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Michael Palin on history and life lessons

Gemma Calvert / 27 September 2018

The Monty Python star discusses writing his book, Erebus: The Story Of A Ship, and the adventure that came with it.

Michael Palin stares pensively out of a window

Michael Palin’s latest adventure has been uncovering the secrets of the Erebus, a Victorian explorer ship that went missing. Here, ‘the nicest man in the world’ reveals that the secret of his success is partly down to his stubbornness and stroppiness.

Before I see Michael Palin in the doorway of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, I hear him apologising for ‘being difficult’. He’s carrying a mini suitcase and a Panama hat and looks dashing – a good decade younger than his 75 years – clad in a smart jacket and jeans, the very style he’s keen to see replicated in his Saga cover shoot.

‘I don’t like to be anyone other than who I am,’ he explains, offering a handshake hello. ‘I’m very boring.’

Soon, however, Michael is sprinkling trademark humour onto proceedings (‘Does this shot look a bit knitting catalogue?’) and chuckling when the photographer urges him to ‘Work it, baby’.

Michael is ‘very rarely’ unhappy professionally.

He selects new projects prudently, implementing a ‘two-week test’ to assess his feelings. ‘If in that time you wake up in the middle of the night and think, “There’s something wrong,” you’ve got to say no, but if it just gets better and better in your mind, it’s good.’

His latest project, and the reason for the nautical setting for our interview, is his first attempt at historical non-fiction. Erebus, The Story of a Ship, tells the mysterious tale of a popular Victorian explorer ship that voyaged all over the world before going missing, with its sister ship Terror, in 1845. Erebus wasn’t discovered until 168 years later, in shallow waters in the Canadian Arctic. It’s a gripping, colourful read and, along with the rest of his CV, it shows that the two-week test obviously works.

Michael had 14 years in Monty Python, starring roles in films such as A Fish called Wanda, Time Bandits and The Missionary, for which he also wrote the screenplay, plus several BBC travelogues, each accompanied by
a book. More recently came the 2014 sellout Monty Python Live (Mostly) reunion show, a part in The Death of Stalin film and ITV’s drama Vanity Fair.

When I invite Michael to divulge a career faux pas, he searches the ceiling for an answer. ‘I don’t think there’s anything I’ve felt I really shouldn’t have done, except possibly It’s A Knock Out – The Royal Tournament,’ he replies, referencing the charity event organised in 1987 at Prince Edward’s behest. ‘It just didn’t really work,’ says Michael, who has never been fully comfortable with fame. He’s not interested in ‘being a celebrity per se and getting together with other celebrities’. He’d never enter Strictly or I’m a Celebrity.

Instead, Michael uses his status sensibly to support charities such as the Prison Reform Trust and visiting prisons because he believes in the power of rehabilitation. ‘It’s a humane thing,’ he says. ‘Give or take a few psychopaths, you’ve got to make most people in prison better people when they come out.’

Michael has kept journals since his school days and in a YouTube video on his website, he examines one from 1955 – his very first. Every entry is handwritten in capital letters, which graphologists will tell you reveals the scribe secretly dislikes revealing personal details.

‘I’m an introverted extrovert. It’s a wonderful combination,’ confirms Michael. ‘I want to keep things to myself but, at the same time, I love being with people, performing and entertaining.’

Today, he appears open and generous with personal detail. He’s the first to mention Helen, his wife of 52 years, explaining that spending months away from home while filming shows such as Around the World in 80 Days actually benefited his marriage, largely because Helen has no interest in globetrotting.

‘She doesn’t want to go travelling up mountain passes and discovering volcanoes,’ he says. ‘If she wanted to travel as much as I do, I don’t know if our relationship would have survived. She would have got very jealous.’

Michael’s latest escapade, Erebus, took 18 months to complete; he journeyed to the same remote places as the boat, including Tasmania, the Falklands and the Canadian Arctic, as part of his research. But his greatest adventure and challenge was in writing it. ‘It’s huge pressure, as
a comedian. I did have that slight inferiority complex, that I’m dealing with proper researchers, proper historians who really understand what they’re talking about.’

Working in his home office in London, Michael discovered a ‘streak of stubborn persistence’ that helped him push through days when he was racked with insecurity.

‘Honestly, there were mornings when I’d lie in bed and think, “Oh God, how am I going to make this work?” I have doubts about everything that I do.’

