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Michael Palin on the loss of his wife of 57 years: ‘you feel you’ll never have a friend as close as that’

‘I’d love Helen to still be here, telling me off,’ says 80-year-old former Python and veteran television traveller

The strange thing about Michael Palin is you feel you know him; that he’s an old friend or much-loved uncle you’ve not seen for a while. He decides to come to our office for our interview, and nobody seems surprised to see him, despite the fact that it’s his first time in the building. People smile at Palin with easy familiarity: ah, Michael’s popped in. He smiles back with that fabulously genial smile: a little bit cheeky, a little bit shy, and very warm.

We have never met before. But he’s been in my life for 50-odd years. First as part of Monty Python, the surrealist comedy troupe I quoted ad nauseam as a youngster (“Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition!”), then as star of the wonderful TV series Ripping Yarns, which I also quoted ad nauseam (“Oh shut up, you boring little tit!”). There were also the films: Time Bandits, A Private Function, A Fish Called Wanda and, more recently, The Death of Stalin. For the past 35 years, he has travelled the globe for TV shows, and written books to accompany his odysseys. In 2019, he was knighted for services to travel, culture and geography – the only Python to receive a knighthood.

Now he has got a new three-part TV series about Nigeria, where he meets young people hoping to make their fortune: a young woman trying to rebuild her life after being kidnapped by Boko Haram; an environmentalist fighting government corruption; and a woman who berates him for the sins of British colonialism in Benin.

It is fascinating to observe the dynamics between the diffident, eternally apologetic Palin and the more direct Nigerians. He is visibly shocked when the woman shouts him down in the street and makes him take the rap for Britain’s brutal Benin Expedition of 1897.


The series is important for him as an exploration of Nigeria, as well as a means of confronting Britain’s past. But it is also important in a more personal way. This is the first big project he has taken on since his wife Helen died 10 months ago. They had been married for 57 years, having first met in 1959, on a family trip to Southwold in Suffolk, when he was 15 and she was 16. Their holiday romance was fictionalised in his 1987 BBC drama East of Ipswich. Although Helen rarely accompanied him on his travels, he worried he wouldn’t be able to do the Nigeria trip without her. “I was quite concerned about whether I could physically and mentally deal with it just a few months after Helen had died. But I enjoyed the experience tremendously. I felt I can do this, I can get out there. It’s not someone giving me a job because my wife’s just died. Actually, it regenerated me in a way.”

Helen, a teacher and then a bereavement counsellor, was 80 when she died of kidney failure, after stopping her dialysis treatment because she was in so much pain. It was Helen, he says, who encouraged him to do the travel documentaries in the first place. Palin was 45 when he was offered Around the World in 80 Days, a seven-part BBC series inspired by the Jules Verne novel. “Helen was quite clear that if I didn’t do this I’d be sort of moodily staring across the kitchen table at someone else doing it. She knew I’d be happier if I did the travels and avoided staying at home.”

His expeditions included the 23,000-mile trip from the north to south pole, North Korea, and Ethiopia mid-coup. Did Helen worry for him? He laughs. If she did, she didn’t show it. “She was quite calm about wherever I was.” Palin is a master of understatement, opinions usually qualified by “quite”.

He could be away for five months at a time. Sometimes he would find it hard, he says, but he’s convinced his travels helped their marriage. How? “Well, they say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it’s true. Our relationship was very loving, but it was very practical. Very pragmatic.” Although they valued their independence, they shared so much: values, confidences, sense of humour, friends.

During Helen’s final two years she suffered huge discomfort. “She told me how ill she felt, how unhappy she felt at not being able to live the life she wanted. Most of my time was spent just trying to assuage her pain. She was amazing how she dealt with it.” Helen died at the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, north London, last May. Palin says the final couple of weeks, with their three children there, too, could not have been happier. “Just before she died, when she knew she was going to die, were actually some of the best times we’ve had. I was prepared for it. Helen had taken the decision that she wasn’t going to carry on having dialysis. She was amazingly well looked after, and all the family were there. And that was the pay-off for all those years, those 60 years.”

