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Michael Palin on sex, Pythons and travel

Nina Myskow / 26 August 2014

As the third volume of Michael Palin’s diaries are published, he reveals the Pythons drive each other mad, and that, deep down, he thinks he’s really rather dull.

Michael Palin
Michael Palin. Photographed exclusively for Saga Magazine by Rankin

The bizarre thing about Michael Palin is that he thinks he’s dull. Can you believe it? Here’s a man whom millions of people watch on TV for the simple reason that they enjoy being in his company. It’s the same for the countless others who immerse themselves in the books he has written about travelling the world, or indeed the books he writes about his life when he’s not. They like spending time with him.

He is definitely not dull. Dull is the last thing he is. He is the very opposite of dull. But try telling him that

I’ve just spent a fascinating hour or so with him, and yet here he is apologising: ‘When it comes to talking about myself, I find I’m quite dull,’ he says. I protest, but he persists: ‘Oh I am, I think I am’. He pauses. ‘My work is interesting, what I am is not, really.

‘What I am is somebody who’s been married a long time with a broad range of tastes, reasonably healthy.’

For heaven’s sake! He doesn’t understand, either, that one of the facts which makes people, women, like him even more is that he and his wife Helen, whom he met when he was 15, have been married for such a long time (50 years come 2016). This particularly when of all the Pythons he was the most attractive, the Secret Fancy of women the world over. He won’t have it.

‘You must have had women throwing themselves at you all the time,’ I say. ‘They all missed!’ he shoots back, and laughs.

I mention the Secret Fancy thing, and he grins and looks a bit shuffly and says, ‘The thing is, I’ve still not got over that slight feeling I had as a teenager, that, “How on earth do you talk to women? Why is my hair so strange? I’m wearing the wrong clothes.”

‘Later on, the years when you were becoming sexually curious were full of insecurities. So the idea of women throwing themselves at me, I still find, “Oh, come on! Where? When? Why?”

‘ I mean, I love women’s company very much, and have lots of really nice female friends, but I think you make a decision at one point in your life whether you are going to be a play-away-from-home or not. I just felt it much easier to be completely honest, best not to get involved.

‘Friendships are terrific, but sexual dalliance is not really for me. It just makes life more complicated. I see all these people who keep different phone numbers. Well, not now.’ He laughs. ‘The great thing when you reach 70, it’s really good. It doesn’t worry you so much.’

He has just come fresh from the triumph of the Monty Python shows at the O2 in London. Critics had been sceptical: ‘Everybody’s mindset was that it could be a colossal disaster, 15,000 people coming every night for ten nights. Would we have the energy to do it night after night?

‘But that first night we realised that the audience was absolutely on our side, wanting to enjoy it, wanting to celebrate.’

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They all got together the day after the last show for lunch in Soho: ‘It brought Python together. We’re all different, but the one constant is that we’re the only people in the world who will ever be Pythons. That transcends disagreements, all that’s been bubbling on. A lot of groups don’t last and the fact that we still talk to each other is something exceptional.

‘In my diaries, I try to give a reasonably balanced feeling of what it’s like to be with the other Pythons, but there are moments when they drive you mad, I drive them mad. We all rub up against each other – my attitude to not wanting to do a stage show in 1998; I wanted to do my travel shows instead – but we all share something no one else shares.’

We are meeting to discuss the third volume of his diaries, Travelling to Work, which starts where the last book left off, as he was about to embark on Around The World in 80 Days for BBC One. It covers his life in the Nineties (apart from his travels for the BBC, which have been covered separately in individual books) and ironically includes discussions on a Python stage show, 15 years before it came to fruition.

He has kept a diary since 1969: ‘I’d given up smoking and it was such a feat of willpower, I might as well use all that zeal, that new-found discipline, to keep writing the diaries. In the beginning, I thought, “Why am I doing this?” but by chance Python started two months later, and our son Tom was born, so the timing was right.

‘Now I’m so glad, because I can look back 40 years, read something and think, “Did I really do that?”’

He shows me the fat, hardback A5-sized book that he writes in every day, in his neat, intelligent script, using only the right-hand page. When he gets to the end, he turns it upside down and goes back the other way. He has hundreds of them now. He also has little black notebooks he takes on his journeys for his travel diaries: ‘I’m very organised,’ he says, and gestures at his surroundings.

