We’re here to talk about Palin’s latest project, a BBC documentary on the American artist Andrew Wyeth, one of a series of five such programmes he has made with Eleanor Yule and Mhairi McNeill since 1998. The project first came up for discussion around five years ago, but he was only free to make it this autumn.
Palin is quite serious about art. He goes to galleries “fairly often” and even buys the odd painting. He started collecting in 1992 with Walter Sickert’s Hat Shop in Dieppe – bought with a windfall from his television travel series Pole to Pole – liking the artist’s “dark and quite unglossy way of painting.” He also owns a William Nicholson.
The documentary was shot over three weeks in Pennsylvania and Maine – Wyeth’s art is geographically very specific – and was, of course, not nearly as extreme as Palin’s previous television documentary adventures. For Full Circle he travelled 50,000 miles around the rim of the Pacific Ocean and was away for 10 months between 1995 and 1996. For Sahara in 2002 he slept in a refugee camp, a thatched hut and a steamy hot railway wagon.
“I wouldn’t say I seek it out,” he replies when I ask how he copes with hardship, “but there are some places which are so difficult, but worth getting to, the price you pay is discomfort. You are not going to find all creature comforts. And I’m quite a good squatter, actually, and that is important in a lot of the world.” If he’s heading for the wilderness, he always packs Grether’s Pastilles. “Very comforting when you’re bouncing along and you haven’t eaten for a long time.”
Palin grew up in Sheffield, the son of a manager in a steel works who had a terrible stammer. “He was quite cantankerous because of his stammer. He was often difficult with people, just simple things like a restaurant, he’d see as a battle ground, and maybe that has made me more obliging and less confrontational,” he says. Michael was sent to board at Shrewsbury School and from there read history at Oxford University where he met Terry Jones, who was to become his Python writing partner.
Palin’s travelogues began with a BBC series Great Railway Journeys of the World in 1980. The heyday of Python was coming to an end and he wasn’t yet known in his own right. During this time, he also co-wrote and acted in Terry Gilliam’s film Time Bandits, wrote and acted in his own film, The Missionary, performed with the other Pythons in The Meaning of Life, and took the lead in A Fish called Wanda.
But by the end of 1988 he had no major projects. “I didn’t quite know what I was going to do next,” he admits. But the day was saved by the BBC with its offer of Around the World in 80 Days. At the age of 45, Michael Palin’s second career as a television traveller was born.
He went on to make seven TV series and publish seven books. He thinks his appeal is his empathy for the people he meets and his way of smiling as if he were the viewer’s friend. “They feel they are going along with someone they might like to travel with anyway,” he explains. He is also a man of extreme enthusiasms. John Cleese once complained of his fixation with doors during a holiday in Spain.
“They are beautiful, leather doors with brass nails in them – I won’t go on, but fantastic,” he says. “The other thing, which would probably irritate John, is my love of manhole covers. There are some very fine ones in Marylebone.”
The Pythons have not worked together properly since just prior to Graham Chapman’s death from cancer in 1989. Palin consistently said a reunion would never happen. Only in July he put the chances as about 90 to one against. “That was deliberate because the slightest flicker of the eyelid suggesting we might get back together again and the story takes off. There have been so many false alarms in the last 30 years,” he explains.
What changed was the need for cash. A producer who collaborated with Monty Python on Monty Python and the Holy Grail won a court case against the Pythons last year. He claimed to have been cheated of royalty fees for Spamalot, the 2005 musical based on the film.
On top of around $200,000 damages, the Pythons had expensive court fees to pay. “And John, as is much publicised, had alimony to earn and Terry Jones a mortgage to pay off,” says Palin. “But the real thing was Python itself wasn’t earning much. Python product around the world wasn’t really being pushed very well. The cupboard was a bit bare, and we went to a guy called Jim Beach [the manager of Queen and a film producer] and he suggested, ‘Why don’t you do the O2? Might clear your debts in a couple of days.’”
So once again he will be the lumberjack with a penchant for women’s clothing? “The musical numbers I don’t really worry about. The biggest challenge will be putting across to an audience of many thousand people sketches that depend on quite precise timing,” he admits.
Two of Palin’s best-known roles are his pet shop clerk in the Dead Parrot sketch, and the head of the Spanish Inquisition. “I think they will be pleased to see us. You just have to say, ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition’ and they’ll probably cheer – I may be wrong – for at least 30 seconds.”
As for the future, he doesn’t foresee living any other life than the one he has now in Gospel Oak with his wife, a bereavement counsellor, with whom he has three children. “Yes, of course I’ve very often thought of buying an old house in the country, some Norman ruin with a stream running by, but actually where we live is fine.
“That, again, is probably my wife’s very practical sense. We all have dreams, but she brings me back to reality.”
'Michael Palin in Wyeth’s World’ is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm