IT WAS as the hypochondriac headteacher of a special school in an unnamed Northern town that Michael Palin last led the cast of a major television drama.
The Sheffield-born actor and comic, who 45 years ago became immortalised as one of the Monty Python team, was cast against type in Alan Bleasdale’s uncompromising mini-series GBH, widely believed to have been based on the career of the then recently departed deputy leader of Liverpool City Council, Derek Hatton.
That was in 1991, and it has taken producers until now to persuade him to do an encore.
Yesterday, the BBC announced that Palin would star in Remember Me, a “supernatural thriller” to be set and filmed in Yorkshire. In a year that will also see him reunite with his Python colleagues for a series of sell-out live concerts, the new role is once again far removed from his usual image.
He will play Tom Parfitt, a frail, old Yorkshireman apparently alone in the world, who witnesses a murder on the day he is admitted to a nursing home.
Palin, who at 70 is still some way off such a scenario, says he was attracted to the part “because I could really get what remains of my teeth into it”.
He said: “This is my first lead role in a TV drama series since GBH. It’s also a return to Yorkshire, where I was born, brought up and learnt my acting in amateur dramatics.”
The drama, which begins filming this week in Huddersfield and Scarborough, also stars Mark Addy, familiar from the Sheffield-set film The Full Monty, and Larkrise to Candleford’s Julia Sawalha.
It has been written by Gwyneth Hughes, an award-winning former Yorkshire TV producer whose screenplays also include The Girl, the 2012 drama about Alfred Hitchcock’s relationship with his one of his leading ladies, Tippi Hedren.
Palin said he was attracted to the production “not only by the Northern setting, but also by a good, strong challenging role”, adding: “I’ve always loved ghost stories, so playing the lead in one is a very exciting prospect.”
It is by no means his first foray into Northern drama. In 1984 he co-starred with Dame Maggie Smith in Alan Bennett’s post-war food rationing comedy, A Private Function, which was filmed in Ilkley and produced by former Beatle George Harrison. He also famously participated in Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch, which took flat-cap stereotypes to new heights.
BBC One controller Charlotte Moore said his return to the small screen in a leading role was “a real coup” for the corporation.
Palin has forged a post-Python career traversing the world to make award-winning documentaries for the BBC, but though he has long lived in Gospel Oak, north London, he has never abandoned his Sheffield roots. Last summer he was a guest at the city’s annual documentary festival and earlier this month lent his name to a local campaign to keep open 16 public libraries threatened by council funding cuts.
In an interview with the Yorkshire Post last May, he said: “I always like coming back because I have a strong link with the city. Anywhere that’s been your home for the first 20-odd years of your life has got to influence you and Sheffield has influenced me in some ways, I’m sure of that.
“It was once said that one of the great things about the Monty Python team was that we were all provincial, we weren’t from London.
“We were outsiders and that gives you a certain attitude to life because you’re on the outside looking in. That was good for us because it meant we stayed independent and weren’t part of the metro set.”
Despite the shooting schedule for Remember Me and the Python reunion shows at London’s O2 Arena in the summer, Palin will not completely shake off his mantle as television’s most-travelled presenter since Alan Whicker.
He said: “I remain curious about the world and the Middle East is somewhere I’ve never really explored, apart from Egypt indirectly. There are so many stories to be told in places like Iran and Iraq that have so much history. Syria is another country I’d love to visit, although that’s not easy at the moment.”
The BBC said Remember Me would be screened later in the year.