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Michael Palin

Michael Palin.jpg
Palin in Trento, Italy in 2005
Michael Edward Palin

5 May 1943 (1943-05-05) (age 79)
Nationality British
Alma mater Brasenose College, Oxford (B.A.)
  • Actor
  • writer
  • television presenter
  • comedian
Years active 1965–present
Known for
Helen Gibbins (m. 1966)
Children 3

Sir Michael Edward Palin, KCMG, CBE, FRGS ( born 5 May 1943) is an English comedian, actor, writer and television presenter. He was a member of the comedy group Monty Python. Since 1980 he has made a number of travel documentaries.

Palin wrote most of his comedic material with fellow Python member Terry Jones. Before Monty Python, they had worked on other shows such as the Ken Dodd Show, The Frost Report, and Do Not Adjust Your Set. Palin appeared in some of the most famous Python sketches, including "Argument Clinic", "Dead Parrot sketch", "The Lumberjack Song", "The Spanish Inquisition", "Bicycle Repair Man" and "The Fish-Slapping Dance".

Palin continued to work with Jones after Python, co-writing Ripping Yarns. He has also appeared in several films directed by fellow Python Terry Gilliam and made notable appearances in other films such as A Fish Called Wanda (1988), for which he won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. In a 2005 poll to find The Comedians' Comedian, he was voted the 30th favourite by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.

After Python, he began a new career as a travel writer and travel documentarian. His journeys have taken him across the world, including the North and South Poles, the Sahara Desert, the Himalayas, Eastern Europe, Brazil, and North Korea. Having been awarded a CBE for services to television in the 2000 New Year Honours, Palin received a knighthood in the 2019 New Year Honours for services to travel, culture and geography. From 2009–2012 Palin was the president of the Royal Geographical Society.

On 12 May 2013, Palin was made a BAFTA fellow, the highest honour that is conferred by the organisation.

Early and personal life

Palin was born in Ranmoor, Sheffield, the second child and only son of Edward Moreton Palin (1900–1977). and Mary Rachel Lockhart (née Ovey; 1903–1990). His father was a Shrewsbury School and Cambridge University-educated engineer working for a steel firm. His maternal grandfather, Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Lockhart Ovey, DSO, was High Sheriff of Oxfordshire in 1927. He was educated at Birkdale and Shrewsbury School. His sister Angela was nine years older than he was. Despite the age gap the two had a close relationship until her death in 1987. He has ancestral roots in Letterkenny, County Donegal.

When he was five years old, Palin had his first acting experience at Birkdale playing Martha Cratchit in a school performance of A Christmas Carol. At the age of 10, Palin, still interested in acting, made a comedy monologue and read a Shakespeare play to his mother while playing all the parts. After his school days in 1962 he went on to read modern history at Brasenose College, Oxford. With fellow student Robert Hewison he performed and wrote, for the first time, comedy material at a university Christmas party. Terry Jones, also a student in Oxford, saw that performance and began writing together with Hewison and Palin. In the same year Palin joined the Brightside and Carbrook Co-operative Society Players and first gained fame when he won an acting award at a Co-op drama festival. He also performed and wrote in the Oxford Revue (called the Et ceteras) with Jones.

In 1966 he married Helen Gibbins, whom he first met in 1959 on holiday in Southwold in Suffolk.

The couple have three children: Thomas (b. 1969), William (b. 1971) and Rachel (b. 1975) and four grandchildren. Rachel is a BBC TV director, whose work includes MasterChef: The Professionals, shown on BBC Two throughout October and November 2010. His nephew is the theatre designer Jeremy Herbert.

Early career

After finishing university in 1965 Palin became a presenter on a comedy pop show called Now! for the television contractor Television Wales and the West. At the same time Palin was contacted by Jones, and they were a writing duo that led them to write comedy for various BBC programmes. They were also in the team of writers working for The Frost Report, whose other members included Frank Muir, Barry Cryer, Marty Feldman, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett, Dick Vosburgh and future Monty Python members Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Eric Idle.

Although the members of Monty Python had already encountered each other over the years, The Frost Report was the first time all the British members of Monty Python (its sixth member, Terry Gilliam, was at that time an American citizen) worked together.