He talks so tenderly about Helen and the end of her life. Then he comes to an abrupt stop, as if clicked out of hypnosis. “Sorry, I’m waffling,” he says.

No you’re not, I say. I ask what he means by the pay-off. “Well, because we’d spent so long together, we knew each other pretty well.” He pauses. Even he knows this is an understatement too far. “Very, very well. It didn’t all have to be stated why we’d like this or that. We didn’t have to say a lot. It was just there. So knowing that she had two weeks to live, somehow everything that had been part of our relationship made it much easier to deal with her departure.”

‘I don’t think it would have gone anywhere today. It would have been censored at source’

—  Michael Palin on Monty Python

There were no scores to settle, confessions to make, or misunderstandings to iron out. They knew everything about each other. So there wasn’t even much need for talking. “The most important thing to me in her last days was making sure she had access to the family and friends I knew she loved and would not see again. I was just sort of shepherding her through and making sure she was able to talk to the people she wanted to talk to; or, if she just wanted peace and quiet, she’d have peace and quiet.”

Does it still seem very recent?

“Yes. I mean, I’m quite surprised. I’ve been working quite hard since she died, and that’s been a distraction. But every now and then, the house seems empty and you feel you’ll never have a friend as close as that; you’ll never have someone who knows as much about you as Helen did about me. There are things I can’t talk about in the same way to anybody else. I’ve got lots of good friends, and we can chat about things, but, you know, the rapport between the two of us over all these years was quite singular. And I miss that. I sometimes think: she lived to be 80, I’m 80 now, so what’s next? What do you do with the rest of the time? Partly, I think, well, at 80 you’re on your way to the departure lounge.” He doesn’t say this in a maudlin way. It feels more as if he’s thinking aloud.

You are an incredibly youthful 80, I say. Would you like to find somebody you could share things with in the same way? “Oh, I just can’t imagine anybody else taking Helen’s place.” Anyway, he says, in some sense she’s still with him. “I always listen to Helen. I mean, I’m kind of in touch with her on a daily basis because I know what she would think about all the various things that I do.”

Do you talk to her? “Well, yeah, I do occasionally.” When? “Well, I just do it coming into an empty room after you’ve had a long session or something, doing a long interview for the Guardian, whatever, something that really kind of wears you out! You get in and you’re going through the door, and I always speak and say: ‘Whoa, wow, that was something!’ It’s just as a little moment, which helps me when I get into the house, rather than just going in and it’s all key in the lock and silence.” Look, he says, he’s not complaining. He knows he’s been lucky to experience such love. Come to think of it, he says, he’s been lucky in life.

Palin grew up in Sheffield. Like his father (an engineer who worked for a steel company) and his grandfather, he went to the private school Shrewsbury and was Oxbridge educated.

His father, Edward, had a good sense of humour, but his jokes were impeded by a terrible stammer. “He was quite an angry man, and he had quite a short fuse. It was difficult in the house to talk about things, generally. And he was picking arguments all the time with my mother. I think he rather took it out on people around him. He was very confrontational, which has made me unconfrontational. I try anything to avoid confrontation.” Typically of Palin, rather than rejecting his father, he sought to understand his frustration and gave his name to the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering.

He never dared to dream of making a career out of comedy, acting, travelling or writing. (The project he says he’s proudest of is his 2018 book, Erebus: The Story of a Ship, about the eponymous vessel that ventured farther south than any human had been on its first voyage, and vanished with its 129-strong crew in the wastes of the Canadian Arctic on its second.) Palin assumed he was destined for a regular, respectable job. But, he says, he has always been in the right place at the right time. At Oxford, he met the cultural historian Robert Hewison, who suggested his humour was a gift and potentially a lucrative one. He was introduced to future fellow Pythons, John Cleese, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman, who had all studied at Cambridge, and they decided to work as a team.

