Sir Michael Edward Palin, KCMG CBE FRGS (born 5 May 1943) is an English comedian, actor, writer and television presenter best known for being one of the members of the comedy group Monty Python and for his travel documentaries.
Early life and career
Palin was born in Ranmoor, Sheffield. His father was an engineer working for a steel firm. He started his education at Birkdale preparatory school, Sheffield, and later Shrewsbury School, Shrewsbury. When he was five years old at Birkdale, Palin had his first acting experience playing Martha Cratchit in a school performance of A Christmas Carol. At the age of ten Palin, still interested in acting, made a comedy monologue and read a Shakespeare play to his mother while playing all the parts. After his school days in 1962 he went on to read modern history at Brasenose College, Oxford. With fellow student Robert Hewison he performed and wrote, for the first time, comedy material at a university Christmas party. Terry Jones, also a student in Oxford, saw that performance and began writing together with Hewison and Palin. In the same year Palin joined the Brightside and Carbrook Co-Operative Society Players and first gained fame when he won an acting award at a Co-Op drama festival. He also performed in the Oxford Revue together with Jones.
In 1966 he married Helen Gibbins, whom he first met in 1959 on holiday in Southwold in Suffolk the county he returned to in recent years to live.
This meeting was later fictionalised in Palin's play East of Ipswich. Together they have three children. Whilst still a baby, his son William briefly appeared in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as Sir Not-appearing-in-this-film.
After finishing university in 1965 Palin became a presenter on a comedy pop show called Now! for the television contractor Television Wales and the West. At the same time Palin was contacted by Jones who had left university a year earlier, and was writing a theatrical documentary about sex through the ages. He asked Palin to help him write it. Although this project was eventually abandoned it brought Palin and Jones together as a writing duo. Together with Jones, Palin wrote comedy for various BBC programmes, like The Ken Dodd Show, The Billy Cotton Bandshow and The Illustrated Weekly Hudd. They were also in the team of writers working for The Frost Report. Other members of this team were Frank Muir, Barry Cryer, Marty Feldman, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett, Dick Vosburgh and future Monty Python members Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Eric Idle. Although the members of Monty Python had already encountered each other over the years, The Frost Report was the first time all the British members of Monty Python (Terry Gilliam is an American) worked together. During the run of The Frost Report the Palin/Jones team contributed material to two shows starring John Bird: The Late Show and A series of Bird's. For A series of Bird's the Palin/Jones team had their first experience of writing narrative instead of the short sketches they used to write.
Following The Frost Report the Palin/Jones team worked as actors and writers on the show Twice a fortnight with Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Jonathan Lynn, and the successful children's comedy show Do Not Adjust Your Set with Eric Idle and David Jason. The animations on Do Not Adjust Your Set were made by Terry Gilliam who joined the cast on recommendation by Cleese and was the first time the Palin/Jones team worked with him. Without Jones, Palin was asked by Cleese, who was eager to work again with Palin, to perform in How to Irritate People together with Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor. A television program meant to break into the American market. The Palin/Jones team worked again together in The Complete and Utter History of Britain.
During this time, John Cleese contacted Palin about doing a show which would become Monty Python's Flying Circus. Cleese and Chapman were offered a show by the BBC who had seen them on The Frost Report and other programmes. Cleese was reluctant to do a two-man show, for various reasons including Chapman's reputedly difficult personality. At the same time, following the success of Do Not Adjust Your Set Palin, Jones, Idle and Gilliam, were offered their own series. While this series was still in production, Palin agreed to Cleese's proposal and brought Idle, Jones and Gilliam along. The formation of the Monty Python troupe has been referred to as a result of Cleese's desire to work with Palin and the chance circumstances that brought the other four members into the fold.
In Monty Python, Palin played various roles, showing the range of his acting abilities. Roles go from manic enthusiasm, (such as the lumberjack of the Lumberjack Song), or unflappable calmness (such as the Dead Parrot vendor or Cheese Shop proprietor). As the latter, he was often a foil to the rising ire of characters portrayed by John Cleese.
Palin frequently wrote with Terry Jones for the sketches, some of the most memorable being the Lumberjack Song and Spam. But some sketches Palin wrote by himself, (or began the sketch by himself) such as the The Spanish Inquisition sketch, in which a fairly widespread catchphrase was created- "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"
Each member of Monty Python has an asteroid named after him. Palin's is Asteroid 9621 Michaelpalin.
Because of his huge range, his ability to get on with all the other Pythons, and his boyish appeal to the general public, he is often viewed as being the nicest of the comic troupe, with David Morgan's official book which includes interviews with all surviving Pythons, even labelling him as "The Nice One".
