He’s been a Python, a star television traveller, and even a 'serious’ screenwriter, but does Michael Palin like being Britain’s Nicest Man?
By Marc Lee - Published: The Telegraph, 24 Aug 2009
It’s one of the muggiest days of the year. I’m sitting in a cramped, spartan office in Covent Garden waiting for Michael Palin when a classic Monty Python sketch springs to mind. What a joy it would be if he popped his head around the door and delivered a line he first uttered 40 years ago: “Is this the right room for an argument?” Then I could be John Cleese and insist tetchily: “I’ve told you once.” Of course, when he does arrive, he is all smiles, affability and apologies for being ever so slightly late. Despite the oppressively tropical atmosphere, he’s cool, dry-browed, unflustered — inured to climatic extremes, no doubt, by his relentless travels. And he’s clearly not in the mood for an argument.
But is he ever? Along with fellow Oxford graduate Terry Jones, Palin was one of the two “nice” Pythons; Cleese, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman — all former Cambridge students — were edgier, crueller. Then later, as we witnessed his extensive globe-trotting, from Around the World in 80 Days to Himalaya to New Europe, the nation clasped him to its bosom, and he became widely identified as Britain’s Nicest Man.
Could it be he’s just a little bit irritated by that unofficial title? Alas, no. “As long as I’m doing what I think is the best work I can do,” he says, “I don’t particularly mind what people make of me. I’m a reasonably amenable, conciliatory character, and if I come across as that, that’s fine. The nicest-man-in-the-world [tag] is an odd kind of thing because how do you judge something like that? It really doesn’t get you anywhere, except to feel slightly ineffectual.” But he recognises that it’s his genial nature that accounts for the enormous success of his travel programmes.
“Being a traveller that people like to go with and can relax with when I’m on television — I think that’s quite something, and it doesn’t happen very often. For some strange reason, people usually take on a persona on television that’s different from the way they are normally.” You have to dig deep to find any evidence of bad behaviour or emotional incontinence in the life of the 66-year-old Palin, who has augmented his triumphs in television comedy and travel with success as a novelist, diarist and serious actor, while staying happily married for 43 years (he’s a father of three and became a grandfather for the second time two weeks ago).