How filming his new travel series Nigeria helped Sir Michael Palin cope with the death of his of wife

In Channel 5’s Michael Palin in Nigeria, Sir Michael embarks on a 1,300-mile journey across the country which helped him cope with the loss of his wife. Kerri-Ann Roper writes
Photo from Michael Palin in Nigeria Picture: ITN / Channel 5 Television. NPhoto from Michael Palin in Nigeria Picture: ITN / Channel 5 Television. N
Photo from Michael Palin in Nigeria Picture: ITN / Channel 5 Television. N

Sir Michael Palin may be an octogenarian, having turned 80 last year, but if his adventures in Nigeria are anything to go by, it is clear he has no plans of slowing down any time soon. He is back on screens in Channel 5’s Michael Palin In Nigeria, which sees him visit a country he has never been to before.

Given that the comedian, writer and presenter has been making TV travelogues for the best part of 40 years, it is a rarity to find a corner of the globe he has not explored, resulting in a trip crammed with firsts for Sir Michael.

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The three-part documentary sees the Monty Python star embark on a 1,300-mile journey across Nigeria, known as The Giant of Africa, with estimates that within 50 years it will be the third most populated country in the world after India and China.

Photo from Michael Palin in Nigeria. Picture: ITN / Channel 5 Television.Photo from Michael Palin in Nigeria. Picture: ITN / Channel 5 Television.
Photo from Michael Palin in Nigeria. Picture: ITN / Channel 5 Television.

“I’m interested in countries that have great potential but for some reason and in some particular ways, don’t seem to be fulfilling it at the moment,” he explains.

“That happens in lots of countries including our own, but it’s of particular interest when you’re a traveller and you’re curious, and it gives a documentary an edge instead of looking around and just saying that everything is absolutely fine”.

He was also “interested in finding out what is really going on beneath the surface” and dives straight in during the first episode (available on My 5) , where viewers will get to see him visit Makoko, often characterised as the biggest slum in Africa, as well as the coastal town of Badagry, which was once a slave port.

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He also gets a glimpse at Lagos’ bustling nightlife, and meets Yeni Kuti, the daughter of late musician Fela Kuti – who is regarded as the father of Afrobeat.

The series follows the 2022 series Michael Palin: Into Iraq and the Bafta-nominated Michael Palin In North Korea.

In addition, he has also become known for his globetrotting BBC travel programmes, which have seen him visit locations including the Himalayas and North and South Poles.

This trip though, was welcomed by the TV veteran for many reasons, not least because it comes following the loss of his wife of 57 years, Helen Gibbins, last year.

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Sir Michael met Helen while holidaying in the seaside town of Southwold, Suffolk, and later fictionalised the encounter in a 1987 TV drama for the BBC titled East Of Ipswich.

“I was actually very glad to go in the end, because since Helen died my life is very, very different,” Sheffield-born Sir Michael says.

“It is a bit like living in a vacuum if you’re not careful. We had 57 years of married life together and there are all those things you share, just the two of you, the little moments. I feel I’ve got to keep on working and Helen would want me to do that”.

He also wanted to “test” himself physically, he explains, “to see if I could still do this at 80 years old – and I found that I could”.

And there was another upside too.

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“I also found it was very good for me in terms of my mental capacity – you’re seeing something new, you’re trying to understand it and hoping to find out what’s really happening in a country,” he says.

He has also written a book to go alongside the series, he reveals, highlighting just one of his many career avenues after life as part of Monty Python and a stage show is also planned.

He was knighted in 2019 for services to travel, culture and geography, marking his post-Python career in TV and writing.

But during his time in Monty Python, he was involved in classic television and film comedies including Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975), Life Of Brian (1979) and The Meaning Of Life (1983).

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As well as TV shows and films, the surrealist group – also consisting of John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and the late Graham Chapman and Terry Jones – produced plays, books and musicals that became staples of popular culture.

Describing his first impressions of Nigeria, after landing in Lagos at 4.55am local time, he says: “Fairly chaotic and noisy. The airport is just full of people wandering about, everyone is larger than life, and the atmosphere is quite overwhelming to start with.”

But it is that energy that also adds to the unique experience of visiting Nigeria.

As Sir Michael discovers.

“Up to a certain point it is quite stimulating, and I realised later on that I felt a little bit freer sometimes in Nigeria than elsewhere,” he explains.

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“There’s far less interference on the part of health and safety for example, but at the same time the electricity doesn’t work reliably and there are open sewers, all that sort of stuff, which is quite a shock at first.

“What was refreshing was that the people in Nigeria are upfront and will talk about anything – they’ll smile, shout and yell at you, and within 30 seconds they’ll be your best mate.

“In the last couple of series I’ve made for Channel 5 in North Korea and Iraq, people couldn’t talk to you in that way, so it was great to be able to engage with local people.”

While during their travels they did not get to have a lot of home-cooked Nigerian food, which Sir Michael would liked to have done, he did encounter what he says were the “biggest snails” he has ever eaten.

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So much so, he had to tell one of his fellow globetrotting friends: naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.

“I couldn’t believe it, they were the size of steaks,” he says, adding: “I mentioned this to David Attenborough, who I see every now and then.

“He said, ‘The snails are huge in Nigeria’ and I said ‘Yes they are’. He asked me what they tasted like, and they don’t really taste of anything. So there was the odd exotic thing like that to enjoy.”

Another escapade in Nigeria involved nearly losing one of the vans they were travelling in.

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“Most of the infrastructure in the country wasn’t working terribly well, be it the electricity or the roads, and nobody seemed to do a great deal about it. They rely on huge trucks to transport most things and they often get stuck,” he says.

“We actually lost one of our vans at one point, because it got stuck and we didn’t really have proper towing equipment.

“We tried our best, and the local villagers heard about the film crew getting stuck, so lots of them helped push us out of the puddles to great cheers, but the vehicle never really recovered.”

Michael Palin In Nigeria is on Channel 5 catch up on My5.