After the Monty Python television series ended, Palin collaborated with Python writing partner Terry Jones on the television comedy series Ripping Yarns and the play Secrets, from the BBC series Black and Blue. He also appeared in All You Need Is Cash as Eric Manchester (based on Derek Taylor) press agent for The Rutles.
In 1982, Palin wrote and starred in The Missionary, co-starring Maggie Smith. In it, he plays the Reverend Charles Fortesque who is recalled back from Africa to England to aid prostitutes.
He appeared in Terry Gilliam's films Time Bandits, Jabberwocky, and Brazil. His biggest international role in a movie besides Python was as stuttering would-be assassin Ken Pile in A Fish Called Wanda. The film was such a success that John Cleese reunited the main cast almost a decade later to make Fierce Creatures. After filming for Fierce Creatures finished, Palin went on a travel journey for a BBC documentary and, returning a year later, found that the end of Fierce Creatures had failed at test screenings and had to be reshot.
Apart from Fierce Creatures, Palin's last film role was a small part (The Sun) in The Wind in the Willows, or Mr Toad's Wild Ride, a film directed by and starring Terry Jones. Palin also appeared with John Cleese in his documentary, The Human Face.
He also assisted Transport 2000 and others with campaigns on transport policy issues, particularly those relating to urban areas, and has now become president of Transport 2000.
Palin has also appeared as a "straight" actor in serious drama. In 1991 Palin worked as producer and actor in the film American Friends based upon a real event in the life of his great grandfather, a fellow at St John's College, Oxford. In that same year he also played the part of a headmaster in Alan Bleasdale's Channel 4 drama series G.B.H..
In 2000 Palin became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to television.
In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, he was voted the 30th favourite by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.
Palin also had a small cameo role in Australian soap opera Home and Away. He played an English surfer with a fear of sharks, who interrupts a heart-to-heart between two main characters to ask whether there were any sharks in the sea. This was filmed while he was in Australia for the Full Circle series, with a segment about the filming of the role featuring in the series.
Palin's first travel documentary was part of the 1980 BBC Television series Great Railway Journeys of the World, in which — humourously reminiscing about his childhood hobby of train spotting — he travelled throughout the UK by train, from London to Kyle of Lochalsh, via Manchester, York, Edinburgh and Inverness. At the Kyle of Lochalsh, Palin bought the station's long metal platform sign and is seen lugging it back to London with him. In 1994, a second journey of Palin's for the same series, entitled "Derry to Kerry", went through Ireland. In a quest for family roots, he attempted to trace his great grandmother — Brita Gallagher — who set sail from Ireland 150 years ago during the potato famine, bound for a new life in Burlington, New Jersey, USA. It is a trip along the Palin family line.
Starting in 1989, Palin has appeared as presenter in a series of travel programmes made for the British BBC Television. These programs have been broadcast around the world in syndication, and were also sold on VHS tape and later on DVD:
- Michael Palin: Around the World in 80 Days (1989): travelling as closely as possible the path described in the famous Jules Verne story without using aircraft.
- Pole to Pole (1992): travelling from the North Pole to the South Pole, following as closely as possible the 30 degree line of longitude, over as much land as possible, i.e., through Europe and Africa.
- Full Circle with Michael Palin (1997): in which he circumnavigated the lands around the Pacific Ocean counter-clockwise; a journey of 80,000 kilometres starting on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait and taking him through Asia, Oceania and the Americas.
- Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure (1999): retracing the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway through the United States, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean.
- Sahara with Michael Palin (2002): in which he trekked around and through the world's largest desert.
- Himalaya with Michael Palin (2004): in which he travels through the Himalaya region.
Following each trip Michael Palin wrote a book about the trip, providing information and insights not included in the TV program. Each book is richly illustrated with photographs by Basil Pao, the stills photographer who was on the team. (Exception: the first book, Around the World in 80 Days, contains some pictures by Basil Pao but most are by other photographers.)
All six of these books were also made available as audio books, and all of them are read by Michael Palin himself, allowing the listener to hear his wit and charm, and his ability to do accents. The audio books do not include the photographs, of course. Around the World in 80 Days and Hemingway Adventure are unabridged, while the other four books were made in both abridged and unabridged versions, although the unabridged versions can be very difficult to find.
For four of the trips a photography book was made by Basil Pao, each with an introduction written by Michael Palin. These are large coffee-table style books with beautiful and interesting pictures, printed on high-quality glossy paper. Most of the pictures are of the people encountered, while some of the most impressive landscape photos are displayed as two-page spreads.
