Michael Palin's career as a travel documentary presenter began when he set out on a trip to recreate Phileas Fogg's journey that took him Around the World in 80 Days. It was supposed to be a one-off, but Palin caught the travel bug and the BBC caught the ratings.
Since then, he has spent a good part of his life journeying to the Sahara, the Himalaya, around the Pacific Rim, Pole to Pole and following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway. All the while, he keeps the hordes entertained. His series Himalaya averaged 8 million viewers, including the Dalai Lama, who is a big fan.
As a boy, Palin used to get his notebook out and loiter in Sheffield train station trainspotting. Sure, he may have been interested in the various classes of locomotive. But what really fascinated him were the people on the trains, blasting through Sheffield on their exotic journey from London to Edinburgh. So, when he finally got his own set of wheels - a bicycle - he regularly rode out on the Yorkshire Moors, pretending he was heading up to Scotland. His world travels were derailed for a while when he met Terry Jones at Oxford, and he became one of the most famous faces in the world. He is still greeted with joyous cries of "Monty Python!" wherever he goes - including Cuba, Africa, Tibet, Russia, China... Now that is fame.
The Nice One If there's on thing that irks Palin about his Python days, it's that he became known as The Nice One. It's probably Terry Gilliam's fault: "He's the one that, no matter how much we hate the others at any given point, everybody likes." But Palin claims: "There are many Pythons nicer than me. Mother Teresa for instance." Nice he may have been, but he was also gut-wrenchingly funny. Think about this. Far more people know all the words to his Lumberjack Song than know the words to God Save the Queen or Silent Night. He still sings of his lumberjack days occasionally while on his travels. But Palin's favourite sketch to perform was The Cheese Shop. "Have you in fact got any cheese here at all?" "No. Not really, sir."
The Technological Age
For any fan of Palin's travels, his website is a wafer thin slice of heaven. Actually, it's a plump and juicy slice, offering everything you can't get from the books or the series. For example, Palin says, it has "a totally A-mazing cross reference system, created by experts working 24 hours a day for over 70 years" which allows you to look up any location, person, animal or mineral encountered on his trips. There is also an evocative entry written by Palin for every day he has been on the road. And then there are the photographs. Billions, trillions, kajillions of beautiful photos, all of which can be downloaded as wallpaper for your computer. And as a final bonus, the site is, according to Palin, "hygienically sound".
The Film, the Book, the T-shirt Palin's travels series has been rather more successfully franchised than most popular programmes of our day. First, there are the DVDs, available individually or in a 6-disc box-set. Then there are the books that accompany the series. All have been bestsellers and rightly so. Palin's vignettes are informative, insightful, and of course, funny. Then there are the photographs, which are glorious. So glorious, in fact, that there are Inside Himalaya and Inside Sahara companion volumes dedicated to Basil Pao's photos. And it's only a matter of time before the production team t-shirts are available on ebay. Isn't it?