Michael Palin interview: Monty Python’s 50th, tales of a naval disaster and his Sheffield upbringing - ‘I still feel I’m a lodger in London’

As a Birkdale schoolboy fond of scouring the bookshelves at Sheffield's Central Library, Michael Palin always made a beeline for a certain type of story - heroic seafaring tales like CS Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels and The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat.

By Richard Blackledge
Monday, 20th May 2019, 2:13 pm
Michael Palin. Picture: John Swannell
Michael Palin. Picture: John Swannell

Now, after exploring the globe for travel documentaries, acting in films and clowning as part of the Monty Python comedy troupe, Palin has drawn on one of his earliest passions by writing a biography - but not of a person.

Erebus: The Story of a Ship recounts the entire history of HMS Erebus, a Royal Navy vessel launched in 1826 and later captained by the dashing James Clark Ross, who charted much of the Antarctic's Great Southern Barrier, oversaw scientific advances in the understanding of Earth's magnetic field and sailed further south than anyone had ventured before.

Michael Palin at the Hudsons Bay hut on his trip to the Arctic. Picture: Rick Keilhauer

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But following the triumph came tragedy. In 1845 Sir James Franklin led the craft and its sister ship, HMS Terror, on a catastrophic voyage to the frozen North from which none of the 134 crew members returned. It is believed many were crippled with scurvy and poisoned with lead from poor-quality tinned food, while claims of cannibalism - 'the last dread alternative', as a report from the 19th century put it - were met with horror and denial back home in Britain.

The wreck of Erebus, a name from classical mythology referring to the heart of the underworld, was finally discovered off the coast of Canada in 2014, firing Palin's imagination. He visited the Falklands and Tasmania where the ship dropped anchor in better times, and the Arctic itself, close to where Franklin's mission fell apart with appalling consequences.

"I wanted to tell the story of a ship that in some ways had largely been ignored, associated only in most people's minds with the disaster," says Palin, talking amiably on the phone from his home in Gospel Oak, London. "I realised it had made this extraordinary journey for four years down to the Antarctic, it's still the furthest south any sailing ship has ever been without any motor at all. And no-one really knew much about this part of the journey. I felt this had got to be told. All the crew and officers and all the people who'd been on board Erebus are now long gone, but the ship itself is there, holding some secrets still. And I think that's absolutely fascinating." 

It is a busy period. Along with the book he is appearing in the ITV adaptation of Vanity Fair as the novel's author William Makepeace Thackeray, has a series about North Korea on the way for Channel 5 and his archive is on display until November at the British Library.

Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin

"There seems to be so many things going on which I'm involved in all happening at the same time, so I've got to keep a clear head about what I'm actually doing or talking about," he says, laughing in a slightly frazzled way. He has been referred to several times as Britain's Nicest Man: "It’s become a sort of cliché that’s attached to me," he acknowledged in 2014. This image has been perpetuated by his kindly demeanour on television, and it's true that he is extremely affable – but equally he's unafraid of speaking his mind.

He admits there was a risk of getting overwhelmed when tackling the Erebus story. He studied maps, letters and journals, and filled two shelves with research volumes. "I bought - or borrowed - almost everything written about the ship." 

None of them were specifically about the topic at hand, either. "You have to look at books like 'The History of the Bomb Vessel', because that's what the ship was originally, it was a warship which lobbed mortar shells on to coastal defences. There were moments when I just thought 'This is all too much'. I've got to keep my own voice in there, and I've got to keep remembering I'm telling a story which I hope will enthral people and keep them reading. That was an almost daily struggle, to get the balance right. But I had a very good editor at Penguin, he could see what I wanted, trimmed things and put things in. It was a good process."

Some authors would likely have skipped straight to the doomed voyage, which was mounted to find a route through the Northwest Passage, but Palin, a former president of the Royal Geographic Society, had other ideas. "There was a great climax to the life of Erebus, but that story has been told. That was, I suppose, actually my main motive for doing the book. There was so much that made it all new and fresh."

There is a subtle environmental theme throughout - the sailors saw 30 whales in one day, he writes, and they spotted a coral reef growing rather than dying. The onboard surgeon Robert McCormick, however, seemed hell-bent on shooting every animal in sight, from birds to giant turtles. And Palin highlights the hubristic attitude of the senior crew, remarking that they were more interested in packing monogrammed crockery than gleaning survival tips from the Inuit. The pronouncements of Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers would suggest this stance endures in 2018.

"I think there's still a certain amount of feeling that 'We're British so we can solve anything'. And we still have a lot of that attitude except we don't have the ability to rule the waves any more, we've got a very small Navy and we're not in any sense the big player we were in the 1840s. So I think we have to realise things are slightly different now - that we're not caretakers of the world."

The UK's departure from the EU is 'not what the book is about', he emphasises, but he isn't entirely comfortable with our impending split from Brussels.

