If there’s one person I’ve interviewed who needs no introduction, it’s Michael Palin, but in the interests of fairness and consistency I’ll provide you with one anyway. Growing up in Broomhill, Sheffield before reading Modern History at Oxford, he remains one of the UK’s best loved sons, having made his mark on the world through […]

If there’s one person I’ve interviewed who needs no introduction, it’s Michael Palin, but in the interests of fairness and consistency I’ll provide you with one anyway. Growing up in Broomhill, Sheffield before reading Modern History at Oxford, he remains one of the UK’s best loved sons, having made his mark on the world through arguably the most influential comedy group of all time. I grew up with The Holy Grail and Life of Brian, and I’m still waiting for a comedian or group of comedians who can evoke the same level of universal hilarity as Monty Python. I have a feeling I may be waiting a while.

Since the Pythons went their separate ways, Palin has become almost as well known for his travel documentaries for the BBC, among them Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole and Full Circle. He is also an accomplished author and once achieved that pinnacle of human achievement – a cameo in Home and Away.

I spoke to Michael ahead of his In Conversation event at the Crucible on 13th June as part of this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Why do you think it’s important to travel?

I don’t think it’s essential to travel, but I do think it broadens the mind. The old cliché is true. I’ve learnt a lot more about the world from actually seeing it, in a way that I wouldn’t have done if I’d sat at home and just read the papers and listened to the news broadcasts, because they tend to headline everything.

When you travel as I’ve been lucky enough to do on all these programmes, you see little things that you never expect to see – houses in very poor areas, houses in very rich areas, people being exploited, people doing the exploiting. But you actually do get your own view of the rest of the world, and I think that’s quite important because in many cases it reduces one’s fear and anxiety about the world which you might get from reading the media. It makes the people of the rest of the world seem slightly closer to you, and I do feel that one understands that we share more than divides us. So that’s important.

I also just enjoy and always have enjoyed the process of travelling. I love geography, so I can look at a wonderful landscape or a waterfall with as much satisfaction as I can folk dancing and things like that. It’s all part of it.

I think one of the reasons your travel documentaries have been so successful is that you’re discovering these places with the viewer, rather than reeling off a load of facts given to you by a researcher.

That’s the way it’s turned out. Around The World in 80 Days has been extremely successful and it’s the one documentary that everybody remembers, but it was sort of born out of inadequacy really. I wasn’t an accomplished television presenter. I wasn’t chosen as an anthropologist or a journalist. I had no expertise to take with me other than a sense of humour, a curiosity about the world and an ability to talk to people and get on with people.

If some of my encounters didn’t work straight away, and the language was a problem, or the local customs were a problem, rather than turn the camera off, that was the time when one got something that had some impact. By the end of Around the World in 80 Days I realised that my everyman approach, rather than the expert approach – my approach in going into situations without knowing quite how I was going to come out the other end – was quite appealing to audiences. That gave us a bit more courage to take on a second series, which was Pole to Pole.

In a past interview, you said that while travelling you were more disturbed by the power of the few than general poverty. Can you elaborate on that?

I think the most depressing thing is to be in a country where people are cowed by whatever force is running the country – people who are unable to say what they feel, people who are guarded and watched all the time. You realise that in some of the countries that I’ve been to there is a very strong central authority, which may seem to keep the country quiet but at the same time I think creates its own sort of authoritarian regime which shuts people up. It doesn’t have to be a dictator or a ruthless monarch. It can just be powerful corporations or a few people with a lot of money – that can be just as distorting as naked central power. What I mean really is that the fewer people who have influence in a country, the less open and natural and straight-forward the people in that country will be.

The other thing is that I have been to many places where people are very poor. I remember travelling once on a plane and there were some Americans. I said I had just been to India and they said they couldn’t go to India. I say, “Why, some problem with the visas?” No, they just shook their heads and said, “The poverty”. There’s this dreadful attitude that poor people are somehow different from us. Yes, they’re different – they’re more inventive, they’re brighter and a lot of them are able to survive much better than we probably would if all our systems collapsed.

This is not always the case. I’ve seen poverty which is purely corrosive and depressing. But in a lot of smaller areas, where small communities have not got a lot of money, they are stronger communities, they help each other, they make use of everything they’ve got, and they refuse to give in to self pity. For them, just getting their child to school or cooking a meal is a success for that day. Poverty’s never a good thing, but being poor does not necessarily mean you are ground down. I’ve seen indomitable spirit in a lot of poor people and a great deal of angst in rich people.

What are your predominant memories of growing up in Sheffield?

The atmosphere of the city was governed by the very traditional heavy industry. We lived on the west side, which was residential and very comfortable, and on the east side were these huge steelworks. Going down there was quite extraordinary, because those were the days when you could just see flames belching from furnaces and metal being poured. It was a tremendous enterprise.

