Michael Palin on the Iraq War, colonialism and his friendship with King Charles

Palin’s latest book, Into Iraq, will feature as a Channel 5 series
Palin’s latest book, Into Iraq, will feature as a Channel 5 series

Sir Michael Palin – comedian, adventurer, national treasure – lives in a serene white-fronted house on the corner of a quiet side street in north-west London. He opens the door, sprightly and energetic in a white button-down shirt and jeans.

Having grown up watching him on television – first in Monty Python, then in his second career as a travel writer and explorer – it’s almost unsettling to see how much he still looks like the young actor who shaped the world of comedy in the 1970s and ’80s, despite being 79, a knight of the realm and a grandfather of four.

The house is warren-like, slightly haphazardly arranged; Palin explains that it’s two terraced houses merged into one. He has lived here with his wife, Helen, for more than 50 years. Upstairs, his study is large and bright and book-lined, slightly donnish with wooden shelves and the collected tchotchke of a long life. He’s a serious reader and spends a while discussing favourite novels.

I’d noticed a walking stick propped beside the stairs and Palin tells me that Helen, whom he married in 1966, has been suffering with ill health, pain that has not responded to medication. She is in respite care nearby.

‘I don’t think you can cure it, but they will help her manage it,’ Palin tells me. ‘It’s such a bore. She was so active and still is mentally. But we’re both getting on a bit. The body is declining. She’s going to be 80 in October, I’m going to be 80 at the beginning of next year. We live life with our fingers crossed.’

Palin with his wife of 56 years, Helen Gibbins - Alan Davidson/Shutterstock
Palin with his wife of 56 years, Helen Gibbins - Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

Rather undoing this image of a man stepping cautiously through late life is the fact that Palin has just returned from Iraq, where he set off fireworks with Kurds, drove through mountains where IS militants were in hiding, and suffered the discomforts and indignities of travel in a country little prepared for tourists of any age.

There is a moment at the beginning of Palin’s latest book, Into Iraq, soon to feature as a Channel 5 series, when he feels suddenly unwell in a Turkish airport; his age and health brought to the fore before the journey had even properly begun. ‘I thought, “Oh dear,”’ he says. ‘The style of the journeys I’ve done is to participate, move with the crew, it’s physically quite demanding. You can’t just sit around. So there was this moment when I thought, “Hey, I’m dizzy in an airport and we haven’t even got going yet…”

‘I’m always optimistic when we’re on the road. I know there are going to be difficult days and nights when I won’t sleep well, but I find it so exhilarating and I just want to keep going.’

Into Iraq

The story of Palin’s journey through Iraq is one of geography and of mood. He begins on the Turkish border and moves through Kurdistan, then follows the course of the Tigris down through Mosul, Erbil, Tikrit and Baghdad, before heading to Basra and the Shia south of the country. Palin has a simple mantra when it comes to travel: ‘If you approach people with a smile, they’ll respond.’

Palin meeting military personnel on the road to Tikrit
Palin meeting military personnel on the road to Tikrit

That response becomes more muted as the journey plays out. There’s a hopefulness in Kurdistan, typified by a young man he meets in Mosul who describes in detail all he has witnessed, then confesses to loving British literature. ‘He’d been through five years of IS occupation,’ Palin tells me. ‘He would have been killed if they’d found his phone. To come through all that and say, “I love Jane Austen”!’

As Palin heads south, though, he encounters more suspicion, more hesitancy and even outright hostility from the people he meets.

Kirkuk, a city north of Baghdad, known for its oil reserves, is often listed among the most dangerous places in the world, and although IS fighters have been largely driven from the city, they still lurk in the countryside around.

I ask Palin whether he felt scared. He laughs and shakes his head. ‘Not at all. I’m not saying that because I’m blithe. When there are people about, unless there’s obvious military activity I feel generally safe. I know it’s probably quite mistaken to feel that way, but I tend to think that if they’re safe on the street, I will be too.’

Palin and the film crew in front of the Victory Arch in Baghdad
Palin and the film crew in front of the Victory Arch in Baghdad

Time and again throughout his travels, he disarms potentially tricky situations through precisely the kind of surreal humour that made his name. ‘I suppose it’s just my Pollyanna-ish attitude,’ he says. ‘“Well hello, everybody! This is a wonderful world, isn’t it? Oh let’s have a beer together.”’

I put it to him that humour is central to his engagement with the world. There’s a lovely moment in his previous book about his travels through North Korea when he shows the stern-faced government interpreter the fish-slapping dance – one of Monty Python’s most surreal and celebrated sketches – and she gives her first smile.

