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OPEN PASSPORT: Michael Palin
Michael Palin first found fame as a member of Monty Python but is now just as famous as one of the leading travel presenters. The success of his first series for the BBC, 'Around the world in 80 Days' led to further series including 'Pole to Pole', 'Full Circle with Michael Palin', 'Michael Palin's New Europe' and journeys where he follows in the footsteps of Ernest Hemmingway, treks the Sahara and through the Himalaya region. Needless to say a copy of one of his travel shows often accompany The Luxury Travel Bible on long flights.
But how do you jump from the seminal Monty Python comedy team to becoming one of the best-loved travel presenters? 'The world is very Pythonic', Michael Palin tells Cox & Kings CEO Peter Kerkar. The pair met at 5 Pollen St (the new restaurant from Stefano Cavallini of the Michelin-starred 'Stefano Cavallini at The Halkin'). Over lunch Michael reveals how much work goes into making his travel shows, channelling Jules Verne's classic Englishman, Phileas Fogg, having an insatiable curiosity and eating a rather memorable dish in China.
Michael Palin
Peter Kerkar: Michael, you have to be one of Britain's most influential comedians and travel presenters. My first question to you has to be ... is it really true the BBC wanted Around The World in 80 Days presented by Noel Edmonds?

Michael Palin: He was their third choice actually. First was Alan Whicker, second was Miles Kington - who would have been rather good - then Noel Edmonds. Clive James was their fourth choice, then me. None of them were quite sure that they wanted to do it though: it was quite a big commitment. Whereas I didn't think about it twice: they asked 'Do you want to go around the world?' And I thought 'great' and said yes immediately.
PK: You are such a natural travel presenter, did it come to you easily?
MP: Well I had presented a programme for the BBC on Scottish trains in the early 1980s, but Around the World in 80 Days was completely different. I wasn't sure what was required of me. I mean it was a good idea - there was a time constraint: we had to get around a certain number of countries in a certain time - but I thought 'Who am I meant to be?' So I started off being Jules Verne's classic Englishman, Phileas Fogg, with a stuffy old accent and the like. I thought that's what was required: that I had to act. But those seven days on the show [sailing from Dubai to Bombay, when Palin developed a memorably violent stomach upset] changed everything. There was no point in me being pompous and playing a character: it was just me. And the moment where I say to camera: 'I just feel awful, I was really ill last night. I just want to go home', was the point when I suddenly realised I don't have to be anyone else: I just have to be me. I had no confidence up to that point.
PK: You were incredibly well known as a member of Monty Python.

MP: Yes, but Python came to a natural end, and the great thing is the whole team moved onto different things, so there was never a feeling of we have to keep this going. And I'm glad of that. People say 'Ooh, Monty Python to travelling: that must be a bit of a wrench', but no, not at all. You have to have a sense of humour for both: the world is very Pythonic, and if you have the attitude that enabled us to write Monty Python, and apply it to the world...I actually feel I was very lucky to get Around the World in 80 Days. Lucky to get that break, but also lucky because it seemed to spark off something I wanted to do. Travelling for the series opened up such an amazing amount - of people, places, activities, thoughts and ideas. Every time you travel you reconsider who you are, how the world is, how your own country is It's endlessly involving, rewarding, funny, confusing....And, of course, the British are great travellers - for various reasons we've had to be - and that's a great legacy that resounds in our cultural life, our buildings, our museums and our politics.

PK: You seem to have an almost old-fashioned wonder of the world. As a child, did you sit and pore over maps and atlases?

MP: Absolutely. Maps, National Geographic magazine, any stories set in a foreign country, whether it was Biggles or John Buchan: I absolutely lapped those up. My feeling was that these were just extraordinary places, extraordinary worlds: and they were on this planet, out there somewhere. I never, ever dreamed that I would go and see them.

PK: And yet, now it is you who is showcasing many of these places to the world. And so vividly. I remember the programme where you were walking up those passes in China - you were exhausted, elated - it was literally like you were discovering Shangri-La. Is that how you felt?
MP: Yes, it was terrifically exciting. It still is:I still feel an enormous sense of wonder. And that's really, really important. If you go out there thinking, 'Oh it's just another day, doing another travel programme', you might as well give up. It's got to be special, it's got to be magical.

...I don't have great language skills or anything like that - but I can get on with people and that's a terrific feeling.

PK: But there must be a downside. Have you ever felt threatened?

MP: By people? Well, I've been to some very strange places and some very remote places, but rarely did I feel fearful of the people there. I've felt fearful being in a light aircraft in storms, and ships with 500 people on board while the entire crew's pissed. But, generally speaking, people are welcoming. They're friendly, providing you approach them as a fellow human being - not displaying all the wealth you've got, all your gear- just play football, smile. Those little things. That's what makes me very confident when I travel: I'm not confident myself - I don't have great language skills or anything like that - but I can get on with people and that's a terrific feeling.

PK: You followed up 1989's Around The World in 80 Days, with Pole to Pole in 1991, Full Circle in 1996, then another four series including New Europe in 2007. All ambitious, all incredibly popular. What do you attribute the success of these series to?

