UNCUT INTERVIEW: MICHAEL PALIN | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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As someone with constantly itchy feet, Michael Palin’s travel adventures have become go-to guides for me. His latest work, the publication of the third volume of his diaries spanning 1988-1998, is the subject of his forthcoming spoken word tour, arriving at Sage Gateshead on Thursday 24th and Middlesbrough Town Hall on Friday 25th September.

In this uncut interview, I talk to Michael about travel highs, literary woes and old-fashioned writing methods.


You’re stopping off at two North East venues on your tour, and I hear that you’ve never been to Middlesbrough?!

No, I have never been to Middlesbrough. This became a bit of a joke, I’d been interviewed and asked where I’d never been and the first place that came into my head was Middlesbrough! I mentioned it on the Today programme and within moments the Mayor of Middlesbrough was offering to show me around, so I thought I had to include it on my tour. So I have to now find somewhere else that I’ve never been to. It might be Rotherham. Although I’ve been to Rotherham.

And you’re playing Sage Gateshead too, it’s a fantastic venue.

I’m really looking forward to that, it’s where the tour kicks off and that’s very exciting. I’ve seen it many times and passed it on the train when I’ve passed through Newcastle, so I’m very excited to be able to start there.

The tour is centred around the release of the third edition of your diaries. Are you a good old fashioned pen & paper man or do you use diary keeping apps or a computer when you’re writing?

I’m very old fashioned, I’m very much paper and pen. I do a lot of work on the computer so I keep my diary longhand. It’s good as a writer to give yourself a work out for 20 minutes every day to record what happened to you the day before. That’s good practice, but I’m quite traditional in the way I keep it.

Keeping a diary is the gist of the show, it’s publicising the volume that’s coming out, but it’s also an umbrella for me to talk about my life starting from Python and going through to the first three travel shows, which I suppose was the main arc of my life: how it happened and trying to remember all the various things that one doesn’t talk about but are there in the diaries to remind you.

One of two little entries which I found when looking through the diary completely surprised me, little stories which make me laugh and I think “Oh, really? I did that?” One or two of those will be in the show plus a lot of visual material, much of which won’t be seen before.

Are you going to be airing your holiday snaps then?

No, holidays are right out! When we were doing the edits for the show I worked with a very nice guy called Ion Trewin, he edited Alan Clark’s diaries which were very successful. We wondered how we’re going to cut down this vast mountain of words and get a nice level playing field of something that’s interesting, and one of the earliest things he said was let’s get rid of the family holidays! They’re all about sitting on the beach and getting bitten by mosquitos, it’s the one area when you become like everyone else. So we got rid of family holidays. But work life is what makes you different.

In terms of your writing, do you prefer writing fact or fiction?

I just love the act of writing and always have. At school I loved English essays when you were allowed to use your imagination to write a story, I felt very liberated by that. It’s really finding out where you’re most comfortable with writing, and for a long time most of my writing in my professional life were sketches and drama – Monty Python or Ripping Yarns – I was writing little plays. Then later on with the travel programmes, which started 1988, part of the commission was to write not just the journey but a book to go with it. I had to sit down and, based on a few diary notes, really create a non-fiction travel book which was authoritative and informative but also reflected the way I like to travel and my own humour. It’s a different process, it involves checking facts and reading around subjects and research, but then after doing two or three of those I did feel the imaginative side of my writing was being side-lined and letting your creative imagination go was always something I enjoyed – that’s what Python and Ripping Yarns were about – so that’s when I decided to write fiction.

It was much more difficult that I thought it would be. I thought you’d just go off and write something entertaining, but of course you’ve got to have a story you’ve got to create characters! What happened when I started when I started writing fiction, as many writers will tell you, is that your characters begin to come into your life; they’re almost real creatures and you can’t get them to do anything! They don’t want to go out of that door, they don’t want to fall in love with that person: “no I’m sorry I just don’t want to, not now, not yet!” I was on my own battling with these characters! So there’s a real challenge there.

With a non-fiction book you’ve got to make it entertaining but the story is already there, with fiction you’ve got to start the story and give life to these characters and have a resolution in the end, and that’s quite difficult, but I’m quite pleased with the two I’ve done. I’d say it’s an 80% success rate!

Similarly with acting then, do you prefer comedic roles or straight ones?

Again, a bit of both. I think that comedy is something I know I can do and it colours everything you do and everything you write. It’s something where you can’t just ramble on, any stand-up will tell you, you’ve got to get an audience to make that noise which shows they’re enjoying it.

There’s very few other areas of writing where you’re going for that instant reaction, timing is very important and I used to love sketches on Python; when it really worked it was just superb, getting comedy right is very satisfying.

Doing a straight role I always feel I want to look for whatever I can put into that role. For instance, it would be difficult for me to play a character that didn’t have a dimension of humour somewhere. In Remember Me [spooky BBC drama screened in 2014], which was a fairly supernatural story and quite nasty in places, there was a lot of grim humour, but it was very important, it was part of what my character had. He could be quite jokey and charming and then rather dangerous and manipulative. Same way with GBH [school-based Channel 4 drama from 1991, written by Alan Bleasdale], there were some very tough scenes indeed, but at the same time there was a great deal of humour underlying the character. I quite enjoy doing straight acting or comedy acting without wanting to make too much of a difference between the two, they overlap in many ways.

It’s good to surprise people and Remember Me did surprise a lot of people. Various people are generally very friendly in the street, they come up and say “Hello Michael!” and all that, but after Remember Me there were some rather guarded looks and they come up and say “Oooh, you were nasty!” and of course I’m delighted to hear that. I want to keep people guessing.

