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Michael Palin reveals how he’s coping after losing his soulmate of 60 years – and why he won’t let Nigerian bandits or his petulant Python co-stars get him down

- Michael Palin In Nigeria, later this month, Channel 5.

How do you handle the grief when you’ve just turned 80 and lost the love of your life? Michael Palin’s remarkable answer was to go travelling through one of the most vibrant but challengin­g nations on Earth. ‘The one thing that’s made me able to deal with Helen’s death after so many years together is the distractio­n of working,’ says the actor, comedian and former member of Monty Python, whose wife passed away at a hospice in May last year after suffering from chronic pain and kidney failure. They had been together for more than 60 years and he described her as the ‘bedrock’ of his life.

‘I was planning to go to Nigeria while Helen was still alive, but of course things changed,’ says Michael now, nearly a year on. ‘There was a period of several months when everything was about settling Helen’s affairs, getting used to being on my own in the house and all that, which was difficult. Then Channel 5 asked me how I’d feel about going there, and I said, “I’d like to do it.”’

He knew how hard it would be, having won many awards for journeys to tricky places such as Iraq and North Korea. Nigeria is an oilrich country with great natural beauty and a young, fast-growing population full of energy and creativity. But Nigerians themselves complain about the corruption that brings poverty and chaos, while whole regions are made dangerous by Islamists and warlords.

Why risk going there at all at his age and with a heart full of sorrows? ‘I would always talk to Helen about what I was doing, so it felt like a kind of continuity of my feelings for her that I should carry on doing this. I could hear her saying [to the producers], “Yes, he must go.”’

Gentle, genial and a very good listener, Michael seems to be able to get people talking on camera wherever he goes, but nobody has had more of his attention over the years than Helen, from the moment they met as teenagers on holiday in Suffolk in 1959. She was there when he became famous in Monty Python alongside John Cleese, Eric Idle and the others and was with him later when he conquered Hollywood in A Fish Called Wanda.

They raised two sons and a daughter together at their home in north London and in time saw four grandchild­ren arrive. Helen was his companion and sounding board as he wrote bestsellin­g books such as Great-uncle Harry and she was there to listen when he came back from his travels. ‘There was a kind of echo between us,’ he says tenderly. ‘I needed her to know what I was thinking about, and very often she knew anyway, because she had a feel for that. Really, there’s no one who knows me so well. I miss that.’

As the anniversar­y of her death approaches, he says it would be impossible to imagine finding a love like that again. ‘I absolutely couldn’t replicate it, no. Nor would I really want to at the moment. But your feelings evolve. I’m less tearful now than I perhaps used to be when left in a room. It’s going to be something which you never get over entirely.’

When the trip to Nigeria came up he turned for advice to his children William, Rachel and Thomas. ‘There were two things that worried me. First there was the physical concern: “I’m 80 now, am I up to going through Nigeria?” The other thing was, how could I do it mentally and emotionall­y? How would Helen’s death affect what I was seeing and what I was doing? I asked the family and after that I knew the last thing Helen would want me to do was mooch around the house.’

How could he be sure? ‘She was quite ill for a couple of years, I was her carer really and I knew she felt she was a bit of a burden. I would say, “Of course you’re not, that is absolutely not the way I feel.” But that was how she felt. So I thought she’d be glad if I did the journey.’

What about the physical challenge? He looks a lot younger than 80 in his desert boots and skinny jeans, untucked shirt and sports jacket, with his silvered hair brushed back. ‘You’ve got to be OK to do all this travelling. You’re moving from place to place meeting people, you’ve got to give an account of what you’re seeing on camera as you go and I was also writing a book about the journey so I was keeping notes too.’

That sounds exhausting for anyone. ‘Well, I’ve always been quite fit. I was a runner for 40 years, until I had open heart surgery in 2019 to have a couple of valves sorted. Now I walk almost every day on Hampstead Heath, so that keeps me fit. I was the least affected in the crew by intestinal gastric problems.’

They were not on camera though.

There was a kind of echo between Helen and me. She knew what I was thinking. I miss that

‘I was aware that whether you like it or not, people are looking at you. If you look rough then people will start saying, “Perhaps he should have stopped by now.” There aren’t many 80-year-old presenters. But of course, we all see in the far distance, glowing with a halo around his head, Sir David Attenborou­gh. You think, “I can’t stop now, he’s 97 and he’s probably standing in a swamp somewhere identifyin­g a very rare frog.”’

These two great British screen veterans have spoken about this. ‘I’ve said to Sir David, “You’ve got to stop, give us a break so we can all stop following you.” But there you are. He’s the example. And a fine one too.’

His age actually helped in Nigeria, he says. ‘I felt totally anonymous. At times I felt like an old geezer who’s got slightly lost in a country he doesn’t quite understand. This is not flippant, because the older you are, the more people are generous towards you. They treat you as a universal old bloke, so they help you.’

