‘I don’t have a fear of getting old’

Michael Palin as Tom in Remember Me
Michael Palin as Tom in Remember Me
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His epic journeys may now be shorter, but Michael Palin still has plenty to explore. Ahead of his first dramatic role in 20 years, he tells Keeley Bolger why he’s more comfortable than ever

On a recent jaunt in Yorkshire, Michael Palin, presenter, Python and global pathfinder, had a flashback to his youth.

Born and raised in Sheffield, the 71-year-old adventurer went back to his home county to make three-part supernatural drama, Remember Me, and the surroundings prompted his mind to wander back to his school days when he was a “pretty deadly centre half” for a local Huddersfield football team.

“We used to play on the bleakest pitch ever,” recalls the friendly polymath, who says he was never sent off, but was “taken off” sometimes and replaced with a better player.

He still holds a lot of affection for his home county, admiring its “moors and the openness of the air”.

With his wife, three children and two grandchildren rooted in the south, however, he has no plans to move back north, but jumped at the chance to spend a decent wedge of time in Yorkshire to shoot the supernatural drama, his first leading role in a TV drama for more than two decades.

He plays Tom, a lonely “80-odd-year-old”, whose admittance into a care home triggers a series of inexplicable events.

A life-long fan of ghost stories, Palin found much to recommend taking the role. “It was a good script and the character was immediately evolving and challenging,” explains the actor, whose wife Helen, his childhood sweetheart, is a bereavement counsellor.

“Right away I thought, ‘I’ve got to play someone 10 years older than me’; I’m immediately intrigued. And the story is unusual, different to anything I’m normally offered.”

While the offers of work are changing, so too is Palin’s outlook.

After eight travel series, including his landmark Eighties travelogue Around The World In 80 Days, he doesn’t plan to present and write another, because it takes two years to make them.

“I don’t know whether I could give up two years of my life now,” he admits. “I’d rather be light on my feet doing things like Remember Me, or an arts documentary one-off, rather than commit to two years of being away,” says the journeyman, who met Terry Jones during their student days at Oxford University.

“I’ve got two grandsons now and they’re great, and I don’t want to say things like, ‘I can’t see you because I’ve got to do this, that or the other’. Maybe when they grow up a bit [I’ll do another series]... I’d love to take them travelling.”

He runs a few times a week, to stay “reasonably healthy”.

“You look at people around you who are the same age and it becomes very competitive. ‘Oh dear, they’re not well!’” he jokes, laughing.

“I am aware of what it means to be over 70, but then I think back to my 20s, and over 70 felt like a death sentence,” he adds. “I feel more comfortable with life now than I did in my 20s and 30s. I feel far less competitive now, far less driven and I think I’ve learned from experience what to do, what not to do, what to drink, all those sort of things.

“I don’t have a fear of getting old, in fact I’m quite enjoying it.”

One thing Palin is keen to do, is to keep challenging himself - and he found that in spades when he performed at The 02 in London with the Monty Python gang earlier this year for their farewell tour.

A great opportunity to spend time with his friends, the tour also reconfirmed the “core bond” between them.

“Writing and performing is where we started,” he explains. “It wasn’t to do with fame or any of that, it’s what we did when we were poor and virtual unknowns. It reminded us of what really brought Python together, which is the ability to act comedy and write comedy, and it’s really nice that it seems to have worked for people.

“No one said, ‘They’ve lost it’, or [felt] short-changed. The ability to play comedy is still there, and that’s good.”

And although it was a “physical show”, he was impressed with how each of them coped with the sell-out run.

“You realise that if you’re doing something that engages you and really uses your energy, you can do it,” he says, adding that his favourite moment of the tour was performing the ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch.

“There’s a danger of getting older and falling into the cliches of old age - ‘I’ve got to sit down carefully, I must drink my mug of Horlicks’ - and you don’t have to do that. In fact, it’s important that you don’t.

“You’ve got to do something which is a shock to the system every now and again, just to prove you can do it.”

With another new challenge in narrating a revamped version of the classic children’s programme The Clangers lined up, Palin clearly has no plans to cosy up with mugs of warm, malted milk just yet.

“I don’t know what I’d retire from,” he says. “I really don’t know what I’d do - I’m still trying to work outwhat I do! I do a bit of acting, a bit of writing... I can’t imagine what retirement would mean. Not writing, not acting?

“I’ll carry on until I drop.”

*Remember Me is on BBC at 9pm tomorrow, Sunday.