HE LEFT Sheffield as a teenager and it seems like he’s been on the road ever since...
But it’s actually been five years since intrepid journeyman and all-round good egg Michael Palin last set off on one of his epic journeys.
He’s been happy being a home bird for a while, but it could never be forever, he explains.
“I have a low boredom threshold. Travelling is like having a shot of strong coffee. It galvanises the senses, physical and mental.”
Palin, who turns 70 next year, was also concerned that if he left it much longer, he might become a bit too old for mammoth excursions.
“But then I look at David Attenborough,” he counters. “There he is, 86 and still sitting on top of an iceberg somewhere doing a piece to camera. As long as you’re enthusiastic and curious, you might as well keep at it.”
So, with itchy feet dragging him away from the comfort of his home in north London, Palin set off for Brazil, a country not previously stamped on his passport but now the subject of his new BBC One series and accompanying book.
Today, as Blades fan Palin sits in his offices in London’s Covent Garden, looking fit and tanned in denim shirt and Armani jeans, he explains that all he knew about Brazil was that it represented sun, sea and samba - and the most successful national football team in history.
“It’s the fifth biggest country in the world and I can’t quite think why I’ve missed it,” says the former Monty Python star, whose travel series have included Around The World In 80 Days, Pole To Pole, Sahara, Himalaya and New Europe.
As is common in Palin’s travel itineraries, life on the road wasn’t always comfortable. During the four months he was travelling he wrapped himself up in mosquito nets in the Amazonian rainforest and equipped himself with a bodyguard when filming in some of Brazil’s more dangerous urban shanty towns, known as favelas.
These towns used to be a no-go area for visitors because they were controlled by the drug gangs. But, ahead of the World Cup in 2014 and the Rio Olympics in 2016, a policy called ‘pacification’ is trying to rid the areas of vice and integrate them into city life.
“There’s still an edgy feel,” says Palin, whose comedy exploits, travel shows and all-round nice guy style earned him a star in Sheffield’s hall of fame outside the Town Hall.
“You’ve got to have someone with you in the street and as soon as you enter the shanty town you have to open all the windows of your vehicle so that they can see you. They just want to know that you’re a white film crew with permission to film there and not a rival drug gang coming in.”
Though he coped quite ably with city life, nothing could have prepared him for a terrifying encounter with a wild boar while staying with an indigenous tribe in a remote rainforest, sleeping in hammocks in a large circular hut.
“In the middle of the night I needed to answer the call of nature, but there were no toilets. I creaked the door open and went out and was having a pee in the bushes when, ‘Rooooaaarrr!’ there’s this massive noise from this thing crashing through the grass towards me,” he recalls.
“It was quite aggressive and I was terrified so I ran back very fast but then I couldn’t find the door. I thought I was going to be trodden on.
“But then I saw one of the ladies in the tribe was holding the door open for me and I realised that, for them, opening and shutting the door at night is very important because it’s security for the whole tribe.”
Despite this brush with danger, Palin’s family were quite happy about him going off on his travels again, he insists.
“I spend a lot of time at home because I work at home. I’d been writing a novel for three years (The Truth, published earlier this year). So I was just getting in the way. My wife was quite glad to get me out so she could run the place for a bit.”
He’s been married to Helen for 46 years and they have three grown-up children and two grandsons, on whom he dotes.
“They are fascinated by the fact I’m seeing these amazing waterfalls and going into the jungle and all that sort of thing. They think I’m going to get eaten.”
He rarely brings back souvenirs from his journeys because he likes to travel light. “Most of it you can buy in Islington Market anyway,” he jokes.
And he no longer packs home comforts when filming in far-flung destinations. “I take my little black notebooks, which are vital to record my observations. If you are going somewhere in the outback you just take toilet rolls. I’ve tried taking a jar of Oxford Marmalade but, with a TV crew there, it’s often gone in a couple of days. They’re voracious, those boys.”
The most difficult aspect of long absences from home is slotting back into family life on his return, he says.
“You’ve been in this strange, exotic, wonderful world and your family haven’t. They don’t really want you to to sit around the kitchen table telling them your stories - they want you to ring the plumber and take the car in for a service and all the things they’ve had to do for the last month. You get brought back down to earth very quickly.”
Palin remains in good shape, perhaps mindful that he’ll need to retain his fitness for further expeditions.
“Fitness is really important. I still manage to go running on Hampstead Heath twice a week, which is quite a good stretch up hill and down dale. I’m careful about what I eat and I walk a lot,” he says.
Just as well - he’ll need all his energies as he embarks on a tour of Australia and New Zealand to promote The Truth. And who knows where he’ll end up next?
He says: “However happy I might be at home, as long as there are maps and guide books and airline schedules, I am still fatally susceptible to the lure of the open road.”
Brazil begins on BBC One on Wednesday, October 24. The accompanying book is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £25 (eBook £12.99). Available now.
Michael Palin facts
Michael Palin was born on May 5, 1943 in Broomfield, Sheffield.
Michael studied at Birkdale School, Sheffield
Studied Modern History at Oxford University, where he met Terry Jones.
Formed Monty Python’s Flying Circus with John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman, often playing the straight man, such as the dead parrot vendor.
Film appearances include A Fish Called Wanda, The Wind In The Willows and Terry Gilliam’s science fantasy Brazil.