In an interview conducted before fellow Monty Python star Terry Jones died, Sir Michael Palin talks to Sebastian Oake about his trip to North Korea and life after heart surgery.
Sheffield-born globetrotter and Monty Python star Sir Michael Palin has never been afraid to send up his native Yorkshire. In Monty Python’s 2014 version of the well-known Four Yorkshiremen sketch, he brags about a life of grit and hardship.
“You were lucky!” he tells his fellow Pythons. “We lived for three months in a rolled-up newspaper in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six in the morning, clean the newspaper, go to work down mill for 14 hours a day, week-in week-out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our dad would thrash us to sleep wi’ ’is belt!”
Meanwhile, in a musical part of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life film, he plays a mill worker again, who, when the mill is closed down, decides to sell his 63 children for medical experiments to help pay the bills.
And in one of the Ripping Yarns TV comedies, he is a die-hard fan of Barnstoneworth United, a small and failing Yorkshire football club, known for losing every game.
Some might say that one was just a little too close to the bone…
Perhaps surprisingly then he was voted the Greatest Ever Yorkshireman in a poll by Npower to mark Yorkshire Day. “That made me so many enemies, from Geoffrey Boycott down,” he laughs now. “I can imagine him thinking: ‘He doesn’t even live in Yorkshire and he talks posh too!’”
In truth, Palin’s early life failed to match the misery he would later brag about to his fellow “Yorkshiremen” Pythons. “I had a very happy childhood and have very fond memories of Sheffield,” he says.
“When I was growing up I had direct access to marvellous countryside, the edge of the Peak District. There was this spot we used to call the Crags. I would often go out there on my bike. The scenery was like something out of a Western and you could pretend you were John Wayne!”
Palin was born on Whitworth Road, in Sheffield’s Ranmoor, during the war years. His father, Edward, was an export manager for steel firm Edgar Allen.
He attended the private Birkdale Preparatory School, in the city, before moving on to Shrewsbury School and then Brasenose College, Oxford. It was while he was at university that he met Terry Jones, who sadly died last month, and sealed his comedy future.
These days, he is equally well-known for his career as a travel writer and presenter, criss-crossing the world in search of stories of people and places. His most recent adventure took him to North Korea, where he spent two weeks lifting the lid on life in the reclusive state. The trip made a big impression on him.
“The capital, Pyongyang, was very ordered,” he recalls. “People were noticeably well disciplined and well behaved on the street – there was no shouting, arguing or anything like that. But there was this air of slightly menacing unreality. There were roads but few cars. There were streets with some cafes but we were not free to go there unless accompanied by minders. From very early in the morning, publicly broadcast music reverberated across the city. You wake up and hear these chords of patriotic music coming from somewhere – I was baffled by it at first.
“I was expecting lots of military parades but on May Day we were taken to parkland where there was a funfair. It was a day off for workers and lots of families were enjoying Korean barbecues. They offered us food and a glass or two of soju.”
Soju is a distilled drink usually consumed neat and with an alcohol content ranging from 16 per cent to an alarming 53. “By lunchtime everyone was having a high old time,” says Palin. “What they were like by the evening, God knows!
“But although it wasn’t as militaristic as I had expected, the people were clearly indoctrinated. It was forbidden to criticise the leadership in any way. I suppose indoctrination was a way to give hope and inspiration to people in a plucky little country pitching itself against the rest of the world.”
North Korea Journal, the book recounting the visit, came out last autumn but a promotional tour had to be cancelled. In September, Palin was admitted to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, in London, for open heart surgery after getting increasingly breathless.
“I was opened up by the same surgeon who’d done Alan Bennett earlier in the year – I met Alan in the waiting room,” Palin says. Although he feels so much better now, life and work had to be put on hold. “I was in hospital for one week, had immediate convalescence and was then told to take three months off and do nothing.”
Today, he is back at work, but he says the whole experience has changed him. “I now feel aware that ageing isn’t just about getting older. It’s also about the body becoming prone to more difficulties. I value each day now. I look out the window and see things more. I feel intense pleasure that I’m still alive.”
Palin is now busy editing material for the fourth volume of his well-received diaries, taking the story up to 2010. It is due out next year. And another travel documentary could be on the cards. “It will be a short journey, like the North Korea one. I want to go somewhere I haven’t been before and learn a lot that I didn’t know.”
And where is that likely to be? He is almost apologetic at being necessarily evasive. “There are some ideas going round but no decision has been made yet,” he says.
It is nearly impossible not to like Michael Palin. John Cleese famously once said: “Michael is not a man who will die on the barricades but he will die with thousands of friends.” Palin certainly has the reputation of being affable and conciliatory. It is said he is the only Python to have been on speaking terms with all the others at all times, and he spoke movingly about the recent loss of his old friend Terry Jones.
Last June Palin was presented with a knighthood for services to travel, culture and geography. But despite all the travelling, the comedy, being an A list celebrity and often being quoted as the ideal dinner party guest, Palin remains decidedly grounded. He lives in a fairly modest, albeit extended, north London town house and has done so for the past 52 years.
He met his wife Helen when he was on holiday in Suffolk aged just 16. He is now 76. They have three children: Tom, Will and Rachel and now four grandchildren.
“We’re a close family and we all get on,” he says. “We live within 20-30 minutes of each other. I do have a settled and really quite ordinary domestic life but it has enabled me to go out and do extraordinary things. I feel very lucky.”