Monty Python star Michael Palin asks 'What's not to like about a 76-year old man singing The Lumberjack Song in German?'

The term Renaissance Man could have been invented for Sir Michael Palin, writes James Rampton.

Sunday, 9th June 2019, 10:45 am
Michael Palin.
Michael Palin.

Over a 50-year career, he has been responsible for ground-breaking comedy, iconic movies, bestselling novels and non-fiction books and some of the most memorable travelogues ever committed to film. There is nothing he cannot do.

But in spite of this array of splendid achievements in other fields, Michael says that his first love has always been live performance. And the great news is that he is now returning to it with a brilliant new show entitled Erebus, Python and Other Stories which will be coming to the Winding Wheel, Chesterfield, on June 20.

In the first half of this show,, Michael will be discussing Erebus: The Story of a Ship", his gripping, bestselling book, which has just come out in paperback, about a pioneering 19th century ship, HMS Erebus. He recounts the thrilling story of the resilient little ship that battled through both the Antarctic and the Arctic during the 1840s. Using a rich selection of illustrations, he will conjure up the triumph and the tragedy of the ship’s short, yet eventful life and explain why he was so drawn to it.

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Michael Palin.

After the interval, Michael regales the audience with his own life story, showing how his three favourite subjects at school (geography, history and comedy) have influenced his subsequent life. He outlines how they have shaped everything from Monty Python and Ripping Yarns to the many television travel series that have transported him to all corners of the globe, from the North Pole to North Korea. Employing previously unseen footage and untold stories, Michael underscores how comedy and adventure have been joined at the hip during his remarkable and diverse career.

An amazingly sprightly 76-year-old with the energy of a man 20 years his junior, he is just as charming and funny in person as he is on stage. Not for nothing has he been dubbed, 'Quite simply the nicest man in showbiz'.

The performer begins by underlining his excitement about returning to the live arena. "It is absolutely my favourite form of performing because you’re right in front of the people you're talking to. There is no camera in the way and no editor to put it together later.

“It always is what it is. It's happening there and then in that theatre. It's never exactly the same two nights running. That can depend on the audiences as much as yourself. Sometimes it clicks wonderfully well and smoothly, and others you have to work a bit harder. But it's the best form of performing there is."

Michael Palin in The Life of Brian.

Michael, whose acclaimed movies have included the Monty Python films, Brazil, The Missionary, A Fish Called Wanda and The Death of Stalin, continues that live performances are where it all began for him. "I was brought up on live performance. I first started performing am-dram as a child at the Library Theatre in Sheffield. Then at Oxford University, we wrote and performed our own material. Then I got rather lured away into TV and film, but I've always loved live performance.

"When we have done Monty Python tours in front of an audience, they have always been hilarious - sometimes disastrous, sometimes wonderful. But the great thing is you have nothing between you and the audience. There is no one there to make it better or easier. It's the ultimate."

The widely-loved performer, an enormously experienced traveller who has made several lauded travel documentaries, taking him to the North and South Poles, the Sahara Desert, the Himalayas, Eastern Europe and Brazil, goes on to expand on exactly why the story of the Erebus is so fascinating. Its first trip was triumphant; it made a hugely successful voyage of discovery to the Antarctic. However, its second voyage ended in disaster. Attempting to find the North West Passage, it disappeared in the Arctic in 1845.

Michael, whose tour will be supported by local bookshops - signed copies of his books will be available to buy in the theatre - said: "The Erebus story symbolises our eternal quest for the other place, somewhere we don't know about, somewhere beyond the horizon that no one has ever discovered.

Michael Palin in Monty Python's Flying Circus.

"The modern equivalent would be the space race. The crew of the Erebus didn't know what was in the Southern Ocean. It's the same with the astronauts going to the moon – no one knew what it would be like when they got there. Erebus epitomises our timeless search to find out where we are and why we are here."

Michael, who earned an extremely well-deserved knighthood in the 2019 New Year Honours List, goes on to tease what he will be covering in the second half of Erebus, Python and Other Stories. "I will be talking about a variety of journeys and other work, including writing. I will be reading from Dr Fegg's Encyclopaedia of All World Knowledge, which I wrote with Terry Jones and showing clips from Ripping Yarns."

He adds that "All this is just to illustrate my thesis that the Erebus book was not a total and complete surprise. People asked, 'Why are you suddenly writing history books about ships?' Then I thought back to my school days and realised the things I liked most then were history, geography and making people laugh. Those three things kept me going at school, and they are still keeping me going now.

"Normally you grow out of things as you grow older and settle down. But it's rather wonderful to think that in my mid-70s, the enthusiasms I had as a child are exactly the same enthusiasms I have now. They have informed all my work.””

In the show, Michael, is also eager to emphasise the significance of travel. "There are two cliches about travel. The first is that absence makes the heart grow fonder and the second is that it broadens the mind. They may be cliches, but unfortunately, they are still the best ways of expressing why travel is so important.

“When you travel somewhere, no matter how much reading you might do in advance, in the end it';s up to you to get to grips with what you're seeing, to learn how to deal with the journeyphysically, to be able to keep your mind open to the people you meet and not to impose yourself on anyone. Travel is a wonderful way of widening of your experience. It makes you more aware. You look at things in a global way and see the world from different perspectives. You realise that London is not the only place to look at the world from."

Michael wraps up by assessing what he hopes audiences will take away from Erebus, Python and Other Stories. "Over the years I have built up a following of people who like what I do. In the show, I hope they get the chance to celebrate the diversity of all the things I've been able to do, from books and Monty Python to serious acting and travelling. It's rather like a Python show – you give people an awful lot and they can pick out what they like. Hopefully there will be an abundance of material they'll enjoy."

He concludes that the keynote in all his work is enthusiasm. "I'm very, very pleased that after many years I have an audience of people who want to come along and see me.Above all, they want to share my enthusiasm for the things I've done. What is nice is that in my mid-70s I'm still as enthusiastic and as curious as I was in my 20s.“Audiences will see a 76-year-old man trying to sing The Lumberjack Song in German. What's not to like about that?!Live performance is a great way of reconfirming that enthusiasm, using it and spreading it around. Hopefully at the show, we will all have a very good time."

Michael Palin - Live On Stage: Eerebus, Python and Other Stories UK tour visits the Winding Wheel, Chesterfield on June 20. For tickets to to