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Michael Palin: ‘Monty Python didn’t pay particularly well — to start with, anyway’

The travel presenter recounts his journey from comedy pioneer to serious broadcaster

In March of this year, Michael Palin found himself staring at a fiery hollow in an oil field in Iraq. Visually, it could not rank anywhere close to the geographical and architectural splendours he has visited and catalogued in his lifetime as the happy wanderer beloved by millions on television.

It is just a declivity in the bleak, scorched-earth flatlands outside Kirkuk with a few small flames burning like the sad remnants of an overnight bonfire. But Palin’s mind was running riot. The bowl-shaped site marks the spot where oil was first discovered in Iraq when an international speculation firm named the Turkish Petroleum Company was there in 1927. Even now, the memory of the day generates a conflict of emotions he felt standing there.

“It was such a total anti-climax. This is where oil was first discovered in 1927, which totally changed the Middle East! And there it is. Just a few flames. And this little sign saying ‘the eternal flame’ or something like that, which was all dirty and grubby. Nobody felt the need to show it off. And to be honest, you don’t get too many opportunities when you are filming to be still with yourself. There is always someone who wants you to walk left or right or to say something. The people there in North Oil just wanted to show it to us and get out. They couldn’t believe we were so interested. But there was a moment when I just walked round and kept staring at these flames which indicated that there was a methane gas underneath the surface which had been there for so long that even Herodotus himself, when he travelled, had mentioned that this was the fire under the ground. That’s … bewildering.”

In a strange way, that day trip is one of the most moving aspects of Palin’s 18-day whistlestop tour. He laughs when told that while being interviewed on the Jonathan Ross show a few years ago, he said there was nowhere he would not go before checking himself and noting, “well, maybe not Iraq.” He leans back in the chair in his study and shakes his head in resignation.

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You want to know people’s stories. But you can’t get too caught up in individual moments or tragedies

“Did I really? Well, at that time … well, you couldn’t have gone. I suppose I was taking the most suicidal place I could think of and was making a joke of it. But there you go.”

Still, if there is a pattern to Palin’s recent travels, it is an interest in documenting less-seen places. He was granted access to North Korea for a television series in 2018. Syria remains an ambition. And the history behind Iraq has fascinated from the time he was presented, as a young boy, with a copy of The Arabian Nights. It was the first book he read.

“And it just fascinated me, the whole world out there. The way they dressed. The adventures they had. Sinbad the Sailor. It seemed like a wonderful, created world and you didn’t know whether it existed or not. But has been lodged there in my imagination for quite a long time. So: to be given the chance. What can one see now in a country that has been totally controlled and, as far as western perceptions go, is a failed state. But you cannot accept those judgments unless you have seen the country yourself.”

See it he does. Palin works on the principle that any travel chronicler must remain detached from what he sees and who he meets, however upsetting or harrowing. “You want to know people’s stories. But you can’t get too caught up in individual moments or tragedies.”

But the reader will sense that the stance of neutral observer does not come naturally to him. During the opening section of Into Iraq, the diary and photographic book, he details his visit to Mosul and the haunting walk through the obliterated remnants of the old city in which vast wastelands or rubble are coloured with clothes, comics, furniture — the detritus of a ruined community. And then he comes across a young boy and girl sitting on a doorstep that has no house. He asks if he can take their photograph. The girl nods. He trains his camera lens on them; the backdrop is a wall pock-marked with shrapnel holes. And just like that, he is overwhelmed. “Tears well up and I have to turn away,” he writes.

“Not that tears are what they want here. Or not from us, anyway.”

Other children appear and Palin is escorted towards one of the few houses still standing. Inside, a circle of women prepare lunch. He signals an apology and is met with a series of smiles and excited chatter, and he is invited to share lunch. And it is not because he is Michael Palin. These are not veteran Monty Python fans. One of the blessings of travelling beyond the reach of western media is that he can become a complete unknown. This was just pure undiluted hospitality to a stranger.