In 2005, Palin presented Michael Palin and the Mystery of Hammershoi, about the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi, whose work he collects.
In May 2006, he embarked on a new project, currently called Michael Palin's New Europe, which includes visits to twenty-one countries once in the Soviet bloc and Yugoslavia and that are now either part of or future members of the European Union, as well as countries like Turkey which are applying to join the EU. The New Europe travels are intended to produce six one-hour programmes for BBC 1 and a book, both planned for release in late 2007.
Palin's travel programmes are responsible for a phenomenon termed the "Palin effect": areas of the world that he has visited suddenly become popular tourist attractions — for example, the significant increase in the number of holidaymakers interested in journeying to Peru after Palin visited Machu Picchu.
In honour of his achievements as a traveller (especially rail travel), Palin has 2 British trains named after him. Virgin Trains' Super Voyager number 221130 carries his name externally and a plaque is located adjacent to the onboard shop with information on Palin and his many journeys. Also, one Railway have named a British Rail Class 153 (unit number 153335) after him.
- Around the World in 80 Days (1989) ISBN 0-563-20826-0
- Pole to Pole (1992) ISBN 0-563-37065-3
- Full Circle (1997) ISBN 0-563-37121-8
- Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure (1999) ISBN 0-297-82528-3
- Sahara (2002) ISBN 0-297-84303-6
- Himalaya (2004) ISBN 0-297-84371-0
All his travel books can be read at no charge, complete and unabridged, on his website.
- The Pythons Autobiography by The Pythons (2003) ISBN 0-7528-5293-0
- Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years (2006) ISBN 0-297-84436-9
- Hemingway's chair (1995) ISBN 0-7493-1930-5
- Dr Fegg's Encyclopeadia of all world knowledge (1984) (together with Terry Jones and Martin Honeysett) ISBN 0-8722-6005-4
- Small Harry and the Toothache Pills (1982) ISBN 0-416-23690-1
- Limerics or The Limeric Book (1985) ISBN 0-09-161540-2
- Cyril and the House of Commons (1986) ISBN 1-85145-078-5
- Cyril and the Dinner Party (1986) ISBN 1-85145-069-6
- The Mirrorstone w/ Alan Lee and Richard Seymoure (1986) ISBN 0-224-02408-6
- And Now For Something Completely Different (1971)
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
- Three Men in a Boat (1975)
- Jabberwocky (1977)
- Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
- Time Bandits (1981)
- Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)
- The Missionary (1982)
- Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)
- A Private Function (1984)
- Brazil (1985)
- A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
- American Friends (1991)
- The Wind in the Willows (1996)
- The Willows in Winter(1996)
- Fierce Creatures (1997)
- Now! (October 1965 – middle 1966)
- The Ken Dodd Show
- Billy Cotton Bandshow
- The Illustrated Weekly Hudd
- The Frost Report. (10 March 1966 – 29 June 1967)
- The Late Show (15 October 1966 - 1 April 1967)
- A Series of Bird's (1967) (3 October 1967 - 21 November 1967 screenwriter (guest stars)
- Twice a Fortnight (21 October 1967 - 23 December 1967)
- Do Not Adjust Your Set (26 December 1967 - 14 May 1969)
- Broaden Your Mind (1968)
- How to Irritate People (1968)
- Marty (TV series) (1968)
- Complete and Utter History of Britain (1969)
- Monty Python's Flying Circus (5 October 1969 – 5 December 1974)
- Ripping Yarns (1976-1979)
- Confessions of a Train Spotter: London to Kyle of Lochalsh (1980)
- Michael Palin: Around the World in 80 Days (1989)
- Pole to Pole (1992)
- Irish Railway Journey: Derry to Kerry (1994)
- Full Circle with Michael Palin (1997)
- Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure (1999)
- Sahara with Michael Palin (2002)
- Himalaya with Michael Palin (2004)
- Michael Palin biography
- Michael Palin by John Oliver at BFI Screen Online, URL accessed 13 December 2006
- Biography at Pythonet.org, URL accessed 17 December 2006
- The Pythons Autobiography By The Pythons; Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, John Chapman, David Sherlock, Bob McCabe; Thomas Dunne Books; 2003
- Michael Palin on transport fit for all our futures, article by Palin at Transport 2000.org, URL accessed 13 December 2006
- American Friends at Rotten Tomatoes.com, URL accessed 13 December 2006
- The Comedian's Comedian, URL accessed 13 December 2006
- Virgin Trains, URL accessed 13 December 2006
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