Sheffield star Sir Michael Palin opens up about lifesaving operation – ‘I felt my heart was about to burst’

Sir Michael Palin has spoken of feeling ‘humbled but vulnerable’ after recovering from a lifesaving heart operation.

Monday, 2nd December 2019, 8:00 am

The Sheffield-born comedian, travel broadcaster, writer and actor announced in summer that he was to undergo surgery to fix a ‘leaky valve’ – and he told The Zoe Ball Breakfast Show that he had made a good recovery.

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Palin, aged 76, learned of a problem with his mitral valve - a small flap that stops blood flowing the wrong way around the heart - five years ago, but said the condition worsened ‘a bit out of the blue’.

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Michael Palin underwent heart surgery earlier this year.

“They said ‘Oh you can live with that, that’s fine’, and I suddenly realised - about last summer when I was doing some filming – that I felt my heart was about to burst, so I knew something was wrong,” he said on BBC Radio 2.

“They said ‘Yes, we’ll get you in’, and within a month I had my two valves repaired, a bit like having the builders in. I’m now feeling slightly hysterically recovered.”

He had to take a lengthy break from work – his first extended time off since the mid-1960s.

“I’ve always been freelance, so I’ve had to find the work where it comes along,” said Palin. “Anyone who’s freelance will tell you that you get very twitchy if the phone hasn’t rung at least three times during the day. The transition from doing comedy to travelling was great – I took it all on willingly, but when you have a little heart blip like this it slows you down and makes you stop and think a little bit.

“You think ‘My gosh’ – those surgeons in four and a quarter hours, or however long the operation was, probably prolonged my life by 15 years. I feel quite humbled but also vulnerable.”

Palin also talked to Ball about his North Korea Journal, which documents a trip he took to the secretive communist dictatorship that was filmed for a Channel 5 documentary broadcast in 2018.

“I was more apprehensive about it than any other place I’ve been to, and I’ve been to some quite strange and dangerous places,” he said.

“Although it is a completely controlled country, people were normal, in a way – they ate, drank and danced. I thought it was going to be very unhappy, and it was quite the opposite, actually.”

Palin, born in Ranmoor, found fame with the six-strong Monty Python troupe, who first appeared on the BBC 50 years ago in 1969 and went on to have global success with their often surreal comedy.

He told Ball about a recent visit he had made to see fellow Python star Terry Jones, 77, who has a form of dementia that has left him unable to communicate.

"The other day I took a book that we'd written together in the 1980s called Bert Fegg's Encyclopaedia Of All World Knowledge, which was sort of an anarchist children's book," he said.

"I read some of it - the things we'd written together - and amazing because Terry suddenly smiled and began to laugh.

“But the key thing was that he only laughed at the bits that he'd written. I thought, that shows that something is ticking over!"

Despite the laughter, Sir Michael said his friend is ‘not terribly well’.

“The kind of dementia he has is not something that can be cured particularly - it's just a matter of time. I go and see him, but he can't speak much, which is a terrible thing. For someone who was so witty and verbal and articulate and argued and debated and all that, to be deprived of speech is a hard thing.”