MP: The key is having a really good crew: we've had pretty much the same one throughout 30 years of travelling: Basil Pao, our stills photographer; Nigel Meakin, our camera man - he's a vital part of the process because it's through his eyes we see everything. We all know what we're doing, so we can minimise the technical side, and I can get on with meeting people and talking with them. And we all like to do the same thing, that's important: the minute someone says: 'This bed's not very comfortable' or 'I don't want to eat that', they're off the team.
PK:It's clearly very hard work.

MP: It's certainly not just passively travelling. Filming is hugely hard work, plus there's all the research, then you come back and write a book about the journey. Each project is a two or three year commitment. But, I feel incredibly privileged and lucky to have fallen upon this form of travelling. I've always kept notes, writing the books is just an extension of that really. Back in the days of the empire, British travellers all brought back accounts of where they'd been. Detailed accounts. And it's amazing, when you read about someone like Mungo Park, what he went through -awful conditions - and yet he wrote it all down at the end of the day.

PK: Of course, back then there were no cameras, no Google Earth...

MP: They were acting like cameras, bringing descriptions of these places back. Some of those early talks at the Royal Geographic Society [RGS] must have been amazing, because no one had seen these places other than the explorers. I bet they made it all up [laughs].
PK: And now here you are, president of the RGS.

MP: Yes. When I agreed, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the history of the place: Lord Curzon, Darwin, Livingstone and all these great people in the past. There are some things I can't do: I leave the science to the others, and director Dr Rita Gardner and her team do a fantastic job of the day to day work. But they wanted my enthusiasm: going out and talking about the RGS, making sure it'sa welcoming, lively place to visit. And I do think it's very important, that something like the RGS doesn't become just an enclosed little world of people who tell each other travel stories. It is the main society for geographical knowledge in the country and that means a huge amount. It means knowing about global warming; making sure geography is kept on the school syllabus, doesn't slip away or become downgraded.

PK: Getting kids interested when they're young...

MP: Yes. All the great explorers, I loved their stories when I was young: the race for the South Pole, Shackleton and Amundsen to the north pole, the North West Passage. They gripped my imagination. And to have a sense of geography is important too. I was brought up in Sheffield, which is actually quite a dramatic place - all the valleys coming in, the Pennines outside - it was physically quite exciting. I've always been interested in the physical side of geography for that reason. I mean, going up to the North West Frontier, up where the Karakoram, Himalaya and the Pamir all come together. Seeing that, I felt incredibly lucky. Reading geology books, like Richard Fortey's, and knowing a bit about how the world was created, adds so much value to what you see when you travel.

...when I travel it doesn't feel like an ordinary experience: it feels like I'm setting off on something that could be life-changing.

PK: It sounds as if you are driven by an insatiable curiosity.

MP: That's my attitude to life really. Basically I'm quite a placid and quiet person - lived in the same house, married to the same person for 40 years - which is great, I love it all. But beyond that, what is out there in the world? Because I had a strong imagination as a child, fed by travel writers and accounts of explorers, now when I travel it doesn't feel like an ordinary experience: it feels like I'm setting off on something that could be life-changing.
PK: Have you eaten anything life-changing on your travels?

MP: Possibly not life-changing, but, well, there was that time in China. The Chinese are very prone to a banquet and, since they thought I might be important, they put me at the top of the banqueting table and brought me a special dish that wasn't offered to anyone else. Afterwards the cameraman said to me: 'I'm amazed you ate that'. I said that it had been a bit chewy, but it was ok.' Well good for you,' he said. I asked him what he meant? Apparently it had been bull's penis. Some things you're glad you haven't been told at the time.
PK: Going back to your earlier career ... do you miss acting?

MP: I do a bit, because at certain moments it's the best thing ever. I know that sounds rather grand, but when you're playing a scene with Maggie Smith [The Missionary, 1982; A Private Function,1984], you just think this is terrific: so much more than just saying a few lines.
PK: What are your future plans?
Michael Palin
Michael Palin and Peter Kerkar
MP: I have no plans as such: I've never sat down with a piece of paper and said: 'When I'm 30 I want to be prime minister' or whatever people do. Everything has just been a sheer piece of wonderful luck. I have to remember what I can do and what I can't do: that's the key .I've always wanted to write more fiction and I've just completed a novel. Then in June, we're going to shoot a new four part series in Brazil. I don't know the country at all, so I'm really excited. I think we have one more journey in us all. In fact, I hope until the day I die I'll be saying: 'I'll have a go at that'. David Attenborough, he's the one we all have to match up to. I sometimes think 'That's it, I've got to stop this game'. But there's David, 12 years older, still vivacious, still full of energy. I asked him once about jetlag and he told me taking melatonin helps, but only if you take it near a bright light. So now when I take my melatonin, I stare into the nearest light bulb and think of David. He must be chortling at home, thinking: 'Oh Palin, he swallowed that one'.
Follow Michael's travels at www.palinstravels.co.uk 
Royal Geographic Society www.rgs.org
5 Pollen Street www.5pollenstreet.com
Michael Palin was talking to Cox & Kings CEO Peter Kerkar.
Cox & Kings arrange luxury group tours and tailor-made travel worldwide
This article appears courtesy of Silver Travel Advisor (www.silvertraveladvisor.com). Visit Silver Travel Advisor for impartial travel reviews and advice for mature travellers.
Posted 5/9/11

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