The curious life of Michael Palin

JAMES BELFIELD
Last updated 05:00 08/09/2013
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Lawrence Smith/Fairfax NZ

CURIOUS FELLOW: Michael Palin is intrigued by the ‘‘universality of people’’ when globe-trotting for his travel documentaries. 

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BOOK GIVEAWAY: We have five copies of the series accompaniment hardback book Brazil with Michael Palin to give away (published by Hachette on October 9, RRP $34.99. To enter, email escape@star-times.co.nz by Friday, September 13, with Michael Palin in the subject line.

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Michael Palin is 70.

Well, actually he's 70 now - when I meet him on a sunny Auckland afternoon to talk ostensibly about his new television travel series Brazil, he's still in his 60s facing down that dreadful milestone.

But heck you'd never pick it . . . he's happy to hop precariously across the slippery piles of a downtown pier so a photographer can catch him in a particular shard of light; and, later, he'll bounce manically around a hotel room peeping "Ni . . . ni" like a caffeinated 7-year-old, giving me a world exclusive on Monty Python trivia.

Because, despite his protestations and the ubiquitous blue-shirt-khaki-slacks uniform he shares with David Attenborough, Michael Palin is an interesting man who's kept young and exceptionally active by an inner dynamo of curiosity.

That curiosity led him to take an education honed at the famous public school in Shrewsbury and Oxford University's Brasenose College and ditch it in favour of writing comedy.

That curiosity led him to ditch such typically British shows such as Billy Cotton Bandshow, The Ken Dodd Show and The Frost Report, in favour of the anarchic surrealism of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

That curiosity led him to turn his hand to acting (his stuttering half-hero in A Fish Called Wanda earned him a Bafta), writing (The Truth, published last year, also plays on his softly spoken fascination with environmentalism and corruption), and serve a three-year term as president of the Royal Geographical Society.

So, after clocking up 96 countries, an OBE, and the much-hated title of Britain's Nicest Man, has that curiosity taught him anything about the world?

"Of course I haven't learned anything . . . what it boils down to is a feeling I had before I started travelling and that's about the universality of people.

"I'd read foreign books and seen foreign films and, although I didn't understand the language, they were talking about the same things - about love, about loss and about hunger - things we've all touched on at some time.

"So when I did travel programmes, I suppose I went out looking for a kind of universality."

Palin's travel documentaries - from his first foray into the genre in 1989 when he sought to follow Jules Verne's voyage Around the World in 80 Days - are marked by this universality. Yes, he gets to meet great people (the ex-president of Brazil, Fernando Cardoso, crops up in this latest series and he once enjoyed a cheery chat with the Dalai Lama about bowel movements) but his stock in trade is taking his gentle Englishness into the homes of tribesmen, dance instructors and far-flung housewives - and then, well, just having a bit of a laugh with them.

He says he loves showing events such as families sharing food because they allow him to become involved in other people's lives.

"But they're just symptoms of what's a basic desire for people to be curious about others. Wherever you go, someone will be curious - you can react to that any way you want.

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"You can say ‘please don't bother me' and go back to your hotel or you can reciprocate that curiosity. And if two curious people meet then I think you have a nice relationship, which is what I think happens when I travel to places where I don't understand a word of what they're saying and they don't understand a word I'm saying but we're both curious enough to just bridge it in some shape or form.

"Generally people like to join in, so that's a universality too."

In the first episode of Brazil, Palin is found dancing an approximation of a highland fling at a capoeira class and discussing why cooking can be like having an orgasm ("You must be very exhausted after all that cooking," he deadpans to the flirtatious celebrity chef Dada) . . . not your usual stopoffs on the travel itinerary of a man approaching his eighth decade.

So are his escapades about testing himself as much as about entertainment?

"I like my reactions to be spontaneous. That's why I don't go on long reccies with my directors. I suppose in a sense I'm putting myself under some kind of pressure all the time, so maybe I'm trying to find something out as I go.

"But I have a very low boredom threshold. I like things to be different experiences."

