It all began at The Club for Palin
RICHARD BATSON We are used to watching him stride across towering mountains, barren deserts and frozen poles. But Michael Palin’s first tastes of travelling were at a Norfolk seaside town where he is due to return in May, he tells Richard Batson.
The Reform Club, in London, was the famous starting point for Michael Palin's Around the World in 80 Days series, as he made his first major foray into globe-trotting travel television.
More than half a century earlier, his own holiday adventures began at a very different kind of 'club' – a set of urinals off Sheringham seafront.
The vast Victorian public toilets off the esplanade are among his fond childhood memories of family breaks taken at the resort.
“They were rather magnificent toilets, with an impressive façade, which father called The Club,” says the man, whose natural curiosity and quirky sense of humour have endeared him to millions of television viewers through a string of travel programmes in a post-Python career.
“He always said we had to go to the The Club before we went to the beach, where I remember endless games of cricket and exploring the rocks,” he recalls.
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The embers of wartime were still smouldering in the late 1940s, and sunny holiday skies were sometimes smudged with black puffs of smoke as anti-aircraft guns popped at targets being tugged behind tow planes.
There was the excitement of looking around the lifeboat, and even occasionally seeing it launch.
Donkey rides were both “thrilling and terrifying” and the sea was always “pretty cold”.
When it rained, young Michael remembers being taken on tours of local churches – where he was able to “stand in the pulpit and give vent to some early signs of exhibitionism”.
Those cherished holiday memories will be told to a sell-out audience at Sheringham's Little Theatre next Saturday, May 7, as Michael reflects on his private past as well as a long and varied career in the public gaze.
Sheringham was the “designated holiday resort” for a decade as the Palin family escaped Sheffield and returned to Norfolk, which was father Ted's home county.
The Fakenham-born engineer had headed north to find work in the depression of 1930s, but was drawn back to East Anglia for holiday escapes – first to Sheringham, then Southwold where he eventually retired.
Michael, who holidayed at Sheringham aged five to 15, says his restless need to explore new places may be rooted in trying to escape the strictures of those early tastes of tourism when they returned to the same place year after year.
He can understand people who do that, even today, but with the opening up of world travel, Michael, and many other people, are savouring the world which is their oyster.
There is even talk that the 'Palin Factor' is fuelling a growth in adventure holidays – with people wanting to explore remoter parts of the globe having watched his programmes, such Himalaya and Sahara.
He is pleased that some people seem keen to escape “the tyranny of the tour group” but, typically modestly, thinks there are other factors in the adventure tourism explosion.
“I am not the only one encouraging it. But if there are eight million people watching a programme and just a small percentage of them get fascinated, it will give a huge boost to that country,” he concedes.
He wants people to share his curiosity to discover the differences of culture, customs, dress, food and landscape – but points out that can even be fun close to home in somewhere like Scotland.
Quizzed about his favourite spots, he rattles off a list which includes the Victoria Falls in Zambia, the Arctic ice floes of Spitsbergen and cities including Sydney, Vancouver and Istanbul.
He reveals there are no plans for any other travel projects at the moment – but that doesn't mean he won't be travelling, for personal fulfilment. That may involve revisiting places where previous tight television schedules whisked him away before he had explored enough.
Michael cannot understand people whose idea of a holiday is to go abroad simply to get sunshine in a place surrounded by English beer and food.
“That is a wasted opportunity and I think you owe it to people to learn about their culture when you visit their country.”
Michael says his transition from comedy writer and actor to travel presenter – which he describes as “35 years without a proper job” – is a career that results from a “series of happy accidents”.
He realised at Oxford university he was not going to be a top-flight academic.
“I applied for a BBC traineeship but, fortuitously, I failed the interview,” he says, with an obvious sense of relief and destiny.
Instead, he fell into the start of a showbiz life in the 1960s when he made friends with Terry Jones, John Cleese, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman.
The rest is comedy history, as they created ground-breaking Monty Python, which spawned 45 episodes and five feature films.
His big screen credits also include A Fish Called Wanda, where his stuttering character Ken earned him a best supporting actor BAFTA in 1988.
A self-confessed travel addict, he contributed to two BBC series of Great Railway Journeys of the World, which resulted in him being head-hunted for the Around the World where, in 1989, he carved a new niche for himself.
Michael was made a CBE in the 2000 New Years Honours for services to television drama and travel.
A flurry of further travelogues followed in the '90s – Pole to Pole, Full Circle, Sahara and, most recently, Himalaya, where he sat, under a towering landscape, recalling his childhood holidays in Norfolk.
The Sheringham Little Theatre seized the moment when it was broadcast last year, and passed him a cheeky note while at a book-signing in Norwich, asking him to do a show.
He was happy to say “yes” and next Saturday – two days after his 62nd birthday – will tell some of his own Ripping Yarns to a capacity house that sold out in a flash.
Michael is a little embarrassed to learn he is a “pin-up” figure for women of a certain age – including the theatre box office staff – but chuckles. “It's a shame it didn't happen when I was a 15-year-old on Sheringham beach.”
He is looking forward to returning to his old holiday haunt :but the question is whether he will visit The Club before he goes on stage.