Palin by comparison

Why has cheery, old and loveable Michael Palin become grumpy, impatient and irritable? Because he's tired of being just 'the man off the telly'.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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Michael Palin is perhaps one of the best-loved characters on television. And deservedly so. He is affable, courteous and erudite – and he always uses three adjectives to describe everything. So why is he in a bad mood these days? What’s happened to the old, loveable and cheery lumberjack of Monty Python fame?

In his new programme on BBC 1, Michael Palin’s New Europe, Palin is no longer the cultured, polite and intellectual figure that we came to love in the Eighties and Nineties through his travel programmes. He has become grumpy, impatient and irritable.

Last year, Palin endeared himself to the British nation even more with the publication of his diaries from 1969 to 1979, which are surprisingly delightful, elegant and revealing. John Cleese is revealed for the grumpy git we all suspected him to be. Eric Idle emerges as something of a weird loner. Terry Jones comes across as surprisingly neurotic, and Terry Gilliam – who, in truth will always be known as the ‘other one’ in the Monty Python line-up – comes across as the most sympathetic, brave and simply likeable character. George Harrison, meanwhile, is just odd.

Michael Palin has been charming the public ever since he gave up doing Monty Python and Ripping Yarns and started travelling around the world. His first travel documentary was the 1980s BBC programme, Great Railway Journeys of the World. This was nothing to do with the world; it involved sallying around the heartland of the north of England and Scotland. But this is why his first programme made sense; this was where the Iron Horse was born and nurtured.

He came to the fore with Around the World in 80 Days in 1989, aiming to follow the path described in the Jules Verne story. Then came Pole to Pole in 1992, Full Circle in 1997 (travelling around the Pacific rim) before the themes of his programmes became even more tenuously entitled and more egotistically themed: Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure (1999), Sahara with Michael Palin (2002), Himalaya with Michael Palin (2004), and finally now Michael Palin’s New Europe. The egotism could be forgiven, because it was well-deserved; Palin was like a precursor to Bruce Parry: he just went around the world being really nice to everyone, and in turn making everyone like him.

Michael Palin, always so dashing, well-read and even – I must admit, for a heterosexual male – so very attractive, has now seemingly lost the plot. New Europe lost more than a million viewers for its second instalment on Sunday – 6.4million viewers and only 26 per cent of the previous audience are reported to have tuned in this week (1).

So what’s gone wrong with Michael Palin? What has transformed this grinning, handsome cherub into a cross, irksome and intolerant character? I suspect that he is bored with fame, or for being famous for being on television, and that frankly, being known as ‘that TV man’ is getting on his nerves and wearing him down.

Michael Palin’s diaries are simply superb, one of the surprising works of genius to be published in the Noughties. Graham Chapman’s descent into alcoholism and Palin’s father’s descent into dementia are portrayed with great and vivid tenderness. It’s also very funny. One of the great extracts reads, as Palin speaks of a guest at a party: ‘He is smoking his third or fourth joint of the evening… and telling me of his poetry writings. After a long and serious build-up, I was expecting The Waste Land at least, but what I got was “Zim, Zam, Zap, the Zimbabwe is going to Zap you man” – as Simon A remarked, “Pot never helped anyone.” ‘

But the most surprising thing about his diaries is that Palin isn’t the relentlessly cheery chap everyone assumes him to be, or how he appears. Judging by his diaries, he is a constantly worried person, always profoundly concerned about his career, money and about his family. What is more, he married and had children in his 20s, which is usually the sign of someone with an anxious disposition. He is a very literary-minded character, who is either lauding Hemingway or Evelyn Waugh or curiously worshipping Tom Stoppard. Those with an artistic persuasion will invariably be people who are nervous, or who worry about things. Everyone who worships Michael Palin does so because they think he is not like them. In fact, everyone does so because they are like him.

This is why I think things are going wrong for Michael Palin. He’s realised finally that he doesn’t, and never did, want to be a TV man. He wanted to be a proper writer, to be Hemingway or Waugh. I suspect that he is having his regrets in life, but I don’t think he should. Anyone who has an asteroid named after him (9621 Michaelpalin), who has given joy to people through appearing in increasingly badly-themed television shows, and, of course, has sold dead parrots, is a man who should be saluted. In short, I would say Michael Palin is a great, clever and brilliant man.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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(1) Exodus from Palin’s new Europe, Guardian, September 24 2007

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