Michael didn’t pretend to be a world-class historian, spending months in an archive unearthing every possible fact about Erebus. Instead, he used resources at places such as the National Maritime Museum to collate scraps of ‘human interest’, unearthing notebooks, letters and journals, which occasionally left him spellbound.

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‘Every now and again, you’d get an expression of sheer wonder at what they were seeing. That was absolute gold dust: the way they reacted to seeing a particular scene for the first time anywhere on the planet.’

When he’s not travelling the globe or absorbed in other work, Michael enjoys lunching with friends near his home but says such pleasures must be ‘earned’ by doing ‘something quite difficult before it’. Retirement is clearly not a possibility.

‘I don’t know what I would retire from because I’ve never had a proper listed job,’ he says. What profession would have been printed on his passport? Comedian? Actor? Globetrotter? Author?

‘It was writer, but then I got refused permission to Sierra Leone because writer meant “journalist” and trouble,’ he admits. ‘Then I put “actor”, which can be helpful.’

Michael recalls a visit to Toledo, Spain, when a taxi failed to arrive at his hotel and the concierge asked a police officer for assistance finding another. ‘The policeman looked at my passport and said, “Actor? What you act in?” “I’ve just done a film called A Fish Called Wanda with Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis,” I replied. His eyes lit up,’ says Michael, laying on a thick Spanish accent. ‘“Jamie Lee Curtis? I seen her in Trading Places!” With that, the police took me to the station!’

Michael’s success has been ‘a wonderful surprise’. Growing up in Ranmoor, Sheffield, he longed to visit places such as the Gobi Desert and marvelled at those who wrote comedy for a living, but ‘never in a moment’ believed he would fulfil either dream.

From 1962, while studying history at Oxford University, he began penning and performing comedy with student pals Robert Hewison, now a historian, and Terry Jones, who later became his Monty Python writing partner. After a sellout performance at the Edinburgh Festival, Terry invited Michael to create some material for the BBC and Monty Python was born five years later.

I wonder how Michael felt when the BBC’s head of comedy, Shane Allen, launched a range of new diverse comedy programmes in June and declared that shows like Monty Python will never be commissioned again because the Oxbridge white bloke’s day is over.

‘He was trying to make a point about diversity and at the same time [was] being exactly what he was not supposed to be – reverse racist,’ concludes Michael. ‘Why shouldn’t people laugh at white boys from Oxford? Just because you have a certain skin colour, and have had a good education, doesn’t mean you can’t write comedy. It’s not about stopping people writing, it’s about encouraging people to write.’

Michael isn’t a fan of modern humour. He prefers sketch shows. He was last tickled by The Fast Show and enjoys Reeves and Mortimer ‘because they’re extremely silly’.

His brow momentarily furrows when conversation switches to his pal Terry Jones, who has a rare form of dementia. Michael, who now supports Alzheimer’s Society, tries to visit him every fortnight.

‘The little communication there is becomes very important. Just a touching of the hand or a raising of the eyebrows,’ he says. ‘I talk a bit about the past and you can see in his face, because of his expressions, when he recalls something. That means so much.’

Terry once credited Michael as being ‘the nicest man in the world’ but also revealed that his children nicknamed him ‘Mr Grumpy’ because of his moods, especially when hungry.

These days, Michael’s grumbles include ‘bad manners, public selfishness, people who open their car door and dump all their s*** on the road outside my house.’ He is also worried about human interaction. ‘You put on your phone, put [on] your app, then find someone to talk to. It shouldn’t be like that! You should be able to see someone in the same room or in the same street.’

When I ask him to pinpoint his most profound life lesson over the years, Michael answers quickly. ‘I’ve discovered that I was braver than I thought I was, I’ve taken quite difficult choices and made things work. I’ve got a certain stroppiness, which is quite important. You’ve got to be able to fight for what you think is the way to do it.’

Michael is hungry for new challenges and still thrives on risk, which he believes contributes to vitality. ‘When your brain is working hard and your body has to keep up with it physically,’ he says.

Happiness, for Michael, is in the company of Helen, whether on a mini break – most recently to Paris, Antwerp and New York – their annual summer holiday to Majorca with their grandchildren (he has four) or at home, feet up, watching telly. ‘We like anything Scandinavian
and dark, anything with subtitles for some reason,’ says Michael, who met Helen when he was 15. ‘I think it keeps you awake because you’ve got to read! I find them quite relaxing.’