We are ensconced upstairs in Michael’s large, airy and ordered, book-lined work room in the house he and Helen have lived in since 1966, three terraced cottages knocked into one in a tucked-away north London street. Clad in blue denim shirt and chinos, he looks a bit more craggy perhaps, but little changed from the familiar travelling companion of millions – smiley and enthusiastic.

‘I do like order, but I’m very impulsive,’ he adds, and grins. ‘I love going off to do something I’ve never done before. I’m a mass of contradictions: my basic life is fairly simple, but I like to break out every now and then. Helen and I thought that this place would be temporary, but there’s something about it, and I’m very happy here. But I get nomadic tendencies, travelsick as opposed to homesick.’

Travelling to Work depicts this restlessness. It shows a successful and varied career aside from the travel: a BAFTA for A Fish Called Wanda, plaudits also for his acting in Channel 4’s GBH, a screenplay, a novel, American Friends – a film based on his great-grandfather’s diaries. It’s a great read, funny and very human. ‘I shoot off in all directions. I’ve always been very curious about life, and people.’

He completed three series of travel programmes between 1988 and 1998. How on earth did Helen cope with his absence? ‘Around the World was going to be a one-off,’ he says. ‘And Helen knew it was better for me to do it than to have me at home kicking the furniture, saying, “Why didn’t I do that?”

‘The problem was the children [they have three, and now two grandsons]. I was very nervous about going away at important times. A university interview, and I’m in Tierra del Fuego, and feel very helpless and want to put an arm round them and be there. But it worked out.

‘Helen is very good and efficient, both her sisters live nearby, as do the children today. She was not being left in the middle of an empty world; there was a very strong unit.

The Pythons? We're all different but we all share something that no one else in the world shares

‘The emotional side you just need to put on hold. Of course I’d ring Helen, but it was never the right moment. I’d be in Tibet looking at some magnificent view, saying, “Guess where I am?” And she’s saying, “Guess what? The plumber put his saw through a pipe and that’s £500.”

‘I’m a great believer in “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. We both get on with our lives, and begin to express what we miss, which you normally never would. Suddenly I come back and feel I’ve got to say I love this or I love that. So it’s kind of helped our marriage. In any case Helen says we’ve never had a claustrophobic relationship, and she’s right. We’ve always been secure in our knowledge that we were good together, that we were meant to be together.

‘We met in 1959, a long time ago, and the longevity of a relationship keeps it going. You have so much in common, so many friends, and places, and things we’ve done together. There’s lots to talk about.’

Perhaps the biggest crisis came when he was in Borneo filming Full Circle. Helen rang to tell him that she had a brain tumour and was to undergo major surgery in four days’ time. ‘The world was for a moment icy cold,’ he says. ‘But she did it really well, saying “It’s not a problem”. Fortunately it was a tumour actually outside the brain, but difficult enough. I was prepared to come back straightaway, but she told me not to: “I’ve got terrific support from the family, and I’ll be worried about you getting back”.

‘What clinched it, her surgeon rang me in Borneo and talked me through it. He was brilliant: “Honestly, I’ve done this so often,” he said. “She’s going to be fine.”

‘I came back after she’d had it done and was at home, feeling weak. Typically I had a cold and she was looking after me! But it was a big tumour. Fruit was mentioned. A mandarin orange.’

They both look in excellent nick, slender and fit. I haven’t seen Helen since the Eighties when we used to go to the same aerobics class, and it’s good to see the value of exercise confirmed. Michael runs over Hampstead Heath twice a week: ‘Up and down and round the lakes and through the woods. I’m surprised I still can. I kept thinking, “Can I do it when I’m over 60?” and I’m now 71. It’s good for the soul as well.’

He walks a lot, takes the Tube, loves trains. ‘I sometimes look in the mirror and think, “Oh my God,” and that’s what makes me feel occasionally old. But somebody said wrinkles are your history. The worst thing was in my late forties when I had to wear glasses, and suddenly realised I was going to wear them for the rest of my life.’