PALIN Image by John Swannell__1439566366_128.65.101.133

If you could go back to any place you’ve visited and show someone exactly what you’ve seen and experienced, where would it be?

One of the most satisfying parts of all the series’ was a journey around the Pacific, but particularly from the tip of South America right up to Alaska; I’d say if anyone wanted to sample travel, whether it’s because they like culture or the physical side of it or stunning scenery or just the difference in places, then I would say to come along on that journey. It was a fantastic ride, starting on Cape Horn up through the Patagonian parks with these wonderfully twisted shaped mountains and glaciers coming right down into lakes, and then a few hundred miles up the coast you’re in the Atacama desert where it hasn’t rained for 400 years and then you’re into the Amazon and so on, right up through Mexico and then suddenly you’re in Los Angeles or Seattle and life is very different. It was a great great ride.

What I enjoyed about making those programmes is that we didn’t stop for long, we just kept on moving, so you could related one place to another, you could compare and contrast as you went along. Days were always dazzlingly different, that’s the great thing about travel, it’s in your bones and you really feel excitement and all the potential that the world has to offer.

Have you returned to any places which have really changed in the intervening years?

Not really, things happen much more slowly than you think. The sad thing is that there are places where I was very happy and would love to go back to but I know that I can’t. For instance, Bamako in Mali where we did the Sahara programme, and north up to Niger: spectacular extraordinary scenery, and Bamiko was a really lively city with a great music scene. I think we wouldn’t be able to go and film there again in the way we did. Trains don’t go, there’s security problems in the north and there’s jihadis coming in, so that’s somewhere I can’t go and that’s the saddest thing. Northern Pakistan is better now, but for a while it was one of my favourite places to go and it became off limits because of the security situation, I think you could go now but it would be a lot more difficult.

I feel like that about Syria. I went in 2010 before the trouble started, it’s very sad to see what’s happening now.

I’ve never been to Syria, but I knew people who had houses in Damascus, then all this blew up and from what I’ve read it’s just dreadful. It’s dreadful that anything like this should happen to any country, but to Syria of all the countries that seem to be fairly strong and have traditions that were maintained. There’s a lot of nastiness under the surface.

It can be very hard to see, when you have such wonderful memories of a place; the people, the culture and history. It’s a shame somewhere like that is off limits for who knows how long…

What I feel quite strongly is that you always get a distorted view of the world by looking at the news, reading the papers, being in one place like London. Emergency makes news, everyday life doesn’t. A number of places we went on our travels were quite tricky and there were security problems, but once you were there people were very interested in you and wanted to talk to you. They didn’t all have guns – some of the young men had guns, but young men have always had guns – women and families the older men we met were so pleased that they could talk to us, and that’s something you really have to remember before you think of anywhere in the world as being off limits. I’m sure people in Syria, or Iran or Iraq, if you get out there they’d be so pleased to see you, but of course we’re all advised not to.

Something I really enjoy about your programmes is that you never seem like a fish out of water, even when talking to someone who has a totally different language to you and obviously doesn’t comprehend anything you’re saying but is quite happy to be filmed by you – is there a trick to always putting people at ease?

I’ve always felt much more comfortable if I can get to know someone and become friendly with somebody. You give something out and you get something back. To be open is in my nature really.

I was pleased that on the journeys I did how just being straight forward got over the hurdles of not knowing the culture or not being able to speak the language too well, it suddenly didn’t matter provided you could be yourself and smile and shake hands or share a joke, it makes  a huge difference.

There are so many people who don’t behave like that, or aren’t allowed to, and they’re so uptight, but that’s not just the way I’ve been. I did feel when we started doing the first travel series the great weight of being a travel presenter – Alan Whicker and all these other people who’ve done stuff in the past – how was I going to match up to them? I realised that in being yourself you create something, I felt so much more relaxed and comfortable once I’d gotten over that. That was the key thing for my travels: don’t be like anybody else, just be yourself. And we got good viewing figures, so I realised I wasn’t making a total fool of myself – you’ve got to make a certain amount of fool of yourself, but for the right reasons.

Were there any repercussions from themes in Monty Python – in The Life of Brian in particularly – which affected you when travelling?

No, because I don’t think they’re the sort of people who’d seen Python; I don’t think Islamic extremists had seen it!

The reactions against Python were much stronger here and in America. In America people protested outside cinemas to get Life of Brian taken off. And lots of towns here wouldn’t show it for many years. So it was much stronger here than abroad.

One thing about travelling that I realised, is that you just have to be very respectful of the places you go to, it seems an obvious thing to say, but some people don’t see it – they think I’ve booked this holiday, and I’ve got this money and I’m here in this hotel, and I want this or that. It’s not going to be like that; expect it all to be different and enjoy the difference, fit into the differences, absorb the differences – that’s what makes it so good. If you go thinking “I’m not being treated well, all their food is rubbish”, all that sort of stuff, then you won’t get anything out of it. We learned as we travel, particularly in some Islamic countries or countries in Africa, that you couldn’t behave the way you do at home, you had to cover up or things like that, but that was important. Once you travel with that sense of awareness of other people, you learn a lot more.

Finally, what music do you enjoy when you’re travelling? You enjoyed some Bruce Springsteen on Around The World In 80 Days…

Springsteen is still there! Also a rather wonderful album I find suits me wherever I go is by Kate and Anna McGarrigle – folk songs sung beautifully. I find them very affecting and calming when I’m on the road. There’s always a bit of Johnny Cash in the background and I like a bit of David Byrne too.

Michael Palin’s Thirty Years tour is at Sage Gateshead on Thursday 24th and Middlesbrough Town Hall on Friday 25th September. Travelling To Work: Diaries 1988-1998 is published on 24th September.




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