Such instances of levity are rare in his time in Iraq. ‘Humour is a terrifically important part of the connections we make, along with food and drink and talking about the children,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t work as easily in Iraq and I think that’s because British humour operates from a fairly comfortable place of confidence… Iraq’s wobbliness and uncertainty as to where it was on the world stage meant that laughter wasn’t always on their lips.

‘We have chaos and we laugh at it; their chaos is too deadly for them to be comfortable laughing at it.’

In the south of Iraq, Palin found a place dominated by the Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr and his acolytes, a land whose very seriousness seemed to go against everything he stands for. ‘In southern Iraq people didn’t look at you in the eye, they didn’t come up to you in the street,’ he says. ‘What they seemed to care most about was ensuring that their version of the Koran
was implemented. No alcohol, women should not be allowed in public life. It was a place of closed doors and I like to travel in places with open doors.’

We go on to speak about the culture wars. I put it to him that some might think that a white man travelling the world in search of colourful stories smacks a little of our Imperial past? ‘I believe in the freedom to write down whatever you want,’ he says. ‘If someone doesn’t like the way I travel, they should tell me. The idea that the way we have behaved in the past should constrain our future is very difficult, because it’s going to mean a lot of people are shut up who have things to say. Understanding our past, whatever it has been, whether colonial or otherwise, is essential. And the more people who explore it, the better.

‘It’s about listening to views and accepting them, giving the same weight to people who say we’ve behaved appallingly in the past and need to pull down these statues to make amends for it, and the people who say well no, actually, I rather like these statues.’

Behind Palin, on the wall, there is a picture of him with the then Prince of Wales. The new King is a Monty Python fan and Palin recently attended Camilla the new Queen Consort's 75th birthday lunch – he shows me a card from her thanking him for one of his books.

He has a high opinion of the monarch and seems to suggest that he, and his work ethic, have been underestimated. ‘When Charles and Camilla travel around the world, they connect very easily with people. I know Charles... sometimes looks a bit formal, but he does have a real ease with people, which I think is so important. I’m very pro him.

‘I think I work hard but he works an incredible amount. And of course we have a shared sense of humour. So, a good man.’

'We have a shared sense of humour': Palin with Monty Python fan and future king Charles - Shutterstock
'We have a shared sense of humour': Palin with Monty Python fan and future king Charles - Shutterstock

Early years

On the wall beside Palin’s desk is a sign that says: ‘Made in Sheffield’. He was born there and grew up exploring the crags and peaks around the city, which sounds bucolic; but he also had a difficult, if distant, relationship with his father, an engineer. ‘I think I might have got my dad wrong in a way,’ he says today.

‘When I was born, he was in his mid-40s. Life had been very hard since the  glorious 1920s when he’d been in India. I have photos of him on the boat coming back from India in drag, striking poses with fellow lads. I think there was a terrific amount of joie de vivre there, which I didn’t see growing up. Because things were very difficult… because he had a stammer, which must have been extraordinarily frustrating for a man with a sense of humour. I wish I’d known him when he was happier.’

Palin went on to read Modern History at Oxford – it was there he performed his first comedy material at a Christmas party. Afterwards, life took off rapidly: he married Helen Gibbins, a farmer’s daughter, in 1966, a year after graduating, by which time he was also writing for various TV shows including The Frost Report, whose cast included John Cleese, later his Monty Python collaborator. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s that his travel broadcasting career accelerated, following BBC documentary series, Around the World in 80 Days.

So, what ingredient makes for a good traveller? ‘Curiosity,’ he says without hesitation. ‘It’s something I was born with. I was curious from a very early age, looking at National Geographic magazines and atlases. There is still a sense of wonder that I’m able to go to these places that as a schoolboy in Sheffield I might have thought were strange and exciting and exotic but unattainable.’

He recalls an early trip to Spain with John Cleese. ‘He could not understand why I was so fascinated by the doors. He said, “What is it about the doors?” I saw these wonderful doors, so strong and knotted and you don’t get doors like that in England. “Shut up!” he’d say, “Shut up about the doors!” When I go abroad it’s like opening the most wonderful box of toys. There’s so much there that interests me.’

I leave Palin among his books, about to go and visit his wife, still full of energy and optimism. And yet Palin tells me that he’s uncertain if he’ll undertake another adventure – ‘That’s up to the audience,’ he says, ‘and health’. Having spent a glorious, uplifting morning with the man, I wouldn’t bet against it.

Michael Palin: Into Iraq airs on Channel 5 at 9pm on Tuesday 20 September. His book of the same name (published by Hutchinson Heinemann) is out on Thursday.

Tickets for his tour, From North Korea Into Iraq, are available at themichaelpalin.com