Back to ScissorPage Interview with Michael Palin

Travelling with Michael Palin

This interview was done shortly after his 'Pole to Pole' expedition.

Michael Palin first made his name in the 1960's writing and performing in BBC television's Monty Python's Flying Circus as well as the several successful `Python' films that followed. With fellow Python Terry Jones, he co-wrote the award winning TV series "Ripping Yarns", several plays and children's books. Solo, he has written books, TV programmes and two award-winning screenplays as well as starring in a number of films. His highly acclaimed TV series and book `Around The World In 80 Days' was followed by his hard-hitting performance in the drama series `GBH', which earned him a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor. After writing and starring in the film `American Friends', he undertook a six-month overland journey from the North to the South Pole, filmed by the BBC to be broadcast later this year. A Yorkshireman by birth, Palin now lives near Hampstead Heath in North London with his wife Helen and their three children.

Of all the different forms of travel, Palin's favourite is undoubtedly the train, a love of which stems from his childhood. "My father was very keen on trains and used to take me to watch them outside Sheffield. I still get quite excited by trains and I think a good train journey is absolutely the best. I prefer to be on the ground than in the air because I like to see things and I like to be able to move around. There's a certain romance and glamour to a train journey."

Palin recalls his first trip overseas: "The first time I went abroad was in 1963, when I first left these shores and went skiing in Austria. We went by train because we couldn't afford to fly." It was to be another three years before that opportunity arose: "My first flight was when we got married in April 1966 and we went to Ireland for our honeymoon. It was a Viscount, but I can't remember anything about the flight. We just wanted to get to Dublin and get into the hotel!"

Over the next three years, Palin collaborated in a number of television series that led to him becoming a member of the highly acclaimed Monty Python team. Four successful TV series and a film later, they toured the UK and Canada. Palin recalls: "We used to be rather disgraceful travellers. Graham Chapman liked his booze and the weaker minded of us would follow him - although not at the same rate! I remember once when somebody got very ill on the plane and the crew actually asked if there was a doctor on board. Graham Chapman - who was a doctor - volunteered. This was the person they had just been trying to restrain five minutes before - `I think you've had quite enough now sir' - suddenly being shown down the aisle to administer to a sick passenger, which he did very well. He was a very good doctor."

Since those days, Palin has travelled extensively, both on holiday and on business and knows what he is looking for in terms of in-flight service: "I think it's nice if someone comes along fairly early on and acknowledges that you're there by offering you a drink rather than just disappearing into the galley for half an hour or so. If you press a light, it's nice to know they'll come and won't say: `Oh God! What do you want?!' On the other hand, I don't want constant fussing. I think the good thing about BA is that the crew are usually quite visible and generally seem to be cheerful."

What does he think of in-flight catering? "I've had some very good meals on BA on shorter flights through Europe. I've liked the lighter meals and I think they've got that pretty well taped now. Some of the least pleasant meals have been on internal American flights. They're very apologetic about everything: `This is not how we do it at home, but here's your food'! A lot of that stuff is pretty tasteless and stodgy, which I think reflects there not being a national cuisine in America."

Jetlag is a problem we have all suffered and learnt to cope with. However, unlike some, Palin is not an advocate of adjusting immediately to the local time. "At first, I try to keep as close as possible to my normal body clock, which means I don't tend to stay up all night or go to bed ridiculously early. When, for example, I'm travelling to Los Angeles, I think as long as you get to sleep around four or five a.m. your time, you'll get a few hours and the next night try to adjust a bit more. It does take a day or two." The problem is probably made worse by the fact that he doesn't find it that easy to sleep on a plane. "It's usually the wrong time of day," he explains. "Even in the nice, comfortable First Class seats, which I've been in now and then, I find bits stick into you in the wrong place and I've very aware of the position I'm lying in."

Palin uses the time on longer flights to catch up on some reading. "I often read scripts and things like that and it's wonderful, you can really concentrate. I sometimes read travel books, especially if I'm going somewhere I don't know." Inevitably there have been times when he has found himself sitting next to a passenger who wants to talk. "Usually, I find people quite interesting, but occasionally you do get people who go on and on about the waste disposal plant they're installing in Cleveland, Ohio; or professional busybodies, who want to know everything about you from the moment you set off. It's very difficult not to talk to them without seeming extremely rude. You can try to put them off by using body language - like hitting them with a hammer or putting a rug over them!"

Palin acknowledges that there are occasions when people half recognise him: "You'll get people who give you a very cheery welcome and say: `Hello Eric! Nice to have you on board!' It's happened less since I've done Around The World In Eighty Days. A lot of people know which of the Pythons I am now." Since making that series, he has noticed that crew have an empathy with him. "I've found that airline staff are very interested to talk about the journey because they've been to all these places and do all these things themselves. I'm constantly asked up to the cockpit to the extent that now I've seen most of them, including Concorde as we were coming in to land, which was tremendous."

As an actor, there is always the possibility that you could be appearing in your in-flight movie. This has happened only once to Palin. "Apart from `A Fish Called Wanda', most of the films I've made aren't suitable to be shown on airlines! But I was coming back from New York once and I was tucking in to my meal, when I looked up at the screen and there I was! It was a short film that I made called `The Dress' in which I play a randy husband with a mistress. It gets quite steamy and ends up with a bed scene. I felt this awful embarrassment and looked around but hardly anybody was watching it, so no-one connected me with the film. It was a very strange moment."

