Full name: Michael Edward Palin
Michael Edward Palin was born in Sheffield to the manager of a toilet paper factory and the daughter of the High Sheriff of Nottingham (as pythonesque as this sounds this is true). Palin spent his childhood living in Whitworth Road, Sheffield with his parents and his sister Angela (who is 8 years older than him).
Despite his meagre earnings at the toilet paper factory, and later as an export manager at the steel company Edgar Allen and Co., Palin's father managed to provide Michael with a private school education, first at Birkdale preparatory school and then at Shrewsbury. It was at Birkdale that Palin's abilities for entertainment first appeared, with him taking the lead in many form plays. Later at Shrewsbury these talents receded. It may have been the new serious Palin that eventually led him to becoming vice head of house. It was also during his time here that Palin discovered The Goons, a radio series that was instrumental in shaping Monty Python.
(It is worth noting that although Shrewsbury is a small, obscure public school, it has produced many notable additions to the comedy world such as Willie Rushdon, Peter Cook, Richard Ingrams and Christopher Booker. Richard Ingrams later went on to be a cornerstone of the satirical publication "Private Eye".)
Michael Palin went to Brasenose College Oxford in 1962 to read History, where his passion for entertainment awakened (or shall we say reawakened). His first role whilst at Oxford was "Third Peasant" in the play
Fuente Ovejuna by Lope de Vega (a play about 15th century peasants and about as fun as having wisdom teeth pulled without anaesthetic). In this particular staging however the stage machinery and lighting worked intermittently (as Terry Jones - who was in the audience, would later remark "it was the funniest play I'd ever seen").
At Oxford Palin teamed up with fellow student Robert Hewison and started writing and performing scripts under the name Seedy Entertainers - one of their first gigs being for the Oxford University Psychology Society at their Christmas Party. This contained a mix of satirical RAF briefings, television parodies and various water-related gags. In the second year the Palin-Hewison team was joined by Terry Jones and together this writing team produced material for the show Loitering Within Tent. This show contained a skit known as the Slapstick Sketch, which was later loaned to the Cambridge Footlights - of whom John Cleese and Graham Chapman were members. Perhaps this mixing of ideas was in part responsible for the birth of Monty Python.
The Palin-Hewison-Jones team continues writing, contributing to a show about the death penalty called Hang Down Your Head and Die, before their big break at the Edinburgh Festival in 1964 in the show Oxford Revue (it was also here that Palin first met Eric Idle). Although most of the material was by Palin and Hewison, the show was less satirical and more bizarre than most shows at the time - in fact it was more Python. It was after the show that Palin and Jones met David Frost who vowed "to get in touch".
In 1965 Palin graduated from Oxford with a 2:1 degree in modern history. From there he got a job in television, hosting the teenage pop show NOW! for Television Wales West (Jones meanwhile had got a place on a BBC directing course, and Hewison had left the team to get a proper job). Encouraged by Jones, Palin began to moonlight on other shows including The Ken Dodd Show, The Late Night Line Up, and The Illustrated Weekly Hudd. Between 1965 and 1967 Palin and Jones wrote for or performed in almost every light entertainment programme made by the BBC.
In 1966, Palin and Jones were recruited into the writing team of The Frost Report, joining a motley bunch of writers that included Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie (both later part of The Goodies), Denis Norden (who later became well known with his out-take show It'll Be Alright On The Night), and certain individuals by the name of John Cleese, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman.
The Palin-Jones team, along with Eric Idle were installed as writers for the show Do Not Adjust Your Set - originally a children's show, but repeated in the evenings as the adult audience grew (now with animations by a Mr. T. Gilliam). Later the Palin-Jones team wrote the show The Complete and Utter History of Britain - although this particular project suffered rather bad reviews. Then in 1966, a producer Barry Took brought Palin together with 5 others to produce a series that was provisionally called Owl Stretching Time…
Palin's first post-Python foray into television was in the critically acclaimed series
Ripping Yarns written alongside Terry Jones. From there he went on to star as Dennis Cooper in the film
Jabberwocky (a film by T. Gilliam) and then co-wrote and (briefly) starred in
Time Bandits (also by Mr. Gilliam). Palin's next role was in the film The Missionary, in which Palin played a missionary who returns from Africa to run a refuge for "fallen women". It was this that showed that Palin was capable of being humorous rather than comic. This continues into his next project
A Private Function by Alan Bennett.
Palin's next role finally gave him a break from his standard nice-guy role, when he played Jack Lint in Terry Gilliam's magnum opus Brazil (for those who haven't seen it, Jack Lint is a torturer working for a futuristic bureaucratic state, who inflicts pain while displaying the "nice guy" character we are so used to from Palin - the result being a chilling portrayal of a sociopath).
Perhaps Palin's biggest role outside of Monty Python came in A Fish Called Wanda (released in 1988), in which Palin played the animal loving assassin Ken Pile (left). Although criticised for making fun of those who stammer, Palin was able to meet this storm head on through the fact that his father had suffered from a stammer.
Other roles followed in East of Ipswich (a semi-autobiographical play penned by Palin) for BBC2,
American Friends (also penned by Palin) and as the headmaster of a school for physically handicapped children who is targeted by political thugs, in
Alan Bleasdale's critically acclaimed drama
In 1980, Palin contributed to the BBC's documentary series Great Railway Journeys of the World, taking a trip for Euston Station, London to the West of Scotland. The episode was the most popular in the series. It may have been this that in the late 1980's led to Palin being asked to appear in the travelogue series Around The World in 80 Days. Palin was given the task of circumnavigating the world in 80 days using only forms of transport available to the character Phineas Fogg in Jules Verne's book of the same name (i.e. no aircraft). Palin accomplished this perfectly, taking everything from spending days in a dhow, to narrowly missing being on a train that was involved in a horrific crash in his stride. The runaway success of 80 Days led to the follow up series Pole to Pole in which, with the same conditions of the last series, Palin had to get from the North to the South Pole along the 39th Parallel. Palin then went on to make even more travelogues - Full Circle where he travelled around the Pacific Rim, and Hemmingway Adventure where he followed in the footsteps of Earnest Hemmingway. As if this wasn't enough, Palin then traversed the formidable Sahara Desert and travelled the length of the Himalayas travelling 1800 miles from the borders of Afghanistan to southwest China (shown on the BBC as the programmes Sahara and Himalaya respectively). His last big journey was a trip around the countries of eastern Europe visiting many countries that spent decades behind the Iron Curtain. He also celebrated the 20th anniversary of his 80 day circumnavigation by revisiting many of the places and people he met first time round.
During his travels, Palin has taken a host of problems - from getting out of the USSR a mere 3 days before the revolution that finally overthrew communism, to milking a dri (a female yak if you're interested), to emerging from the jungle to find out his wife had a brain tumour (luckily benign) - in his stride and with cheerful good humour, making him one of the world's most loved and respected travellers.
Palin has also showed his little known love of art by presenting the documentary The Ladies Who loved Matisse.
As well as regular television appearances, Michael Palin is a
patron and supporter of
The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and patron of the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children.