Following The Frost Report the Palin/Jones team worked both as actors and writers on the show Twice a Fortnight and the successful children's comedy show Do Not Adjust Your Set. The show also featured musical numbers by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, including future Monty Python musical collaborator Neil Innes. The animations for Do Not Adjust Your Set were made by Terry Gilliam. Eager to work with Palin sans Jones, Cleese later asked him to perform in How to Irritate People together with Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor. The Palin/Jones team were reunited for The Complete and Utter History of Britain.

Monty Python

In Monty Python, Palin played various roles, which ranged from manic enthusiasm (such as the lumberjack of the Lumberjack Song, or Herbert Anchovy, host of the game show "Blackmail") to unflappable calmness (such as the Dead parrot vendor or Cheese Shop proprietor).

Palin frequently co-wrote sketches with Terry Jones and also initiated the "Spanish Inquisition sketch", which included the catchphrase "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" He also composed songs with".

Other work

Michael Palin, Nightingale House, November 2010

After the Monty Python television series ended in 1974, the Palin/Jones team worked on Ripping Yarns, an intermittent television comedy series broadcast over three years from 1976. They had earlier collaborated on the play Secrets from the BBC series Black and Blue in 1973. He starred as Dennis the Peasant in Terry Gilliam's 1977 film Jabberwocky. Palin also appeared in All You Need Is Cash (1978) as Eric Manchester (based on Derek Taylor), the press agent for the Rutles. In 1980, Palin co-wrote Time Bandits with Terry Gilliam. He also acted in the film.

In 1982, Palin wrote and starred in The Missionary, co-starring Maggie Smith. In it, he plays the Reverend Charles Fortescue. He co-starred with Maggie Smith again in the 1984 comedy film A Private Function. In 1984, he reunited with Terry Gilliam to appear in Brazil.

He appeared in the comedy film A Fish Called Wanda, for which he won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Cleese reunited the main cast almost a decade later to make Fierce Creatures. After filming for Fierce Creatures finished, Palin went on a travel journey for a BBC documentary and, returning a year later, found that the end of Fierce Creatures had failed at test screenings and had to be reshot.

Until The Death of Stalin in 2017, and with the exception of several made-for-TV films and voice work for animations, Palin's last film role was a small part in The Wind in the Willows, a film directed by and starring Terry Jones. Palin also appeared with John Cleese in his documentary, The Human Face. Palin was cast in a supporting role in the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romantic comedy You've Got Mail, but his role was eventually cut entirely.

Palin has also appeared in serious drama. In 1991 Palin appeared in a film, American Friends, he wrote based upon a real event in the life of his great-grandfather, a fellow at St John's College, Oxford. In that same year he also played the part of a headmaster in Alan Bleasdale's Channel 4 drama series GBH.

Palin also had a small cameo role in Australian soap opera Home and Away. He played an English surfer with a fear of sharks, who interrupts a conversation between two main characters to ask whether there were any sharks in the sea. This was filmed while he was in Australia for the Full Circle series, with a segment about the filming of the role featuring in the series. In November 2005, he appeared in the John Peel's Record Box documentary.

In 2013 Michael Palin appeared in a First World War drama titled The Wipers Times written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman. At the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, it was announced that Palin was set to star alongside Adam Driver in Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Palin, however, dropped out of the film after it ran into a financial problem.

Palin while speaking at the Edinburgh International Film Festival announced that he was presenting the two-part documentary Michael Palin in North Korea to be broadcast on the British television network Channel 5 (UK). The documentary was broadcast in September 2018, in two one-hour segments on Channel 5 in Britain and in a single two-hour programme on National Geographic in the United States. It was broadcast again by Channel 5, in a single two-hour programme in December 2018.


Palin assisted Campaign for Better Transport and others with campaigns on sustainable transport, particularly those relating to urban areas, and has been president of the campaign since 1986. On 2 January 2011, he became the first person to sign the UK-based Campaign for Better Transport's Fair Fares Now campaign. In July 2015, he signed an open letter and gave an interview to support "a strong BBC at the centre of British life" at a time the government was reviewing the corporation's size and activities.

