Sir Michael Palin on North Korea, coronavirus, Torchwood and Bellaghy
It's now 50 years since Michael Palin first burst on to our television screens as part of anarchic comedy group Monty Python. Prior to an appearance at Seamus Heaney HomePlace last weekend, the comedian and famed travel presenter spoke to Jenny Lee about life after heart surgery, his trip to North Korea and his plans to keep on travelling
LAST month, Sir Michael Palin was honoured with the Special Recognition Award at the National Television Awards. Palin's career began in the acclaimed comedy group, Monty Python, who revolutionised comedy in the 1960s and 70s. The award marked the 50th anniversary of Monty Python and 30 years of his globetrotting TV documentaries – beginning with the his groundbreaking travel series, Around the World in 80 Days, as well as his other acting, presenting and writing work and, of course, his voice-over in The Clangers.
But rather than talk about his own plaudits, Palin, who received a knighthood for services to travel, culture and geography in 2019, was quick to dedicate his award to his fellow Monty Python star Terry Jones, who passed away in January.
"He taught me more about television than anyone else. Terry always worked to get something right. He had a certain skill in being very ruthless but also charming at the same time," he said of his colleague and friend.
The fragility of life is something Palin has experienced at first hand – last autumn he underwent open heart surgery, to fix a leaky mitral valve. Now back at work, he admits the whole experience has changed him.
"I certainly value each day now. It's taken me a while to realise I've had quite a traumatic invasion of my body. You think you are fit quite soon after, but in reality the repercussions go on for quite some time. But I feel very well now, and certainly much better than I did just before having the operation."
On doctor's orders, Palin was forced to take three months off work – his longest period of down-time ever.
"I'm not very good at doing nothing," he says.
"It's very hard to stop, nor did I want to stop. Straight after the operation when you're not feeling strong, that is fine – you don't want to do very much and I read a lot. But as soon as I felt slightly better, my old curiosity for work returned. Lots of people seemed to be offering me work here and there.
"Previously I was going from one thing to another, without really having time to consider what I really wanted to do. Now that I'm 76, I don't feel competitive and I don't feel the need to rush and do everything. So I used the time in recovery to really think about what I really wanted to do next. So, from that point of view, it's been a useful period."
So, does these future plans include travel?
He tells me: "I will certainly be doing more filming, and the team that I went to North Korea with are anxious to get on the road again. We will probably do a trip in the middle of this year.
"The journeys I make will be shorter – that's partly because other people are doing the same kind of work now and also I've got grandchildren here growing up and I don't want to be absent for too long. But I feel very fortunate to have seen so much of the world already and I don't feel that I need to see a lot more."
It seems that even the current Coronavirus outbreak has not put him off travelling: "No. We shot a lot of the Himalayas series during the SARS epidemic. I'm used to people at airports with masks off. It wouldn't put me off."
Palin added Bellaghy to his much-travelled list when he visited the Co Derry village for the first time last weekend, where he was in conversation with novelist Glenn Patterson for a sell-out audience at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace.
"I thought it was an interesting place to go and it was interesting being in the centre of Northern Ireland, rather than in Belfast, which I know well," said Palin, admitting he did some last minute Heaney poetry reading ahead of his talk.
Amongst the topics he discussed was his visit to North Korea in 2018, which he documented in his two-part Channel 5 travelogue and accompanying North Korea Journal book.
It took two years of high-level negotiations before Palin and his team from ITN Productions were finally granted unprecedented access to the secretive nation, which has long been known for its mistrust of the west.
It was a journey he describes as "the most revealing story of my life", and yet he was pleasantly surprised by what he witnessed.
"It was much less menacing and slightly less sinister than I had expected. The people we met were warm and very friendly and although they are living in this sort of bubble, with the Kim family running the whole show, they didn't seem to be too unhappy.
"There were cafes and people on the street dancing to music and eating, it didn't seem utterly grim. Of course, we were carefully controlled, and we were probably shown the things they wanted us to see. But we were there two weeks and during that period you do get a chance to look around with your own eyes and observe beyond the politics."
Environmentally and politically, the world is a very different landscape from when Palin began his travel documentaries – and yet in reflection he observes "people pretty much remain the same".
"We are in the midst of Brexit and there are many things that have changed in the past 20 years, particularly with the growth of the internet. But all over the world people have the same preoccupations that they did before – to make a living, look after your family, give them an education, have a roof over their heads and enough food. That's pretty much universal."
Palin was also discussing his new book Erebus: The Story of a Ship, which follows its launch in 1826 through to the epic voyages of discovery and ultimate catastrophe in the Arctic.
However, whilst he would like to do a follow-up to Erebus, writing a book about the Titanic isn't on his radar: "The Titanic has been well covered. I tend to be more interested in the smaller stories – the ones that don't get told, but once you find out about them, they are extraordinarily revealing.
"In the case of Erebus, it was its first journey to the Antarctic that interested me – it demonstrated amazing success and such great bravery to stay down in the Antarctic in a small wooden boat for four years."
The Python star has also landed a key role in an upcoming Doctor Who spin-off release. He will be the narrator of a of a 'haunted self-help tape' in a brand new story out in April, called Torchwood: Tropical Beach Sounds and Other Relaxing Seascapes #4.
"It's such a complex piece – from larky-jokey to very, very violent. It's quite an adventure for me," says Palin, who confesses he isn't even a Torchwood fan.
"I haven't seen a lot of it. I don't watch much television – mainly Match Of The Day. I did it because it was a rather fascinating piece of writing."