"I think it's all very complicated. And I think it goes back really to a very strange way of deciding such major things, just to tick a box as David Cameron asked us to do. I think that's not the way to make major decisions like this. We should have done it through Parliament, through a constitutional means, not by just asking people 'Do you like foreigners or not?' I know it wasn't that at all, but that's not far from it. It's sort of closing the gates rather than opening them, and I've been always rather keen on opening gates, that's been my life - trying to meet people, trying to talk to people from all over the world to discover what we have in common."

Palin, 75, was born on Whitworth Road, Ranmoor, in the first floor front room of the family home. He once said he and his older sister Angela - who struggled with depression and, tragically, took her own life in 1987 - had a secure upbringing but were 'not exactly pampered' by their parents Mary and Edward. His father was by all accounts short-tempered, with a pronounced stammer, and worked as a factory manager.

His talent for comedy emerged at Birkdale School, where he imitated teachers to amuse his classmates.  

"I always think back as far as I can to what it was that caught my interest when I was young. The films I saw and the books I read during my first 20 years in Sheffield were the ones that have affected me. And I don't think in your life you suddenly cut off from your childhood and begin again. It's all there. The library in Sheffield was terribly important; the children's library first of all, that's where I'd go and get my Just William books. My dad would go upstairs and get his Dorothy Sayers crime thrillers. We needed that library and it really enriched my life and inspired me in lots of ways."

Palin wrote to The Star in dismay when the Central Library looked like being converted into a five-star hotel, a plan that has since been dropped. "I think it's a very fine building. There is a danger, if you're not careful, of public service buildings like libraries and post offices being hived off. We're losing the feeling of a community, of public gathering places." 

Despite years of living in London, Palin still identifies as a Northerner.

"Sheffield had lots of space, outside on the moors and the crags up in Lodge Moor and all that - you could access the countryside straight away. It had hills, stone buildings, all these things I rather miss in London. But London is a good working town for what I do. I still feel I'm just a lodger here."

From Birkdale he went on to Shrewsbury School, but came back to Sheffield for a spell after being rejected by Clare College, Cambridge. He worked in the publicity department of the Edgar Allen steelworks and signed up to the Brightside and Carbrook Co-operative Players, making his debut on the amateur stage at the Library Theatre in May 1962. The performing properly took hold after he won a place to read modern history at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he joined the university revue. He later devised Monty Python's Flying Circus together with John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, another revue member.

When he embarked on Erebus in 2014, the Pythons had just completed 10 nights at the O2 Arena in front of 150,000 people. Palin enjoyed it perhaps more than he thought he would - "It was very moving" - but the run is unlikely to be repeated. "I just think we've got to accept the realities. Now we couldn't do that again."

Jones is suffering from a form of dementia, making further work difficult. Chapman died of cancer in 1989 - footage of him was screened at the O2. "I think that's the last big unified Python show we'll do. Python is 50 years old next year so I think there'll be memories and celebrations." 

Palin has been married to his wife Helen, a bereavement counsellor, since 1966 - "People ask me what's the secret and I say inertia," he told The Sunday Times at the weekend - and together they have three grown-up children. He was awarded a CBE in 2000 and, motivated by his late father, gave his name to the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering in central London.

Retirement is not on his mind. "I'm still energetic, very curious and open to ideas. So I don't know what will happen next. Everything you do takes you a little further forward. I'm not thinking of giving up."

Erebus: Story of a Ship is published by Hutchinson next Thursday, September 20, priced £20 in hardback.

‘Either you laugh at Python or you don’t’

In July, John Cleese said Monty Python's Flying Circus was 'too funny' to be shown again on the BBC - and Michael Palin also questions the lack of repeat airings.

"I do think it's quite odd. I don't really know why this is, but the BBC haven't repeated Monty Python for years. They repeat Dad's Army, which I love and watch religiously. It's exactly the same age as Python, which has had worldwide success and brought the BBC a great deal of revenue and approval."

Cleese's comments came a month after the corporation's head of comedy commissioning, Shane Allen, said: "If you’re going to assemble a team now it’s not going to be six Oxbridge white blokes. It’s going to be a diverse range of people who reflect the modern world.”

Does it hurt Palin for his group to be held up as an example of how not to do things?

"No, it doesn't hurt. You can't say a comedy show, or a work of drama or anything, has to come from a particular social group and not another. That's ridiculous. You can be funny if you're an Etonian or if you've just come out of prison. The point is as many people as possible should be given the chance to write comedy, I absolutely accept that. If that's what he's trying to say, then I think he's right."

The supposed misogyny of some of the Python material came under the spotlight when the series was added to Netflix earlier this year. When asked whether he feels uncomfortable with any of the old scripts, Palin says: "It's of its own period. I suppose you could say nowadays there are things we probably wouldn't have written but I don't want to get in to that, I don't want to get in to the political correctness debate. I think it goes down a terrible cul-de-sac, it doesn't get you anywhere. Either you laugh at Python or you don't, end of story."