In July 2010, Palin sent a message of support for the Dongria Kondh tribe of India, who are resisting mining on their land by the company Vedanta Resources. Palin said, "I've been to the Nyamgiri Hills in Orissa and seen the forces of money and power that Vedanta Resources have arrayed against a people who have occupied their land for thousands of years, who husband the forest sustainably and make no great demands on the state or the government. The tribe I visited simply want to carry on living in the villages that they and their ancestors have always lived in".

Television documentaries


Palin's first travel documentary was segment 4 of the 1980 BBC Television series Great Railway Journeys of the World, entitled Confessions of a Trainspotter. Throughout the hour long show, Palin humorously reminisces about his childhood hobby of train spotting, while he travels throughout the UK by train, from London to the Kyle of Lochalsh, via Manchester, York, Newcastle upon Tyne, Edinburgh and Inverness. He rides vintage train lines and trains including Flying Scotsman. At the Kyle of Lochalsh, Palin bought the station's long metal platform sign and is seen lugging it back to London with him.

In 1994, Palin travelled through Ireland for the same series, entitled "Derry to Kerry". In a quest for family roots, he attempted to trace his great grandmother – Brita Gallagher – who set sail from Ireland 180 years ago during the Great Famine (1845–1849), bound for a new life in Burlington, New Jersey. The series is a trip along the Palin family line.

Starting in 1989, Palin appeared as presenter in a series of travel programmes made for the BBC. It was after the veteran TV globetrotter Alan Whicker and journalist Miles Kington turned down presenting the first of these, Around the World in 80 Days with Michael Palin, that gave Palin the opportunity to present his first and subsequent travel shows. These programmes have been broadcast worldwide in syndication, and were also sold on VHS tape and later on DVD:

  • Around the World in 80 Days with Michael Palin (Travel 1988; Programme release 1989): travelling as closely as possible the path described in the famous Jules Verne story without using aircraft.
  • Pole to Pole with Michael Palin (Travel 1991; Programme release 1992): travelling from the North Pole to the South Pole, following as closely as possible the 30-degree line of longitude, over as much land as possible, i.e., through Europe and Africa.
  • Full Circle with Michael Palin (Travel 1995/96; Programme release 1997): in which he circumnavigated the lands around the Pacific Ocean anti-clockwise; a journey of almost 50,000 miles (80,000 km) starting on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait and taking him through Asia, Oceania and the Americas.
  • Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure (1999): retracing the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway through the United States, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean.
  • Sahara with Michael Palin (Travel 2001/02; Programme release 2002): in which he trekked around and through the world's largest desert.
  • Himalaya with Michael Palin (Travel 2003/04; Programme release 2004): in which he travels through the Himalaya region.
  • Michael Palin's New Europe (Travel 2006/07; Programme release 2007): in which he travels through Central and Eastern Europe.
  • Brazil with Michael Palin (2012) in which he travels through Brazil.
  • Michael Palin in North Korea (2018, released in the US as North Korea From the Inside with Michael Palin) in which he visits North Korea at the time of the April 2018 inter-Korean summit.

Following each trip, Palin wrote a book about his travels, providing information and insights not included in the TV programme. Each book is illustrated with photographs by Basil Pao, the stills photographer who was on the team. (Exception: the first book, Around the World in 80 Days, contains some pictures by Pao but most are by other photographers.)

All seven of these books were also made available as audio books, and all of them are read by Palin himself. Around the World in 80 Days and Hemingway Adventure are unabridged, while the other four books were made in both abridged and unabridged versions, although the unabridged versions can be very difficult to find.

For four of the trips a photography book was made by Pao, each with an introduction written by Palin. These are large coffee-table style books with pictures printed on glossy paper. The majority of the pictures are of various people encountered on the trip, as informal portraits or showing them engaged in some interesting activity. Some of the landscape photos are displayed as two-page spreads.

Palin's travel programmes are responsible for a phenomenon termed the "Palin effect": areas of the world that he has visited suddenly become popular tourist attractions – for example, the significant increase in the number of tourists interested in Peru after Palin visited Machu Picchu.

