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ichael Palin would like us all to be­lieve that he’s not a nice per­son. Nice­ness is a charge that’s been lev­elled at him con­stantly through­out his 50 years in the public eye; still, he

In­ter­view by MEG MA­SON

in­sists, it’s sim­ply a per­sona foist upon him by oth­ers. “I was never re­ally nice,” Palin tells Stel­lar. “Or [at least] not nicer than any­body else.”

But as ev­i­dence to the con­trary, he’s per­fectly happy get­ting on the phone with Stel­lar at 11.45pm – his time in the UK. And rather than be­ing put through via a pha­lanx of agents and man­agers, he picks up the phone him­self, hav­ing passed along his home num­ber. When it’s noted this is a rar­ity in the celebrity world, Palin con­cedes: all right, then, per­haps there’s some­thing to it. “I think I just used to avoid con­fronta­tions, un­like my fa­ther who en­joyed it greatly,” he ex­plains. “That is prob­a­bly the key to it.”

Be­fore he be­came a mem­ber of the leg­endary Monty Python com­edy troupe, an ac­tor, a writer and an ex­plorer, Palin, now 75, was a typ­i­cal child grow­ing up in the north­ern UK city of Sh­effield dur­ing the ’40s and ’50s; a trainspot­ter, a lover of at­lases, an avid reader of ad­ven­ture tales and an ex­pert im­pres­sion­ist. Ru­mi­nat­ing on that boy, Palin says, “I think I’m rather close to him. Ev­ery­thing I am do­ing now, I was dream­ing about at the time.”

Around the time he fin­ished at the Uni­ver­sity of Ox­ford, Palin and fel­low alum­nus Terry Jones met the other four per­form­ers, in­clud­ing John Cleese, and the Monty Python group was formed. (Un­sur­pris­ingly, Palin was branded “the nice Python”.) Quickly, they came to be con­sid­ered the Bea­tles of com­edy; pressed to pick their ‘Hey Jude’, Palin says, “Peo­ple have their own par­tic­u­lar favourites, but Life Of Brian seems to stick in peo­ple’s minds.” As Palin points out, of all the catch­phrases hollered at him from the win­dows of cars, it’s “He’s not the Mes­siah. He’s a very naughty boy!”

A sec­ond ca­reer af­ter enor­mous early suc­cess is never guar­an­teed, but af­ter Python dis­banded, Palin went on to act – he nabbed a BAFTA for his role in A Fish Called Wanda – and even­tu­ally de­velop

im­mensely suc­cess­ful travel pro­grams, in­clud­ing Pole To Pole and Around The World In 80 Days. (Co­me­dian Griff Rhys Jones re­cently joked that de­vel­op­ing his own travel pro­gram was made dif­fi­cult by the fact that any­where in the world he thought to go, Palin had al­ready been.)

Al­though it meant long stretches on the road – Full Cir­cle took him around the Pa­cific Rim and away from home for 10 months – his wife He­len Gib­bins, a be­reave­ment coun­sel­lor to whom he’s been mar­ried for 52 years, never minded that Palin ven­tured off, leav­ing her to look af­ter their three chil­dren. “It must have been very dif­fi­cult for her and the chil­dren,” Palin ad­mits. “What­ever it was, she was sort of un­der­stand­ing be­cause we’d been mar­ried a long time, and I think she knows when I’m happy and when I’m un­happy and frus­trated. Prob­a­bly she was only too pleased for a bit of a breather.”

The ex­cep­tion was a trip this year to North Korea. “Fun­nily enough,” Palin tells Stel­lar, “she did say, ‘I’m a bit wor­ried about you go­ing there. Do you re­ally want to?’” Dur­ing the plan­ning stages, “There was a lot of bel­liger­ence in the air, a lot of talk of mis­siles be­ing launched and all that.” Palin ended up spend­ing two weeks in­side the closed coun­try. “There was still a feel­ing that this was an in­stantly change­able sit­u­a­tion,” he says. “We might find our­selves in the mid­dle of some mis­sile cri­sis and not able to get out, so there was quite a fris­son to go­ing there.”

Palin lives the kind of life that can in­duce whiplash – stand­ing at the North Pole one week, in the queue at his lo­cal post of­fice the next. De­spite that, he says, “I think I’m rea­son­ably well-ad­justed. I’m sort of a mix­ture of in­tro­vert and ex­tro­vert, a home lover and a trav­eller. When you’ve been away for a long time, you have a dif­fer­ent view of the com­forts of home, the plea­sures of the com­pany of your fam­ily. In a way, it in­creases one’s aware­ness of what you’re re­ally grate­ful for.”

As for which part of his ca­reer he is most proud of – the com­edy, travel, books, stage shows, and char­ity work around prison re­form, con­ser­va­tion and lit­er­acy – Palin pauses for a mo­ment to think. “I’m most proud of the fact I’ve been able to do a lot of dif­fer­ent things; that gen­er­ally I’ve re­mained in con­trol of my life and my choices. I don’t think I’ve ever sold out. I still have to pinch my­self that I’ve done all I ever wanted to.” Michael Palin Live On Stage tours Mel­bourne, Syd­ney and Bris­bane, from De­cem­ber 4 to 6. Visit tick­etek.com.au.

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