“What it was, really, was somehow the innocence of children in the middle of all this,” he says of that meeting.

“They had to live in all this. And it was not their doing. They do not understand why their houses have been destroyed, their friends killed. And yet they somehow had to carry on. I suppose I was moved, really, by their inspired ability to not feel sorry for themselves. I think I projected on to them my feelings of guilt and embarrassment for what happened, and I expected them to be very guarded seeing me there. And how would I explain what I felt about the war and what they had been through? And to find that this wasn’t their attitude at all: they were very curious to see me there and very anxious to show what was still there.”

You are in a place where amazing things have happened. But there is sometimes very little modern evidence of that

By the time he meets Harith, a highly educated 20-year-old, the young man has already survived the sadism of Islamic State, when he saw friends tortured and risked the same by using his iPhone. His childhood coincided with the war. Harith speaks engagingly about these experiences. But he is just as interested in quizzing Palin about his favourite English writer, Jane Austen. So much of Iraq’s terrain is devastated and its cities ransacked that “a lot of it is in the imagination”.

“You are in a place where amazing things have happened. But there is sometimes very little modern evidence of that.”

So, he is underwhelmed by dismal Baghdad, fulfils a childhood dream by standing before a ziggurat, roams through the eerie abandoned palace of Saddam Hussein and arrives at the spot which is said to have been the Biblical Garden of Eden: he suspects it to be a rare example of regional hucksterism. But it is the sense of a country plundered — by colonialism, by religious intolerances, by endless state corruption — that serves as his true find. He encounters little explicit anger towards the West and a sort of indifference to the US-British invasion in 2003.

“We tend to simplify things and assume that everything that went wrong in Iraq was due to Tony Blair and Bush going in. Of course, a lot of it was. But Iraqis themselves know perfectly well that their society was a mess; they had a tyrant as a ruler, people were being put in jail, were doing horrible things to each other on both sides. But like the children in the wreckage, in Mosul, people wanted to look ahead. They weren’t going back over history and saying that or this shouldn’t have happened. We in the comfortable West were doing that, trying to make order out of their disorder.”

Palin has been a warm, wry television companion for generations of armchair explorers. There’s an accidental quality to his presence as one of the most recognisable faces in British cultural life. The happenstance creation of Python has been well-documented. It ran for a mere four series and because the cast was so young they had no idea that their wild, whacky spirit of invention would become one of the enduring cultural touchstones of postwar Britain.

“No, not at all. It was a job. A nice job. But we were young. We were getting our first mortgages, some of us were getting married and beginning to start a family. All those things were far more important. How do you get your money? Python didn’t pay particularly well — to start with, anyway. It was a great thing to do but the idea that it would be taken as a yardstick of a certain kind of comedy that would change the way comedy was … this was not something that we thought of at the time. We thought we were part of a general trend which was changing, beyond the fringe. Comedy was becoming less respectful. And targets you could have a go at: we were part of that. A joyous moment!

“Today, we can all get in drag and play 50-year-old ladies fighting each other with handbags in muddy fields in Yorkshire! And it will be fun, you know? We weren’t to know that soon after that, the barriers would come down. Comedy never got quite as inventive with things like that and when it did with things like The Office — and what an important show that was — it was a much more introspective look at things.”

He was enjoying the afterglow of his role in A Fish Called Wanda, the 1988 comedy film in which he reunited with his Python foil John Cleese, when someone from the BBC called him up with an idea. They wanted him to front a travel show that would be a re-enactment of the Jules Verne picaresque novel, Around the World in Eighty Days. The entire globe! No airplanes allowed! Palin has told, with gleeful self-deprecation, of the luxuriant buttering-up treatment he received from the Beeb in convincing him that he was perfect for the role. Halfway through the filming, over a few beers, the director confessed that Palin had been the fifth person they had gone to. Clive James, Noel Edmunds, and Alan Whicker were among those who turned it down.

