“The Beatles split up on almost the day we started,” he tells me. “We had the same feeling as them. Everything was new. The younger generation, having been respectable for many years, deferring to their elders, suddenly found they could do things. The Beatles were 24 and they were millionaires.
“We happened to be the comedy equivalent of that kind of energy. It’s never really happened since, because in the next ten years, comedy became commercialised, people were organising themselves into companies, the sheer scatty mad lively spontaneity that was Python was what people remember.”
He chuckles. “How could any manager have allowed the Beatles to split up when they were still in their twenties? Barmey. They’d be given company deals.
“But Python never really became commercial. We just did it because we loved what we were doing.”
The Pythons - scatty, spontaneous, uncommercial, and back for one last hurrah this summer
Michael Palin has proved, arguably, the most versatile of all the Pythons – no small words when you consider the line-up of musical Eric Idle, filmmaker Terry Gilliam and intellectual John Cleese among the line-up. He’s also, inarguably, one of the most appealing public figures in Britain, popularity he puts down to lack of moodiness and interest in other people.
“Nice is a bit vacuous,” he protests, when pressed on where this priceless branding comes from. “Most people I know are quite nice, until they go a bit spare if they get knocked off a bicycle or something.
“I enjoy my life very much, I feel I’ve been very lucky and fortunate to do what I’m doing among the people I meet, and I can respond to warmth and friendliness, genuineness in other people.
“I can’t be with people and not say anything. I have to start ridiculously talking and blabbing on, to make them feel more comfortable and get something out of them. And I’m not particularly moody or glum. I tend to be ridiculously sunny about life, which irritates people.”
Michael Palin was initially nervous about heading out on his own for his popular travel programmes
Surprisingly, for a man so happy in his own skin, the skill of conveying his real self so successfully in his series of travel programmes that began with 'Round The World In 80 Days' is not one that came easily.
“It was a slightly ambiguous start,” he remembers. “Was I supposed to be an actor, was I supposed to be me, what was going on? How could I be me on TV? On TV you’re paid to be a presenter, it can’t just be you talking to your wife in the kitchen.
“But in the end that worked out best, me talking to people I met around the world as if I was talking to mates in the pub, and I quickly forgot about playing a role and ended up being comfortable being me.
“I suppose that’s why the series worked, and that was a great relief to discover that you could be natural, even if you were on television. When I did things that were slightly more forced, interviewing people I was bored with, people noticed. So I felt more myself on television doing the travel programmes than I did being a celebrity, which really does get in the way, unfortunately.
“I have to get close to people quite quickly because we’re only there for a day, and I have to find some way of getting through. I smile at them, and that comes from being genuine. If you like someone, show them, be interested and people respond to that.
“You’ve just got to think, ‘these are people living totally different lives from myself and yet they have mothers, they have kids, they bring them up, send them to school, there are lots of things we share.’”
"There are lots of things we share... I have to find some way of getting through"
More surprisingly for such a seasoned performer, Michael admits to a lack of confidence that the success of the travel programmes helped to conquer, to some measure.
“I like to be liked,” he says honestly. “Some people don’t seem to care, or they pretend not to care.”
The success of ‘Round the World in Eighty Days’ and the ensuing expeditions across the globe – both in TV and book form – have also given Michael the confidence, he admits, to apply one simple rule of thumb to the many projects he is offered.
“Can I be me?” is how he puts it. “Can I do something that I feel comfortable and natural in?
“So, for example, doing adverts, commercials, is something I’ve avoided doing, not because I’m being snotty about taking the money, but because there’s nothing I’m offered to advertise which I ever really want myself, so I’d be doing an ad for slightly dishonest reasons. Trying to entice someone to buy something, go somewhere, just because I’m being the money to do so, because I’m famous for something else.”
He has treasured being a previous president of the Royal Geographical Society, and his heart remains filled by the stammering centre he put his name to in 1992, following his role of Ken Pile, a stammering man, in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’. “My father stammered,” he remembers, “and if my dad had been able to have someone to have at least talk about the stammer and not pretend it wasn’t there, his life could have been completely different.”
However, interestingly for someone so well travelled and informed, he refrains from putting his celebrity thumb into any number of pies.
“All we’ve got to do is our job, and do it well. I think there’s a great danger that celebrities get drawn into something, they don’t quite know what it’s all about, you say, ‘oh yes, it’s awful that people are fighting… what about the animals’… and you don’t know what you’re talking about, and there are plenty of people who do know what they’re talking about and those are the people we should be listening to.
“Celebrities shouldn’t be shutting up the debate, they should be listening to other people say their stuff. I like to learn from people.
“You have to be very careful about what you’re doing, what you’re signing and what you’re prepared to see through.”
The project dear to Michael's heart - The Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children, which he helped found in 1992
Michael Palin isn’t somebody who will be available on Twitter any time soon – “I have enough friends, I don’t need 300 more” – but he sorely laments the breakdown in communication he sees around him, every time he opens the front door.
“We’ve become more self-absorbed and contained. Everyone’s defending their little patch. Shopping’s all got a bit easier, but you never stand in a queue, you never talk to the person serving you, so that’s two conversations less than we used to have – what other conversations are you having? With that, you lose the community feeling too, and we need to beware of that."
Michael Palin laments the conversations we've stopped having with strangers
For Michael, the simplest solution to this lies in communication.
“We have to be prepared to talk to and listen to people, not go through life in a complete cocoon, but be curious.
“This has been a huge problem in this country, partly due to the class system, false hierarchy, the bosses’ canteen and staff canteen, a split between north and south, little things like that get in the way of meeting people outside your normal comfort zone.
“I say hello, I look at people in the street and I make eye contact, and if we’re not careful now, that’s seen as a slightly dangerous thing. Especially as you can’t actually find anyone’s eyes because they’re all looking at their devices.
“But I love it when you see someone on the street, and you just have a smile as you go by. I sound daft, but it’s just a matter of contact and communication – we’re all in it together.”
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The Culture Of Kindness is our Huffington Post UK page dedicated to all TV shows and films that have kindness at their core - that celebrate warmth and generosity between us humans, and give a voice to those from whom we often overlook. See what treasures we've found here...