Sunday, February 14, 2010

And now for something completely different: Midnight calling, Monty Python-style


Michael Palin's Pole to Pole journey begins, logically enough, at the North Pole. But in the Pole to Pole book Michael explains that, while most of the journey took place between July and December 1991, no pilot could be found foolhardy enough to risk landing on the increasingly treacherous Arctic ice as late in the summer as July, and so the first leg of the journey, from the pole as far as Tromsø, Norway, was in fact carried out and filmed earlier, in May 1991.

by Ken

In my ongoing project of establishing myself as the world's most shameless Michael Palin toady (that link is where where we saw the start of of MP's third travel series, Full Circle, his journey around the Pacific Rim; but also look here and here), I've stumbled across an anecdote I can't resist sharing for the benefit of Monty Python fans.

The anecdote is from the early going of the second of MP's big serialized filmed journeys for BBC, Pole to Pole, which began at the North Pole and over the second half of 1991 was designed to work southward, as closely as possible along the 30th-degree East meridian, through Scandinavia, the Soviet Union, Turkey, and the whole length of Africa, and on to the South Pole. (That, I stress, was the design. The actuality proved different in a number of ways.) Pole to Pole had been preceded by a 1989 trip Around the World in 80 Days, which fell into Michael's life serendipitously (he was at best the BBC's third choice, though they didn't mention this to him at the time) but in fact fit a longtime life plan he had formulated, as we read in his now-published two volumes of diaries: Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years and Diaries 1980-1988: Halfway to Hollywood (apparently still not published in the U.S.), which takes us literally up to the day of his Around the World departure.

That plan, based on his considerable professional success in his 20s and early 30s, was to retire at 40 and devote himself to writing travel books -- that is, the kind of travel books he would want to read. Now I don't know if we could call what he's done these last 25-plus years (he turns 67 in May) "retirement," and he was already 45 by the time he boarded the English leg of the Orient Express heading round the world, but I think it's safe to say that he wound up doing something even better: inventing his own form of video travel series -- and, yes, publishing a book on each journey. And the books, based mostly on his diaries of those periods, complement rather than duplicate the actual series, as I'm in the process of discovering.

By the way, since we last talked about the DVD editions, when I noted that the U.K. Region 2 PAL edition of The Michael Palin Collection could be had for a fraction of the price of the U.S. edition, the availabilities have changed somewhat. There is now an American Michael Palin Collection (on 19 DVDs) that includes all the series through New Europe, offered by for a mere $224.99; other Amazon vendors are selling it for a bit under $192. However, in the U.K., the 19-CD Palin Collection has been superseded by a 20-CD set called Michael Palin's Travels, including in addition the 20-years-later sequel to Around the World, which is selling at the moment for £46.98, or about $74. If you can play Region 2 PAL DVDs, this might be a time to spring into action.

Note: U.S. shoppers need to beware of the "bargain" combo package Amazon is currently offering: the 19-CD Palin Collection, which of course includes New Europe, plus a separate copy of New Europe, plus -- I swear this is what's listed and pictured -- a copy of the original Around the World (I presume what was intended was the new 20 Years Later show, but if they ship you the original series, don't be surprised; it's what they promised, after all) -- all for a combined price of (are you ready for this?) only $314.97! What did P. T. Barnum say about the frequency of suckers being born?

Oh yes, the anecdote! Sorry about the distraction -- er, distractions.

At this point in the Pole to Pole journey, Michael and his traveling crew have made their way down from the Arctic port city of Tromsø in the north of Norway, first farther up the northern coast in order to be able to get into Finland, then down the length of western Finland -- necessarily straying well to the west of the 30th East meridian -- to Helsinki. After arrival in the Finnish capital, and an afternoon and evening with no planned activities, and an opportunity to enjoy the luxuries of "civilization" after the rigors of the Scandinavian leg of the journey, Michael has gone to bed, hoping for the benefit of a full night's sleep.
At a quarter to midnight the telephone rings. It's a particularly insistent Finn who wants to talk to me for his university newspaper. In vain I point out the time, the fact that I was asleep, and the work I have to do tomorrow.

"I am down here in the lobby," he persists.

"I am doing an article, please, on John Cleese and I think you know him . . ."

That does it.

"I am in bed. I have four months' traveling ahead of me, and I have no time to talk about John Cleese!"

Somewhat surprisingly, this seems to amuse my caller greatly, and only then do I recognize in the cackle of non-Finnish laughter the unmistakable tones of a tall fellow Python.

"I just rang to see how you were getting on," wheezes John cheerfully . . . and I remember how much he enjoyed doing Scandinavian accents.

A younger Mr. Palin and Mr. Cleese find themselves famously unable to reach agreement as to whether the "Norwegian blue" parrot under examination is dead or merely "resting" ("tired and shagged out") -- or perhaps "pining for the fjords"? (Note: We saw a complete version of the legendary Parrot Sketch here. We also watched here as Mr. Cleese, now as Basil Fawlty, tried to cope with the profoundly hard-of-hearing Mrs. Richards, who you'll recall refused to turn her hearing aid on because she didn't want to run the battery down -- in perhaps the same way, I was trying to suggest, that so many Americans prefer not to turn their brains on.)

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At 10:55 AM, Anonymous me said...

Hmm, a Palin worth listening to.

At 1:45 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Exactly! "The good Palin" is how I've referred to him. As I've mentioned, in his newsletter he's explained that he has experienced deep embarrassment over, er, the other Palin, once people began asking him if they're related.



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