Later in Brazil, this desire for "different experiences" leads him to spend time with tribes in the heart of Amazonia, where he becomes the butt of a joke about, once more, sex, and how his thrusting movements required to grate vegetables would make him a great husband . . . for maybe an older woman.

Of course, Palin takes it in his stride. But does this famously nice Englishman ever lose his temper at being forever being square-pegged into global round holes?

"[Ex-Python] Terry Jones said recently that ‘Michael does like to have three meals a day and I can tell when on his travel programmes how long he's had to wait for a meal'. So I do get a bit tight-lipped if I'm forced to wait an hour and half for food while I'm having to sit in a lotus position.

"There was one time while we were with the Yanomami [tribe in the Amazon] and there was this pretty long sequence and I'm in this place where I don't really know what's going on and I've got to make these pancakes and I'm putting them in the hot pan and all this smoke's in my eyes and I can't see anything because of all the smoke from the fire.

"And then there's all these women saying I can't see, which means my wife's having an affair while I'm away from home. Normally I would have made a nice joke about that but I think I was just a bit tight-lipped that time.

"So it's always petty stuff. I don't get ratty for long. I'm generally inclined to have a nice time."

This "nice time" has turned what was initially an accidental third career after comedy and writing, into a global phenomenon, where tourist boards enjoy a "Palin Effect" after their region has appeared on his shows.

It's something Palin says he enjoys. "As an actor you're a cog in the wheel but, when you're travelling, you're the centre of the wheel and you can go out and see the world in a way people can't normally see it."

He knows he could go harder into politics and environmentalism but he's quick to see that his success seems to have come off the back of seeing his travelogues as entertainment.

"The work I do now is not that different from the work I did before I started Python when I entertained at university. What I did then was get up with a friend and put on a cabaret act lasting 30 minutes and try to get a booking wherever we could.

"We would call ourselves seedy entertainers. We just turned up in some battered old car at some Conservative party ball at Blenheim Palace and would be shown into a downstairs toilet to change. And then, when our moment came, we'd be called on and do our stuff. We were just seedy entertainers and I've always felt primarily that's what we do."

There's no escaping the profound effect that seedy entertainment had on the Britain of the 1960s - an effect that means Palin now has an asteroid named after him and can boast a surreal cameo on Aussie soap Home and Away in which he played a surfer who was scared of sharks.

But Palin says the curious Python crew of himself, Jones, John Cleese, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam were at their best when they weren't well-known and "struggling on tiny BBC budgets" rather than when they were producing the Quest for the Grail and Life of Brian films for which they've become best known.

"Python, like a lot of the humour that was around in the 1960s, were reactions by quite well-educated people protesting against being subject to strange rules. The Lord Chamberlain existed in those days and he had to read every single play and sketch and, if he thought it was a bit rude, he wouldn't let you do it. The country was run by people who didn't have a sense of humour so what you had to do was make fun of these people and use humour to do it.

"But by the end of the 60s everything was up for grabs - the deference had disappeared and the battle was won. The kind of humour we were writing needs attitudes to be quite hard before it really works - when people are asking you to do something surreal all the time it doesn't really work."

And that's the truly curious thing about Palin. He's survived the performing monkey world of television light entertainment without always listening to the organ grinder, in the same way as he survived the starchy world of 1960s British public schools and Oxford colleges without always listening to the cap-and-gown hierarchy.

Which brings us to that Monty Python world exclusive and Palin's madcap little dance . . .

"At Shrewsbury school we had this great teacher called Lawrence LeQuesne who was very encouraging and taught us to think for ourselves. We used to have a lesson in the library and a lot of the time he'd tell us just to read because he just liked to be in the library with his books. We'd sit there and he'd dance around the shelves, picking out books and going ‘ni . . . ni'. He eventually became the inspiration for the ‘Knights that Say Ni' in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He just used to bounce around saying ‘ni . . . ni'."

And with that he's off again, bouncing around a hotel room in downtown Auckland. Curious fellow.

Brazil with Michael Palin begins on Monday, September 16, at 8.30pm on Prime.

- Sunday Star Times

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