It’s one of those glorious instances of “of course!” casting: the makers of the forthcoming new version of The Clangers have announced that the narrator will be none other than Michael Palin. How perfect is that? If the series needs someone’s dulcet tones to replicate the original’s sense of warmth, humour and a vaguely edgy British silliness, they’ve found just the right man.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise. In his own gentle and terribly English way, Palin has demonstrated a quiet sense of adventure throughout his post-Python career. It’s taken him all the way from Brazil (Terry Gilliam’s fittingly Orwellian big-screen fantasy in which he played a sweet, kindly family man and torturer) to well, Brazil (in which he journeyed about sampling the customs, cuisine and culture of the eponymous South American country during 2012).
A factor which weighs heavily in Palin‘s favour is that he’s stayed in the public eye and kept working. His most high-profile activities have been his well-loved TV travel shows – eight in total, starting with Around the World in Eighty Days back in 1989. It’s this period which is covered by the latest volume of his diaries, Travelling to Work. By way of marking its publication, Palin is embarking on another rather less arduous journey – a 21-date tour of the UK, which fetches up at Manchester Opera House on September 29. Astonishingly, it’s his first ever one-man tour.
Speaking to publicise the events, Palin says: “I like talking to a live audience, and with the diaries coming out in September I thought, ‘What can we do that’s a little bit different to anything we’ve done before?’ Book publicity is a cut-throat business these days, with everyone trying to get their publicity to out-do someone else’s and all that. I thought, ‘The thing I really enjoy is doing a show so rather than a one-night stand here and there, let’s do a whole tour’.”
As the new volume opens, Palin is full of anxiety about his latest project, the filming of Around the World in Eighty Days. But while Palin wrote first-person books to accompany of each of his travel shows, his diary is a much more open, personal account. Over ten years, the travel presenting develops from a dalliance to a whole new side career. On time out from his voyages, Palin was still busy acting, performing and writing. During the 90s, buoyed by his burgeoning popularity, he took the opportunity to explore even more new career avenues, with varying degrees of success. His ill-fated debut stage play, The Weekend, was launched in 1994, and his first novel, Hemingway’s Chair, was published a year later. All his travails on these project are lovingly detailed herein.
The same period saw him taking on his biggest dramatic lead as beleaguered schoolteacher Jim Nelson in Alan Bleasdale’s GBH. It was very much a Northern production, filmed in 1990 around locations including Bolton, Fleetwood, Hulme, Ulverston and Manchester. Let’s not forget, Palin is very much a Northern soul himself, born and bred in Sheffield. He’d previously channeled his inner Yorkshireman in celebrated roles such as the heroically dull Eric Olthwaite from Ripping Yarns and the scheming chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers in Alan Bennett’s A Private Function.
The Michael Palin we know and love is on full display in Travelling to Work but, whether by accident or design, he doesn’t shave off some of his rougher edges at times. He comes across as pretty competitive with his contemporaries, he’s surprisingly strong-willed, and he evidently relishes the gala lunches and encounters with big showbiz names that his status affords him. But it’s all relative, really, and in effect it barely leaves a dint in his established ‘nicest man alive’ persona.
Perhaps more than any of his Monty Python compatriots, though, Palin is now well on track to becoming a copper-bottomed national treasure (yes, John Cleese may have given the world Fawlty Towers, but he seems to have spent most of the intervening years making American women very rich by divorcing them, which isn’t nearly as side-splitting as he seems to think it is).
Avid watchers of inter-Python rivalry should note that Cleese’s autobiography, So Anyway…, is due to be published next month, too – and he’s just announced a one-man tour to promote it. There was also a running joke in the recent Python reunion shows that the other members would break into loud yawns whenever Palin’s travel shows were mentioned. And yet, such jibes are clearly made with enormous fondness. When John Cleese was a guest on Desert Island Discs in 1997, he chose Palin as the luxury item he’d like to be cast away with. When Sue Lawley then decreed that animate luxury items were not allowed, Cleese settled for Palin being stuffed.
The new diaries only cover Palin’s life until 1998, and it’s continued to be eventful in the years since. But a further, fourth volume of his diaries may be quite a while in coming. “It’s very important to have a gap, probably around 20 or 25 years, between what you’re describing and when the diaries come out, “ he suggests. “But I’m still keeping a diary so there are all these words piling up somewhere, which my children or my estate will have to deal with after I’ve gone.”
Not that he’s taking to his bath-chair just yet. Thanks to The Clangers, he’ll shortly be off travelling to a small blue planet not unlike the Moon. Earlier this year he returned to straight acting to shoot Remember Me, a supernatural thriller to be broadcast this Christmas on BBC One. Now 71, he’s not even entertaining the idea of retiring. “No, I don’t think so. I always think ‘Retire from what?’ My life and work are sort of intricately interwoven. I work at home every day…I’ll work until I drop and possibly afterwards, you know? A travel series set in Heaven, perhaps!”
While the first volume of Palin’s diaries, on his Python days, was well received, the second, Halfway to Hollywood, covering his post-Python forays in the film industry, was widely regarded as a bit of a mixed bag. Travelling to Work has a clearer, surer focus, and makes for a warm, satisfying, gently enlightening read. Ultimately, he’s a hugely likeable figure, and spending time in his company is a pleasure – all of which bodes very nicely for these live shows.
Michael Palin’s Travelling to Work one-man show will appear at Manchester Opera House on Monday September 29, 2014. For information on tour dates in York, Sheffield and Liverpool, click here.
Travelling To Work: Diaries 1988-1998, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, is out now.
For more information visit www.palinstravels.co.uk and www.orionbooks.co.uk/michaelpalin