Making it up along the way

Michael Palin in Brazil, West of Serrita, with a cowboy at Pega de Boi at Catch My Bull, a monthly festival of cowboy skills.

Michael Palin in Brazil, West of Serrita, with a cowboy at Pega de Boi at Catch My Bull, a monthly festival of cowboy skills.

First published in Events by

Michael Palin – Travelling To Work

The Hawth, Hawth Avenue, Crawley,

Sunday, September 7

Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road,

Tuesday, October 7

Michael Palin’s Travelling To Work: Diaries 1988-1998 starts with the man wondering what he’s doing on an 80-day jaunt around the world and ends with the decision not to do a Monty Python reunion.

Bookending those events, he says, “is really the meanderings of someone approaching their 50s – I pass that milestone in 1993 – who never really had a proper job and who was seizing all sorts of opportunities”.

Palin is now 71. He’s the youngest Python. Once the decision was made to embrace the reunion he decided he wanted to get back to his “original Python, my inner Python”.

But he is quick to admit he has changed since those Python days.

“The original spirit in which these sketches were written and the reaction we had to them when they were first written – which was that they were very funny – all comes back.

“We couldn’t have done these shows if we didn’t believe in the material and if we didn’t think we could make the material funny again. So I don’t feel as though I’ve changed much at all and that’s a bit of a problem because I’m 71 and you can’t quite do all the things you thought you could do. The real change over the years is that we’ve become famous.”

The subsequent fame allowed him to embark on Jules Verne’s epic journey with the BBC in tow.

“I was deeply worried about what I’d taken on. We were going to be 80 days away from home, longer than I’d ever been away before, and there was no script. We were going to make it up as we went along and you get the feeling of someone not embarking on what he thought was going to be a legendary breakthrough in travel television but someone who was absolutely terrified.”

Around The World In 80 Days turned out to be a great success and led to two, much longer series, Pole To Pole and Full Circle.

“They’re the diaries of someone pretty much working flat-out with a sort of added urgency that they were getting on a bit and it was now time to do all the things he could possibly do as a freelance.”

Palin’s third collection of diary instalments comes in the same year as he celebrates 50 years in showbusiness. He still remembers those days in the Oxford University Revue.

“What happened at the Edinburgh Festival with the Oxford Revue was for me quite life-changing because for the first time I thought, ‘Hey, the acting and the humour and all the things I enjoy most in life could possibly make me a living’. My father disagreed profoundly but that was a very important moment for me.”

Around The World In 80 Days pulled in 12 million viewers for its last episode. Two years later Palin decided to do a follow-up with Pole To Pole, which scored an audience of nine million for its opening show.

“There was no Jules Verne story. We just had to do it ourselves as a way of travelling to places I’d never been before, meeting people and talking to the camera.

“Although I thought it was pretty good when I finished it I had no idea how an audience would react. Would they just say ‘Where’s the competition element? He’s just going around the world. He’s having a nice time wandering about’. But then the first audience figures came in.

“I thought ‘This is wonderful’. I’d made it on my own terms as more of a genuine geographical look-at-the-world programme and we still got a huge audience. There was a feeling of ‘Wow, there’s real potential here’. I then went on and made six more series.”In September and October, Palin is heading out on his first ever stage solo tour. Previously he’s done one-man shows for charity or book festivals.

“I can talk about the diaries and put that period of the 90s into context and enjoy reminiscing with a live audience.”

The 1990s included his first novel, Hemingway’s Chair, and in 1995 there was the first – and last – play he ever wrote for the West End called The Weekend. He took a major acting role in 1991 in the Alan Bleasdale drama GBH and did movies such as American Friends and Fierce Creatures, which was John Cleese’s follow-up to A Fish Called Wanda.

He still travels everywhere with his notepad and pens all his notes in longhand. The hardest thing about writing is the freedom.

“The difficult thing I find with writing is that it can go in any direction. I’m thinking of novels really, not the travel books – the travel books are rather different because it’s basically just recording notes I’ve taken.

“But with novels, the book keeps changing and the options seem to be far greater. If you’re doing something on stage it’s ‘bang!’ You’re in front of an audience and you’ve got to do it.”

Surprisingly, for a man who calls his one-man shows titles such as “40 Years Without A Proper Job”, he keeps a tight daily schedule – starting work at nine and finishing around 5pm.

“I very much have a routine. I’ve never signed a contract for longer than the duration of one particular project, so I have to keep making sure I know what I’m doing and what I’m planning to do, otherwise you get sidetracked into all sorts of distractions.”

And he’s planning to do a lot more, though the latest volume of diaries will be the last for a while.

“I always think ‘Retire from what?’ My life and work are sort of intricately interwoven. I work at home every day. It’s not a feeling like my father had when he was 65 of ‘Great, I don’t have to go to the office and to meetings any more’. I’ll work until I drop and possibly afterwards, you know? A travel series set in Heaven, perhaps!”

Crawley: starts 7.30pm, £31.50. Call 01293 553636.

Brighton: starts 7.30pm, £33.40. Call 0844 871 7615

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