Art and history

An evening with Michael Palin
Palin in 2015

In recent years, Palin has written and presented occasional documentary programmes on artists that interest him. The first, on Scottish painter Anne Redpath, was Palin on Redpath in 1997. In The Bright Side of Life (2000), Palin continued on a Scottish theme, looking at the work of the Scottish Colourists. Two further programmes followed on European painters; Michael Palin and the Ladies Who Loved Matisse (2004) and Michael Palin and the Mystery of Hammershøi (2005), about the French artist Henri Matisse and Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi respectively. The DVD Michael Palin on Art contains all these documentaries except for the Matisse programme.

In November 2008, Palin presented a First World War documentary about Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, when thousands of soldiers lost their lives in battle after the war had officially ended. Palin filmed on the battlefields of Northern France and Belgium for the programme, called the Last Day of World War One, produced for the BBC's Timewatch series.

Awards and honours

153335 'Michael Palin' at Cambridge
Class 153, no. 153335 'Michael Palin' at Cambridge.

Palin was instrumental in setting up the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children in 1993. Also in 1993, each member of Monty Python had an asteroid named after them. Palin's is Asteroid 9621 Michaelpalin. In 2003, inside the Globe a commemorative stone was placed - Palin has his own stone, to mark donors to the theatre, but it is misspelt as "Michael Pallin". The story goes that John Cleese paid for the stone, and mischievously insisted on misspelling his name.

In honour of his achievements as a traveller, especially rail travel, Palin has two British trains named after him. In 2002, Virgin Trains' new £5 million high speed Super Voyager train number 221130 was named "Michael Palin" – it carries his name externally and a plaque is located adjacent to the onboard shop with information on Palin and his many journeys. Also, National Express East Anglia named a British Rail Class 153 (unit number 153335) after him. (He is also a model railway enthusiast.)

Sheffield Legends Michael Palin
Sheffield Legends plaque in Palin's home city of Sheffield, England

In 2008, he received the James Joyce Award of the Literary and Historical Society in Dublin. In recognition of his services to the promotion of geography, Palin was awarded the Livingstone Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in March 2009, along with a Fellowship of this Society (FRGS). In June 2013, he was similarly honoured in Canada with a gold medal for achievements in geography by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. In June 2009, Palin was elected for a three-year term as President of the Royal Geographical Society. Because of his self-described "amenable, conciliatory character" Michael Palin has been referred to as unofficially "Britain's Nicest Man."

In September 2013, Moorlands School, Leeds named one of their school houses "Palin" after him. The University of St Andrews awarded Palin an honorary Doctor of Science degree during their June 2017 graduation ceremonies, with the degree recognising his contribution to the public's understanding of contemporary geography. He joins his fellow Pythons John Cleese and Terry Jones in receiving an honorary degree from the Fife institution. In October 2018, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society awarded Palin the first Louie Kamookak Medal for advances in geography, for his book on the history of the polar exploration vessel HMS Erebus.

He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to television in the 2000 New Year Honours.

On 28 December 2018, it was announced that Palin had been appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) for services to travel, culture and geography in the 2019 New Year Honours. Palin is the only Python to receive a knighthood (John Cleese had turned down a CBE in 1996, calling it "too silly", and declined a life peerage in 1999).

Travel books

  • Around the World in 80 Days (1989)
  • Pole to Pole (1992)
  • Full Circle (1997)
  • Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure (1999)
  • Sahara (2002)
  • Himalaya (2004)
  • New Europe (2007)
  • Brazil (2012)

All his travel books can also be read at no charge, complete and unabridged, on his website.

Autobiography (contributor)

  • The Pythons Autobiography by The Pythons (2003)


  • Erebus: The Story of a Ship (2018, UK)
  • Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time (2018, US/Canada) {

Children's books

  • Small Harry and the Toothache Pills (1982)
  • Limerics or The Limerick Book (1985)
  • Cyril and the House of Commons (1986)
  • Cyril and the Dinner Party (1986)
  • The Mirrorstone with Alan Lee and Richard Seymour (1986)
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