He eats quite carefully now: lots of fish. He’s never been fat but, ‘I had a tendency to chubbiness in the early Python days.’ He takes cod liver oil in the morning and is on a statin – he doesn’t know quite why. ‘I drink far more than I probably should,’ he laughs. ‘I love a glass of wine in the evening, like being in a café on a sunny day with a really good cup of coffee. It’s reflecting time.’

He gets grumpy about litter – picks up bottles dropped on the heath and runs with them to the nearest bin – and shouts at the radio a bit. He’s not good with technical stuff, although he uses an Apple, and sees that his mobile is very useful. ‘But I’m checking it now like a lunatic, why? And every time I do I feel I’ve been dragged into the shops – it’s all special offers.

‘And can you get a train timetable? It’s “Where do you want to go, when?”’ He raises his voice. ‘I don’t know where I want to go and when. Show me a timetable and then I’ll make a decision, thank you very much!’ He pauses and laughs. ‘Don’t start me.’ He doesn’t have satnav, loves maps.

He will embark on a tour of his one-man show Travelling to Work in September. The first half will be about travel and the second half about comedy. ‘How a shy boy from Sheffield ended up playing the O2 Arena,’ he says and adds how much he’s looking forward to it. It’s going to be a busy autumn. He stars in Remember Me, a three-part BBC One supernatural drama series. Does he mind that he’s playing the part of an 80-year-old man in a care home?

‘God, no! It’s a really good part in a very good drama.’ He’d perhaps like to do another art documentary like his programme on Andrew Wyeth last year.

‘But I’ve maybe shut up shop on long journeys. I think they’re over,’ he says. ‘Partly because after a bit you find yourself saying the same things, become a bit of a cliché if you’re not careful. I did eight long journeys, Brazil was the last, and I really enjoyed them. But maybe what I’ll do is short one-hour documentaries on single places. It’s rather exciting, I have more time and every day I wake up going, “Hey, wow! Interesting things to be done today”.’

He and Helen enjoy travelling together, short breaks to Europe, Venice this year, and France. ‘She’s not interested in long-range travel, and I’ve yet to get her to go to Australia. I think she’d love it. She’s got a very clear outlook on life, very constant, sharply focused, so to get her to change her mind takes a while.

‘She has such a wonderful practicality about the way she looks at life. She’s the only person I know who, when I say let’s go to Paris for the weekend, she’ll say, “Why?”’ He roars with laughter, slapping his knee. ‘I love that! I love that! It’s not because she doesn’t like Paris; it’s “Why this weekend when we’re supposed to be doing something else?” That’s the romantic me as opposed to the practical her.’

I have this ridiculous fantasy that I’m still in my late twenties or early thirties

How would he cope without her? He looks bleak. ‘Oh, that would be hard, very hard. Jolly hard. It’s the shared experience. Like Python, we’re the only people to have done Python. And we’re the only people to have been Helen and me. There would be a lot of doors being shut. Just what we’ve shared, something just the two of us really know about and have experienced. That would be very hard.’

Did he ever imagine, when he and Helen embarked on their relationship, that they’d be together with a 50th looming? ‘Oh yes,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘When you marry someone, you’re going to be with them all your life. So I was expecting it to last; 50 years is a long, long time, but it doesn’t seem extraordinary. We both feel youthful still, it’s not as if we’re ticking off the days. It’s as good now as it ever was.’

Retirement doesn’t enter into it. ‘Actually I have this ridiculous fantasy that I’m still in my late twenties or early thirties.’ With life still in front of you? ‘Less of it, but that’s what makes you enjoy it more. I’ve probably drifted a bit, but age focuses you. And you have all that experience. I’m just thankful that I’m still curious, want to open the door and find something different about that day, something special.’

So it’s a good life? ‘Oh yes, it is.’ We tussle about whether he’s dull or not, which brings us back to where we started. He laughs, and picks out a large book from behind him. It’s Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. He reads out the words he wrote then on how to live: ‘Nothing very special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, every now and then get some walking in and try to live in harmony with people of all creeds and nations.’

He laughs uproariously. ‘I wrote that in 1982. That’s it! I’ve lived it, I’ve lived it.’

Travelling to Work, Diaries 1988 – 1998 by Michael Palin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25).

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