The idea of the queen as a kind of a distant figure is completely wrong. I think she was very close to what was going on

He never looked back and has somehow glided from the epoch when BBC was peopled with Wogan and Selina Scott and five-channel terrestrial television to the digital age. It seems unlikely that he has ever had a cross word in all that time. Palin is 79 now and unreasonably youthful in appearance and attitude. He does not shy away, in his diary, from the fact that he and his crew had fixers and security to facilitate their voyage. But still, it was an absolute hustle: long drives, hours caught at police checks in the heat and dust, spartan accommodation, trains that must appear grimy to a man whose first televised rail trek was on the Orient Express. Palin gives the impression that he has inherited the English virtue of never complaining and would rather die than pull the star treatment; he is just one of the crew when the camera is off.

If there is an obvious link between fronting travel shows and those beloved Python sketches it is that both involve an exploration “of what people are like and how extraordinarily absurd we all are”. That curiosity in human nature remains undimmed. We speak via zoom during the long week when Queen Elizabeth is lying in state. Palin has been on the honours list and thus been to the Palace. And although he is still a whippersnapper to her 96, he shares something of her boundless energy. Where does it come from?

“I don’t know,” he admits.

“I have often thought of this. It must come, early on, from a curiosity about the world. Try and get that extra bit of information which comes from seeing people face to face, knowing what they look like seeing their families, finding what makes them cry, makes them laugh. That is the kind of thing I feel I am able to do. And it’s kind of a woolly way of travelling in some ways. And people will say that you are not analytical enough and all that. But it allows me a greater freedom. And the queen herself … I think that kept her going. She wasn’t just doing it out of duty. She clearly enjoyed meeting people and did enjoy learning about countries. So, the idea of the queen as a kind of a distant figure is completely wrong. I think she was very close to what was going on.”

There are further adventures planned. Palin’s voice is terrific; the quintessence of Englishness. But he is still researching his Irish great-grandmother, whom he believes left Donegal during the famine. The death of the queen prompted, over the week, a backwards glance at the legacy of empire. Palin has seen it, obliquely and explicitly, during his travels.

“Well of course it fascinates me a lot,” he sighs.

“You can go to one or two places like Amritsar, where there was the massacre in 1921 when the crowd was just fired on by British soldiers on the orders of a British officer. And you can see the area where they were all killed together. And you feel nothing but revulsion. And then there are other places where people feel, well, they built a railway between these two difficult places that leads up into the mountains and nobody else would have built that. So, there are some things I feel, well, in our sort of attempt to govern countries we have taken over — although you can completely argue we shouldn’t have been there in the first place — that we provided some things that made people’s lives a little better. And that there were also people who represented the empire who codified, you know, law, botany, physics in those countries and helped people understand a bit more.

That was the empire spirit. And it covered up some dreadful things. It is all changing now and we are questioning all our attitudes

“But there was always the feeling that we felt we shared more knowledge and knew more and better than the rest of the world, which is still what I feel when I travel. And my attitudes are from basically that: we are the highest form of civilisation and we can go there and be very nice to people or be awful to people. But we are going to be okay. And that is all changing, I think, now. That was the empire spirit. And it covered up some dreadful things. It is all changing now and we are questioning all our attitudes.”

The anxiety he felt about the state of the world has eased over the decades. “Because I can’t do much about it,” he laughs.

“When I was younger, it was all we talked about all the time. Because now is your chance. You are 30 or 40, you are going to get the job and all that. When you’re 79 or 80 you are just existing on doctor’s prescriptions, and you are seen as someone who needs help — which is not what I like. And it does change the way you look at things.”

But he is a father, a grandfather. He knows he has been blessed, in many ways, to have had a career which has been a bit of a lark and yet enormously significant. He is still fascinated and perplexed by the world.

“But if I were younger, I would be very concerned. The primary thing is the environment. And that is so obvious that this is the first thing we ought to be tackling and whichever way we do it is … to be top of our list. And that I think could bring the world together. I do not know. Not in my lifetime.”

Into Iraq is published by Hutchinson Heinemann on October 15th (€18.99)