Palin is in no doubt which is his most memorable flight. "It was about 1978 and I had to go to New York on Concorde," he recalls. "We arrived at the airport Saturday morning for the 10:30 flight and after leaving a bit late we had got as far as the Bristol Channel when the captain told us we were going to have to return to Heathrow." Dumping their fuel, Concorde landed back at LHR and the passengers were disembarked. By the time the aircraft was servicable, the crew had run out of hours, delaying the flight further. Eventually, they pushed back at five o'clock. "Halfway up the runway," he recalls, "the takeoff was aborted - which is quite frightening in Concorde. Having skidded to a halt, we went back to the jetty and this time, we were allowed to remain on board while they served us Dom Perignon champagne."

The flight finally left at eight o'clock and all went smoothly until they were approaching JFK, where a snowstorm had caused a build-up of traffic. Since there wasn't enough fuel to maintain an indefinite holding pattern, the decision was made to divert.

"We were going to land at Windsor Locks - the airport for Hartford, Connecticut - but before they could do that, they had to ask the Governor's permission! It was at that time when it wasn't allowed to land there - it was a very hot political thing."

After landing, the passengers were told that they wouldn't be able to get into New York that night. Disembarkation was delayed however, as the ground staff initially had trouble finding steps that reached the aircraft. "We went into a hangar," recalls Palin, "where we were told that they were going to try and get into New York tonight, after all. (This must have been about midnight, our time). So we all got back on the plane, and by this time the local news were filming the Concorde passengers trooping on and off!

"I remember looking out from the window and there was this kid de-icing the wings - he didn't look more than sixteen years old - just staring in at these Dom Perignon-sodden passengers with a look of sheer amazement and bewilderment.

After sitting there for some time, it was decided that getting into JFK that night was an impossibility. After being put in hotels for the night, the passengers were informed the following morning that the flight would be departing at four that afternoon. "By this time, various people had hired private jets and a group of four of us decided to get to New York by train. After various dramas including getting stuck in a tunnel, we finally arrived, clutching all our baggage, at Grand Central Station at eight o'clock in the evening on the Sunday. That was called the Windsor Locks Concorde. People do know of it - it's quite historic!"

Over the past twenty years, Palin has appeared in quite a few films. During shooting, most of those working on the film are put up in hotels near to where the filming is taking place. However, these days, room parties don't exactly abound. "Often, not everyone is put up at the same hotel," he explains. "Plus, people stop work at different times, so it's difficult getting everyone together. What normally happens two or three times during a six-week shoot is a restaurant is hired for the night." Palin also has more personal considerations for not partying all night long: "The more you have to do on a film - especially if you're the leading actor or the leading writer - the less time you have in the evenings to jollify and the more you have to keep a clear head in the mornings." Palin points out that this has not always been the case however: "When we were doing Python, there were parties all the time. During the day, a great tide of alcohol kept us going. Somehow then, things didn't seem as significant. Now everything you do seems more important; more is expected of you."

During the making of Eighty Days Around The World, Palin utilised a variety of forms of transport including a dhow and a balloon, but probably the most unusual was a dog-sled. He recalls: "It's a very bizarre thing being tugged along. You don't realise it when you see them gliding through the snow, but they have to evacuate their bowels whilst on the move, so there's a constant smell as you go along, which rather detracted from the romance of it all! This particular team I went with were just like a group of high-spirited schoolchildren. There was a moment where we had to stop because there was a huge fall of snow and after spending ages getting them all to lie down, the musher went off to find a way over this snow ridge leaving me sitting there. Then one of them got up to scratch his ear and immediately another got up and then another and then suddenly they were off, taking me up over this ridge and down the other side while the musher screamed at them. It was quite funny actually!"

Some of the journeys Palin has undertaken have involved an element of risk. "I underplay this now," he explains, "but when we started the dhow journey (from Dubai to Bombay), none of us knew what was going to happen - whether we'd get there. We had no radio link with anybody, so we were very cut off from the world and totally dependant on these people. The year before, the captain's brother had died at sea with a whole crew because a storm blew up, so needless to say, we were a bit apprehensive. For eight days, we depended on them absolutely; they were very good to us and looked after us. When we got to Bombay, they were very sad to see us go and we were very sad to say goodbye to them. It was one of the most emotional moments of the whole journey."

Even though Palin has travelled extensively, he regrets never having learnt any languages. "I can just about get by in French. I'd love to learn Italian - I like the language a lot and I love Italy. But to learn a language in a very concentrated way, you'd have to restructure you life." On his last trip, Palin attempted to learn the rudiments of Russian and on a train between Estonia and Leningrad, he managed to have a conversation with a little girl who was travelling with her parents. "I went through my list of things I knew in Russian and it was lovely. I was so boosted by that. I've found in every country I've been to where I've tried to speak the language, the locals generally like it and respond very well to it."

In 1992 Palin spent six months undertaking his most gruelling journey yet. Travelling overland from the North to the South Pole, he managed to crack a rib and suffered with various tummy bugs that left him half a stone lighter. The journey began in Midsummer on the frozen wastes of the Arctic, passing through eastern Europe and on to the tropical heat of the continent of Africa before finally coming to an end in Antarctica, just before Christmas. One imagines such a place to be a remote, frigid wilderness. What was Palin's opinion of his final destination?

"Actually the South Pole didn't seem that remote," he explains. "There's a big American base there called the Scott/Amundsen base, with a sort of hamburger joint underneath the pole!" Is nothing sacred??


ANNA - anna@warman.demon.co.uk
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