Were there any moments when he thought he might have taken on too much? ‘The arrival at the airport tested my enthusiasm. It was so chaotic. We had security right away but nobody seemed to quite know what was going on. It was clear things weren’t entirely working. I saw a lot of angry faces.’ When did he start to feel hope? ‘We filmed in a great big market and with the sheer intensity of what was going on I thought, “This is going to be wonderful.”’

Yet more armed guards joined the operation when they left Lagos. ‘Things intensifie­d when we went up to the north of the country, because there have been an awful lot of kidnapping­s and abductions.’ Michael’s convoy was forced off the road in bandit country and the production company back home tried to warn him off going to a town where there were reports of riots. ‘The security became quite serious. I don’t think they were just frightenin­g us. They were genuinely worried that things might happen to us.’

Through it all, on screen at least, he remained relentless­ly optimistic. ‘To quote Eric Idle’s song, I always look on the bright side of these things until I see evidence that we’re not OK.’

As ever, he was not afraid to ask people about really difficult subjects including slavery and the legacy of British colonial rule. Michael was deeply moved by a conversati­on with a young woman who’d been among the schoolgirl­s abducted by the Islamist group Boko Haram in 2014. And he was brought to the edge of tears in a village where the countrysid­e had been destroyed by oil spills and people killed by explosions in the pipeline. ‘Their lives have been ruined by the big oil companies. That was the low point of the journey for me, because the suffering of the people there was pretty awful.’

He also explored the wealthy side of Nigeria, hanging out with clubbers in the VIP lounges of Lagos. And Michael went to a church bigger than any he had ever seen before. ‘They’ve got 250,000 people all singing and jumping up and pointing to heaven and falling on the ground and wriggling about. You can feel this enormous emotion. It’s not me. I’m an uptight Englishman when it comes to religion really.

‘But I do like to make genuine connection­s with people. Nigeria was a joyful place after England in a way, because although things didn’t work – the lights kept going on and off – there was a spirit amongst the people and an openness that I found very gratifying.

‘They enjoy talking. I loved the music and the fun and the jokes. You may have a terrible journey to reach them and they may live in somewhere that’s pretty rundown with no proper, solid services, but they deal with it very well. I’m glad I went.’

The trip has clearly helped to distract Michael from his grief, but how is he coping now that he’s back to normality in Blighty? ‘The family are very close, they all live in London so I see them quite a lot. We are always conscious of Helen, we make sure we get together for her birthday or at Easter. I often think that if she could look down now and see what’s going on she would not only be laughing at my attempts to cook, but also very pleased that I haven’t given up doing things.’

Is he not tempted to put his feet up? ‘It’s gone rather the other way. I’m very busy. I’ve got a volume of diaries being published at the end of the year, so I’m editing those down to try to avoid legal actions.’ He sounds as if he’s joking, but might be serious given how fractious the Pythons have been with each other over the years.

Eric Idle made headlines in February by suggesting he still had to work for a living in his 80s despite the success of films like The Life Of Brian because financiall­y, in his words, ‘Python is a disaster.’ Does Michael agree? ‘My feeling is that Python worked best when we were doing comedy,’ he says carefully. ‘When we were producing comedy material, whether television series or films, we were a terrific unit. When we’re into business affairs and all that, people have different views.’

What does he mean? ‘I think it depends from what perspectiv­e you see things. Eric lives in America and the cost of living there – especially in Hollywood – is probably greater than for me in Kentish Town. So he’s probably more aware of how Python is run financiall­y. But it’s very difficult, we all have different approaches to what Python should be.’

I don’t think that reuniting Python would be a good idea. I don’t think you could do that again now

Michael is uncomforta­ble talking about this. ‘Different pythons have different needs. I can’t say more than that. I don’t see it as a financial disaster myself.’

Having complained about the cost of his divorces over the years, John Cleese is about to revive Fawlty Towers as a stage play in the West End. ‘It’s an argument that will go on: who needs what, when and how? I don’t think we should lose our sense of humour. The danger is that we have.’

The obvious answer would be to stage another highly lucrative reunion like the one at The O2 in 2014, but Michael says that won’t happen. ‘Sadly now, without Terry Jones or Graham Chapman, I don’t think reuniting Python as we did at the O2 would be a good idea. I thought the O2 was a wonderful send-off. I don’t think you could do that again now.’

Eric Idle has suggested he keeps working just for the money, but it’s clear Michael has other reasons. ‘Work’s been a great help and continues to be, so I think I’ll have to keep on working,’ he says, his sadness eased a little by a sense of purpose. ‘I feel that’s the right decision. That’s how I feel Helen would want me to carry on.’

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 ?? ?? Michael with his late wife Helen in 2015
Michael with his late wife Helen in 2015
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