Michael’s eyes wander to the walls of the gallery where we have been chatting and the epic oil paintings of ships. It seems a fitting moment to ask what Michael’s hopes are for his Erebus creation.

‘I’d like it to be a successful popular history book that opens people’s eyes in the same way that I picked up the story in the first instance, the journey of this little ship and its extraordinary voyages,’ he replies. Perhaps one day he will return to Canada where HMS Erebus remains on the sea bed, a ship that failed on its last expedition but inspired a new voyage of discovery in Michael.

‘I would love to dive down and see the ship and I think I will,’ he smiles. ‘If the book does well!’

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Michael Palin photographed by Andrew Hayes-Watkins

6 facts about Michael Palin's book Erebus

HMS Erebus embarked on two of the most dramatic Polar expeditions in history - Antarctic exploration in 1839 then, six years later, an ill-fated voyage in search of the North West Passage. In 2014, 169 years later, the wreck was discovered in the Canadian Arctic. Michael’s historical non fiction debut charts both journeys and brings back to life all those who sailed on her. Here the Monty Python star reveals six secrets about his latest project…

1) He didn’t employ a researcher

'I wanted to see the archives myself rather than tell somebody else to find something for me. I was never going to be an academic and access all the archives everywhere so [my] attitude to the book was I wanted to know it from a personal point of view.

'Researching was part of the story and that’s why I went to The Falkland Islands and Tasmania and South West Passage.'

2) He wrote at home in north London

'It’s a very practical thing but I was using so many books, maps, charts and information that I had to be somewhere where they were based and that happened to be my work room at home. I had a great big board with pins in it which had pictures of the plans of the ships, what they looked like and various places where they’d been. The whole place was taken over.'

3) Bad news was good news, even in the 19th century

'Very few people have written about the Antarctic part, which is almost half the book. My theory is that people like tragedies and dramas, not things that have gone well and smoothly. When [John] Franklin took over the Erebus and went to the north west passage, that was a complete disaster. It fascinated people because of the enormity of what they’d done, the risk, the fact that the ice had closed in, the fact that cannibalism was mentioned - [it was] an awful, national tragedy.

'The Antarctic [part] all went very well. When they’d finished the Antarctic journey, Sir James Clark Ross sent back his report of these four extraordinary years and Lord Minto, the first Lord of the Admiralty [the Admiralty controlled both journeys], decided he didn’t want to publish this in the Admiralty Gazette, which published accounts of voyages. His reason was that no one had died. There was no blood and thunder, no tragedy, no juice. Have we changed much? I don’t think so.'

4) Like Michael, the explorers were buoyant

'They were all, on the whole, amazingly optimistic. They were going to places where there were no maps, no charts and where no one had been before. We can’t do that nowadays. We’ve got GPS, we’ve got Google Earth, we all know where everybody is all the time. You’re never alone.When [the explorers] went further south than anyone before, they were entirely alone. What were they going to find and how did they deal with that?

'From what I can gather, they dealt with it by not really making a big thing of it. Very British stiff upper lip. When I travel, I’m a great optimist and I think ‘it’s going to be okay’. I never really worry.'

5) Erebus the TV series isn’t happening

'I did talk to a broadcaster. We discussed the story and they gravitated to the tragedy. The whole stuff from the Antarctic about measuring magnetic fields and the depth of the ocean, people weren’t quite so interested in so I don’t think as a television project it would work doing both.

'I did think, at one time, it would make a really good radio series because [in] radio, you can recreate brilliantly the sounds then you can visualise it yourself. You’d have plenty of narration from the captain and the officers’ journals.'

6) Finishing the book made him sad

'Very sad. There was one wonderful guy called John Davis who went on the Antarctic expedition and he wrote one long letter to his sister that provided so many insights into what they’d gone through. He also had a great sense of humour and a lightness of touch. He talked about building a bar in the ice called Pilgrims Of The Ocean and he also, in the same letter, describes a near disaster when the two ships [Erebus and Terror] almost collided. [When] he finished his letter in the Falkland Islands, this man who I’d been so close to, I couldn’t talk to him anymore. That was it, that was over and I really missed him.

'I thought ‘if only I could have gone with him home to England’. I’d have found out lots of things.'

Michael’s book Erebus: The Story of a Ship is out now. To buy it at a discount, go to

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