'I'm just curious about the world'
London - “People travel for different reasons,” says Michael Palin. “Some people travel because they don't settle anywhere and they don't want any possessions, so they wander the world. And there are people who travel because they want to push themselves to physical limits, people who walk across deserts or cycle across the Antarctic - like Ranulph Fiennes, who just does it because it's there. And then there are people like me, who are just genuinely curious about the world.”
For nearly 25 years, this curiosity has sent Palin around the world in every direction, on journeys that have defined him as the great British traveller of our age: documenting what he sees, gently interrogating those he meets, expressing concern where appropriate, sharing points of view.
Since the enormous success of Around the World in 80 Days in 1989, Palin's travels have taken him from pole to pole, around the Pacific rim, on the trail of Ernest Hemingway, across the Himalayas, over the Sahara and into “New Europe”. Now, in Brazil with Michael Palin, his current BBC series, he's exploring the planet's fifth-largest country, from Amazonia to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, from the rubbish dumps of Sao Paulo to the astonishing Iguacu Falls.
When we meet, in his production offices near Covent Garden, he's immersed in giving Brazil its proper send-off: fresh from signing copies of the accompanying book in Piccadilly and pleased at the reception the first episode received at a press screening at Bafta earlier in the week.
“It's all a rather terrifying process, going public, because for some time it's been our own private adventure. We'd come up with the idea, we'd try and organise the shoot, we'd go out and do the shoot. I'd come back and write the book. Then suddenly you realise: oh, my God, of course, this isn't just our own happy travels. It's work, it's entertainment and you've got an audience out there who are going to judge it. So it's always a slightly tricky time.”
Brazil had long been a gap in his travel CV. Was it everything he'd expected it to be? “I had quite high expectations for filming there, because from what I knew there was plenty to see, and from what I'd heard the Brazilians would be reasonably easy to work with and talk to. They're quite relaxed people.
“I've never done a series in one country before. I've often thought that we travel too fast. There is some spectacularly good stuff in New Europe but there are just so many countries that some of them we hardly touched, and I felt like I'd missed something there. I felt with Brazil there would be a chance to get to know the country because we were going back there four times, filming over a period of a year. Each time we went back, it was like going back to a different country because it was all so different.”
In the new book, Palin confesses to being “fatally susceptible to the lure of the open road”. The process of exploration has, he says, inspired him since childhood. “When I did geography at my prep school we went on a field trip to Nottingham. I can remember enjoying the fact that it wasn't just a trip, it was Nottingham, and Nottingham meant the castle. Places have always meant a lot to me - and atlases and maps.
“I wanted to be an explorer, but gradually found the world had been explored and that there was nowhere left, really. Once they climbed Everest in 1953, when I was 10 years old, I thought, well, that's pretty much it now. But the idea of travelling and exploring and adventure was very strong.”
Palin, who recently completed his three-year term as president of the Royal Geographical Society, satisfied a little of that urge to explore during the filming of Brazil, when he visited some of the indigenous people living in the remote Amazonian jungle. “The only way to get there if you've got a limited amount of time is to fly in, so that takes a little of the romance away. But, once you get there, it's fantastic. It really is another world, and you are seeing a completely different way of life, certainly different from anything I've ever seen before.”
Of course, it's not necessarily something everyone wants to experience. Part of the joy of watching Michael Palin on screen is that he puts himself into situations that most of us would happily not experience for ourselves.
“I don't seek discomfort,” he says. “But, very often, you realise that what you fear is actually quite ephemeral; something's different, something's unfamiliar, therefore it must be worse. In the wonderful great circular maloca , there's no running water, there's no electricity, there's no privacy, no toilets. But it's fine once you accept that; life is extremely easy. You get into a hammock and the people are very jolly and they burn fires at night to keep the flies away. In the morning, you traipse out to the back of the village to find a lovely clear stream, which is your bath.
“The only problem was going to the loo in the middle of the night. The bushes started shaking ahead of me and there was a growling noise: it was terrifying. It turned out to be a local peccary, a wild boar. I walked away, I didn't run away; I walked quite briskly back, but then I couldn't find the door. It was pitch dark, but I eventually found a lady there holding the door open.”
The desire to record his experiences seems to be fundamental to Palin. Two compendious volumes of his diaries, charting his work as a member of the Monty Python team and his later film career, are testament to that - plus all those best-selling travel books. Indeed, whether as a comedy writer, diarist, playwright or novelist - his book The Truth came out earlier this year - words seem to pour out of him.
“When I'm travelling, I always take my little notebook and scribble things down as I watch them; I'm very much geared to everything that's happening. Whereas the diary I keep is just about a record of a day I've spent. When I'm filming, I'm looking quite intensely at everything I see and trying to get my own eye on what we're going through.”
His travels have made him more aware of what's going on in the world. “It's a bit like when you've bought a car and you suddenly see everyone on the road has the same car as you. You notice things related to where you've been. Lots of places in the world mean more to me now than they would if I hadn't been there. I went to Pakistan just after 9/11 and you thought you'd probably be beaten up on the street - but not at all. They want to know about you, why you're there; you're not armed therefore not a threat. You can go to most countries and find that people are operating on the level of human contact - they have families, they have children, they want to get their food from the market, simple things that we all do - and that's what keeps the world going.”
Does he think we are curious enough about our own country? “There are some people who like to take their holidays in Britain and love to explore their own country, but most people, as soon as the sun comes out, they're off from Luton to Marbella and places like that. And that's travelling and that's fine, but it's not actually discovering much about your own country. I'm quite surprised how few people I talk to know Scotland, for instance. Some have been to Edinburgh but very few people have been north to Dundee, Aberdeen - and that's sort of odd.”
Just as odd is the fact that this is not the first time Michael Palin has appeared on screen in a project called Brazil. On the face of it, his role as an unhinged middle manager with sadistic tendencies in Terry Gilliam's 1985 fantasy film shares few obvious links with Palin's current project. But, according to Palin, there is a common thread. “When Jonathan Pryce is finally tortured by me and cracks up at the end, the Brazil theme plays in his head. It's there to show that there is another world there, a world where we don't do anything other than have a good time: pure pleasure.
“I can see that connection because, on the first morning in Sao Luis, which is where we started filming, when I saw the beach I just couldn't believe it. Partly just the size of it. The sun was shining and the waves were coming in. I just walked from my hotel on to the beach. I thought, this is incredible: there's no wind, there's no rain, just these vast acres of sand. And there were people coming out of cafés drinking from coconuts, and I realised: this is Brazil, this is what's going on in the movie, this is the world of ultimate escape. Terry got it dead right.”
Has his approach to making travel documentaries changed since he appeared in Around the World in 80 Days? “It wasn't meant to be the start of a career as a travel presenter. It was going to be just a one-off that I would do because I love travelling. It had the jeopardy , it had the Jules Verne thing, and certainly to start with, I was partly acting. I was playing the English duffer abroad. Then Pole to Pole was very much a proving exercise. It was just about travelling and about going to extraordinary places and having someone who's a kind of Everyman to guide you through.
“When I'm in a film, I'm an actor; that's it, you know where you are. With , I realised, you can be yourself. You've got to be interested and curious and let that carry the journey through. That's what it's all about. I love travelling. I love the diversity of the world in every respect, and that's what keeps me going.” - The Independent
* Michael Palin's book Brazil is out now.