The centre of the city was pretty rough, pretty dirty from all the pollution, whereas on the west side it was quite nice because you were on the edge of the Peak District. So I was halfway between this very heavy industrial side of Sheffield and the rather beautiful, idyllic world of the Peak District, where I could go off on my bike rides and all that. It was a city of very strong images, partly because of the hills, and partly as I say because of this difference between the Peak District – the great crags, like something out of an American western – and then on the other side of the city this huge, powerful furnace of industry. The wind always blew from the west, so generally speaking the industrial pollution all blew out over Rotherham and Doncaster.

It was quite dramatic. At the same time I think we felt rather cut off from the rest of Britain. You felt Sheffield had its own very strong character, but it was quite an introverted character, unlike Manchester or Leeds, which in those days would be seen as more modern cities. We felt a little bit left out, but it gave Sheffield its character and strength.

Your book Hemingway’s Chair deals with the effect of big businesses on local communities. How do you think things have changed since the book came out and how do you feel about the topic now?

I don’t think a great deal has changed. The story wasn’t meant to be written as a political story particularly. It’s a story about a man who works in a Post Office and sees himself as Ernest Hemingway. But then as I wrote it I became far more interested in what the Post Office represented in the community. And it did represent a place where people met up and gathered together. I can remember queuing in the Post Office with my mum or dad, and then they’d meet someone in the opposite queue and someone would start talking, and the person at the Post Office knew a lot about what was going on in the community.

I like very much the personal touch. Places where people can get together and communicate physically and meet each other are quite important – whether it’s a social hall, a church, a garage or whatever – and the Post Office was one of those places, where people were in touch with other people’s lives and could be given advice by people there without having to look for it on obscure phone lines.

So I thought that element of the Post Office was very important and I could see it being gradually eroded. Now it’s moved to the back of a supermarket. Buying stamps and licences is just another part of the buying process. I’m not saying there’s anything wonderful about queuing, or the proliferation of licences, or the paperwork that people used to have to go through, but the Post Office itself did bring people together. Now it’s part of the whole commercial world and, 19 years since I wrote the book, at last the government has come clean and they’re going to privatise Royal Mail.

I was just suggesting that a place where people get together, meet each other, talk on an equal basis – not necessarily as customers and salespeople – is a good thing, and once it’s gone it can’t really be easily replaced.

It ties in with travelling as well, because as places become increasingly homogenised the joy of travelling becomes reduced, doesn’t it?

Yes, I think it’s so important really to try and realise that your own input is what’s vital to any part of your life. If people say, “We’ve got such a good deal that we can’t actually get out of the coach until someone tells us to,” then I think we’re really losing something. We’re losing that great moment where you as an individual say, “I have made this connection in my way and that’s what makes me different to everybody else”. It’s keeping those little connections that I think is vitally important, otherwise we do get manipulated and we do get used.

I think nowadays the Internet has many good things going for it, but there’s two sides to it. One is it puts us in touch with anyone all over the world, but we don’t actually meet them, see them, touch them. We don’t know quite who they are but we think we’ve got all these friends. The virtual world is actually run by a few people, a few companies that are making colossal amounts of money. And what are they going to do with all that? Bill Gates has been a fantastic example to people. He’s spent billions of his money on aid in Africa and I think that’s a thoroughly good thing, but the rest of them are just trying to avoid paying tax and that’s not very seemly.

I feel the world is more open in some ways, but in other ways it’s more closed. We’re actually much more controlled about how we can get in touch with people. Once electricity goes we’ve had it. The people who live in the slums of Calcutta will actually find that their life hasn’t been changed at all, because they never had electricity or television or fridges.

You’ve spoken before about silliness being a kind of “benign anarchy”, and of course the foundation of Monty Python was silliness and absurdity. Which topics in particular do you think need silliness applying to them?

I think big business certainly does. That’s the one that really is the great enemy of silliness. But silliness is just a way of expressing yourself and breaking out of a mould, and saying, “I’m not going to do this thank you very much, I’d rather do that”. So there’s a slightly stroppy element to silliness. But it has to be accompanied by humour. I think just getting angry without seeing the absurdity is not good. It’s about standing back and looking at the situation we’re in. You see it online. People come up with some very funny comments about the world and the way it’s going. I think that’s very, very important. We just have to realise when and how we’re being manipulated, and try and say, “Well, if it’s absurd we should laugh at it.”

Laughter is a great way of irritating people in power who just want to extend their power and influence. It makes them stop and think a bit. I should know – I played Pontius Pilate in Life of Brian. To be up there with all your Roman clutter on, your centurions behind you and 600 people lying on their backs, pointing at you and laughing, you realise that actually, this is what we should’ve done to Stalin and Hitler. The first thing people in power do is try and stamp out silliness. They stamp out humour because it mocks them and makes their position slightly more difficult. That’s why it’s so important.

Tickets for Michael Palin In Conversation at the Crucible on 13th June can be booked at sheffieldtheatres.co.uk

Interview by Sam Walby.