‘Political discourse has become very unpleasant. The country is run on the basis of getting as much money out of people as we can everywhere. It’s all about marketing and selling’

Perhaps luckiest of all was the day they visited the BBC in 1969 on the off-chance of getting some work. “It was remarkable. We were chaperoned by Barry Took who was very keen on the work we’d done individually. He said: ‘Well, I’ve got a suit on and I can take you to the BBC and find you someone we can talk to. We were ushered into a small room and Michael Mills, who was head of comedy, came in after quite a good lunch I think, because he was in quite a good mood, and he asked us various questions about what we wanted to do. None of which we were able to adequately respond to. It was the world’s worst job interview. Was there going to be music? We don’t know. Were there going to be guest artists? Well, we don’t know. Were there going to be women in the show? We don’t know. At the end, Mills stood up and looked down the table at us and said: ‘I’ll give you 13 shows but that’s all.’ It was the best sentence anybody’s ever said to me in my life.”

Does he think that could happen at the BBC today? “No. The BBC was much more buccaneering back then. There were individuals who could make decisions on their own if they wanted to take a chance with something others didn’t like. And, to be honest, most people in the BBC hierarchy didn’t like Monty Python to start with at all. But you could do it and it would be respected. Now there would be far more investigations into what you wanted to do, people checking content and that you’re not being rude about people. I don’t think it would have gone anywhere today. It would have been censored at source.”

Palin shares some of the concerns Cleese has expressed about topics increasingly being considered off-limits in comedy. “At the moment it’s getting a bit ridiculous, when there are strictures over what you can say. I don’t think the outside world should impose on comedy. Comedy should subvert. Comedy’s got to make you feel freer.”

Why does he think Python proved so influential? “People found it quite bracing. You were able to make jokes about the prime minister and the army and the church, which you’d never been able to do before. It’s very important that people can escape, in comedy, from the conformity they’re forced into.”

He says it is dangerous to be rose-tinted about the past, but he does worry that the country has become more intolerant and less caring. “Political discourse has become very unpleasant. The country is run on the basis of getting as much money out of people as we can everywhere. It’s all about marketing and selling.”

Does he think he has changed over the years? “Not really. I’m a cautious and slightly shy person and always have been. But I’ve been given a chance to do things I never expected. All that is quite surprising to me.”

There have been profoundly bleak moments in his life. He lost too many friends early, including former Pythons Terry Jones (his main collaborator) and Chapman, as well as ex-Beatle George Harrison. His sister Angela killed herself when she was 52, something he has never come to terms with. “She was absolutely terrific. But she had this long-term depression. I could never quite understand where it came from, how deep it was, but it was there. That was a loss I’ve never really quite understood. I can’t understand why somebody, who had such talent and ability and was so liked, should have ... why there should have been such a dark space there ...” He trails off.

Fortunately, he says, his disposition is sunny, and the stability in his life has kept him grounded. Again, he returns to Helen. “My horizons are fairly local. Helen and I were together for 60 years, we lived in the same part of London a long time; I have never wanted to change the basics of my life: the relationships, the friends, the house. It’s been essential for them to be there so I could not get totally deluded by fame and success.”

Palin is all talked out. He tells me, apologetically, that he is exhausted, and again mentions his age. “I’m 80-plus now,” he says. What’s with the plus? “OK, 80 and 11 months!” He grins. “It’s time to go walking off the end of a pier.” I tell him I don’t think he’s ready for the departure lounge, or the end of the pier. He nods, and says I’ve got a point.

In 2019, he had open-heart surgery: one valve replaced, one repaired. “Now that’s sorted, and I’m more cautious about what I eat and drink, I feel fitter than I have done in ages.” All things considered, he says, he’s pretty content. “You’ve got to keep doing things. I’d love Helen to still be with me, telling me off, but yes, I’m very happy where I am.” - Guardian

Michael Palin in Nigeria starts on April 16th at 9pm on Channel 5