. I was a contributor to the book, corresponded with Basil, and met him that year when he came to London. Ten years later when we were doing “Around the World in 80 Days,” we came to Hong Kong, and the director said, “is there anyone in Hong Kong you know who could come in and create a story around all of this?” Basil was living in Cheung Chau, and his daughter was born the day we left London on that trip—so by the time we got to Hong Kong she was exactly 40 days old. Now she’s 25 years old, and I’m still with Basil.

SH: How has that relationship evolved? Have the miles turned you into close friends?

MP: Yeah. We always got on pretty well, and because he turned out to be such a great travel companion, I just kept asking him back. For a start, both of us are curious about the world. We both like getting away from home and seeing what’s happening off the beaten track. We like drinking, like eating, and we’re generally celebrators of life—or used to be, in my younger days. I get a real pleasure out of travelling with Baz, and I really admire the stuff he does. He makes me laugh, and vice versa. We end up in some wonderful place, like overlooking the huge meteoric Ngorongoro Crater in Africa, and we just nudge each other and go, “We are lucky, chavvy bastards.” We need that. We both celebrate what we do, and we never take it too seriously. It’s been a very strong friendship.


(Left) In 1998, Palin and Pao travelled to sites that had been favorites of Ernest Hemingway,
including Spain, Chicago, Paris, Italy, Cuba, Idaho and the land around Mount Kilimanjaro,
where the author used to hunt on safari. In this shot, a man fishes in the waters off
Cojimar—a small village east of Havana and the spiritual home of
“Old Man and The Sea.” (Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure, 1998)

(Right) A blind Peruvian musician strums beside a flawless wall of Inca stones in Cusco’s
Plaza de Armas. Machu Picchu was just one of many stops on Palin and Pao’s
gargantuan, year-long journey around the Pacific Circle, which began on the Diomede
Islands between Russia and Alaska and took them through East and Southeast
Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the western coasts of the Americas. (Full Circle, 1996)

SH: Why does travel keep you coming back?

MP: Seeing the world the way we did, I realized that it wasn’t just a whim. Encountering people from different places, religions and cultures, and experiencing their cuisines and landscapes was very energizing. And much better than staying at home and doing film acting, where you just sit around the studio and wait for them to get the lights right. When we went on these journeys, we were just a small crew—seven of us, all together. You get up in the morning and you finish late at night—you have to get the max amount of time out of each day, because usually you only have one chance to film in one particular area. It was an intense feeling, and in the evening you’d really get a sense of achieving something—so then we’d celebrate and drink too much. And with a slight hangover, we’d start again the next morning. I’ve learned a bit about that, now. I manage myself better.

SH: Where’s the weirdest place on Earth that someone has ever looked at you and gone: “Monty Python! Parrot Sketch!”

MP: Where Russia and Alaska nearly meet, there are two islands called the Diomede Islands. The International Date Line goes right between the two of them, so one has finished the day that’s just beginning on the other. That’s where we started our Pacific Circle journey. Little Diomede is sparsely populated—it’s just a rock, basically—and there are about 60 Inuit living there. They were happy for us to film, so we sort of wandered around and took pictures at the small school there. Just as I was leaving there was a group of elders coming down the hill behind me, and there was a lot of bowing as they pointed out this boat that they’d provided to get us back to Alaska. We thanked them, and I thought it was going to get into a very complicated farewell ceremony, with nose-rubbing or something. So I kept bowing, and they kept bowing, and eventually one points at me and says, “Aren’t you the guy from ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’?” The Inuit of the Diomede Islands had somehow seen our movie.


(Left) A mother holds her child in the Touareg Village of Tabalot, in Niger’s
Tenere Desert. Palin and Pao’s 2002 journey across Africa’s Sahara
Desert—an area roughly the size of the United States—covered
16,000km over three-months, and included 10 countries. (Sahara, 2002)

(Right) Palin at the 45-meter high Blue Nile Falls in Ethiopia, about halfway through his journey
from pole to pole. The falls are one of Ethiopia’s best known tourist attractions, and locals call
them “Tis Isat”—which literally means “smoking water.” (Pole to Pole, 1991)

SH: The Beatles’ final album had a song called “Carry That Weight,” about the realization that they would always live under weight of the band’s legacy. As a Python member who has gone on to a long and successful second career, do you identify with this sentiment?

MP: No, it doesn’t worry me. It’s all part of my life. Everything has led to something else, and I think you’ve got to have that view. If you start saying that there’s certain things in your life that you don’t want to talk about anymore, then fair enough—if that’s how you feel. But I’ve always been an entertainer. I’m not a social scientist, or a geographer, or a novelist or a sociologist. I’m here to entertain—that’s what Python was all about, and that’s what the journeys and the books I’ve written are for, too. All the stuff I’ve done—be it Python, or films with Terry Gilliam, or working with Terry Jones on “Ripping Yarns”—they’re all things I’m glad I’ve done, and are all part of what I am. The only “weight,” in any shape or form, is celebrity. That becomes a bit of a bore, because I like the freedom to go where I want to go, and I’d prefer to observe other people than to be the one who is observed.

SH: Where to next? What’s left to check off the bucket list?

MP: I don’t really have a bucket list. I am worried by how tough travelling is in West Africa, but I’d love to go there. There’s also the islands in the South Pacific [between New Zealand and Hawaii] that I’d love to go see. The south of Russia and western China, too—we nearly made a series about the Silk Road, but I think two or three other people did it at the same time. I’d love to go to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq—I have never been where civilization began. I certainly don’t see myself stopping travelling, because it’s a bug. It’s definitely an addiction. I’ve passed the big seven-oh, so most people say I should travel now in a wheelchair. But I’ll keep going as long as my legs keep going.

Reflections on Journeys Past

I asked Palin if there was one particular photo that brought back especially strong emotions all these years later, and he chose this one: a silhouetted shot taken in 2003 at Annapurna’s base camp in the Himalayas.

“This shot brings me back to one of the most painful physical journeys we’d endured. Both Basil and I caught some cold and flu before we started the ascent, and we just had to go on—no time to stop. We were going up in altitude with the air getting thinner and our colds getting worse, and by the top, it was unbelievably awful. The photo that Basil took of me having tea brings back such powerful memories.

Memories of how ill I felt. I honestly thought, “God—I could just have a heart attack at this level.” In the background you can see the clouds clearing enough to glimpse Machha puchhre—massive, white and silver against the sky. I made the journey in the end because the mountain itself looked so spectacular. You can’t give up halfway. You’ve got to go on. We finished the journey, but I still remember having that cup of tea, and then going to bed for about 10 hours.”

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