Monty Python star Michael Palin: Dubai taught me a vital lesson in my travelogue career

Comedy legend Michael Palin on narrating the remake of kids' classic The Clangers, his experiences of the UAE, and the Monty Python legacy.

Michael Palin, the narrator of Clangers. Courtesy BBC
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Michael Palin learnt perhaps the greatest lesson of his fledgling travelogue career during a visit to Dubai in 1988 while filming Around the World in 80 Days.

At the time known mainly as a comedy actor – as a member of the groundbreaking Monty Python team, and as the writer and star of a string of television shows and films – he had decided to branch out by making a documentary in which he would attempt to recreate the fictional voyage of Phileas Fogg, as told in the classic novel by Jules Verne, without using air travel. The seven-part BBC TV series was a massive hit and was the start of a whole new career for Palin. It was followed by Pole to Pole, in which he travelled from the North to South Pole, sticking to land as much as possible, and Full Circle, for which he spent 10 months travelling around the Pacific Rim.

“A vital part of my whole travel-­documentary career took place in the Gulf,” he says. “We couldn’t fly because of the nature of the show, so we were going to come all the way around the Saudi Arabian peninsula and pick up a dhow that would take us across from Oman to Mumbai.”

Fate, however, had other plans.

“Everything went wrong,” he says. “The ship we were supposed to take from Jeddah was burnt out and couldn’t sail, so in the end we had to go via Dubai and pick up a dhow there. It was totally unprepared. Only one of the 18 crew spoke any English and they were a bit reluctant about taking us in the first place.”

Despite this inauspicious start, Palin says the experience proved to be a valuable lesson.

“The journey took about seven days and it really was a game changer, because I realised on that voyage that there was no point in me pretending to be Phileas Fogg doing this journey,” he says, referring to the original aim of the ­series.

“I just had to respond to what was happening in this extraordinary situation. I was living together with this crew of 18 Gujarati fishermen on the deck of a boat. There were no cabins or anything like that.

“It made an entire episode – it was quite extraordinary – and after that I realised that this is how to make these programmes. You just have to open your eyes to the wonder of what you’re seeing and don’t try to pretend you can change it.

“It was a really terrific experience – although it was quite hairy going up and down the Gulf day and night in a tiny dhow.”

Palin’s more recent visits to the Gulf have been considerably less stressful, including an appearance at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in 2011, and a family holiday in Oman, but the Dubai experience clearly served as a useful lesson for what was to come.

Palin has now presented eight travel documentary series for the BBC and written books to accompany them, making him arguably the most successful travel presenter and writer since the golden era of Whicker's World, presented by legendary British broadcaster Alan Whicker.

Of course Palin will be remembered for much more than only his incredible journeys around the world. He has appeared in more than 20 movies – many of which he also wrote or produced – including a Bafta-winning performance in A Fish Called Wanda (1988), alongside fellow Python John Cleese and Hollywood stars Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis.

He has also written and appeared in numerous TV series, from his own satirical comedy Ripping Yarns, with fellow Python Terry Jones, to Alan Bleasdale's hard-­hitting, critically acclaimed 1991 political drama GBH – a series that Palin suggests has taken on a new-found relevance in the tumultuous world of post-Brexit UK politics.

His latest TV project – a new version of classic British children's show The Clangers – is now showing in the region on the CBeebies channel.

Ultimately, though, it is probably his role in four seasons of Monty Python's Flying Circus – alongside Cleese, Jones, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam – as well as their four spin-off movies, stage adaptations and occasional reunions that Palin, who is now 73, will always be best remembered for.

Flying Circus, which ran on BBC television between 1969 and 1974, was groundbreaking in its day, hugely influential and remains one of the most enduringly popular – and endlessly quotable – comedy sketch shows of all time.

Every member of the team other than Chapman, who died of cancer in 1989, continues to enjoy varying degrees of post-Python success. While filming the final episode of Flying Circus in 1974, could Palin have imagined the heights they would reach in the years that followed?

"It would have been almost impossible to guess," he says. "I would have said everyone would end up doing something that they'd written themselves because that was the very basis from which Python arose, so it's no surprise that John [Cleese] wrote Fawlty Towers, and Terry [Gilliam] wrote [the 1985 film] Brazil, and Eric Idle wrote various films and his TV series, such as Rutland Weekend Television. Terry Jones wrote films, too.

“What was most interesting was that we all felt we had to go off in our own directions. That sort of surprised me – the realisation that Python worked when it worked, but it wasn’t something you could just go on and repeat and repeat over and over.

“I think it’s remarkable what everyone has achieved since.”