Byline: ALICE FOWLER
Thirty years ago, Michael Palin first met George Harrison. By then, both men had earned the labels that would stay with them for the rest of their lives: Harrison forever the ex-Beatle, Palin 'the one from Monty Python'. With a similar sense of humour, the two became close friends, a bond that lasted until Harrison's death last year.
'It's very difficult to get used to the fact that George isn't here,' says Palin. 'He was a very appreciative man, a great enthusiast. There wasn't anything grand about him; to me, he was a friend who happened to live in a huge house in Surrey.
'I got to know him well after 1978, when he virtually saved the Monty Python film Life of Brian by funding it when EMI pulled out. From 1980, he helped to make a lot of films that I was in and became a good friend. He was always very stimulating: a funny, witty man.' In the months leading up to Harrison's death from cancer last November, Palin saw him often. 'George was extremely down-to-earth about illness and death. When he got ill, he'd tell you about it. Death held no fears for him; to him, the body was a temporary vehicle for the mind. I never really believed that, though George nearly convinced me. Up until a couple of weeks before his death there was a chance he would recover.' Harrison's life - like that of Palin's fellow Python Graham Chapman, who died in 1989 - seemed to have been cut short. 'I had the same response when both of them died,' says Palin, with profound regret.
'A?elationship I?hought would be permanent suddenly wasn't there. It felt as if a part of me closed down. It was like a branch being cut from a tree.'
They are sad, thoughtful sentiments from a man who, both as a comedian and a traveller, has never shrunk from revealing his own vulnerability. In his series of epic voyages for the BBC - Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle - Palin has displayed affable good humour in the direst of circumstances, be it sailing across the Persian Gulf without a toilet, or supping a Peruvian brew made from old women's spittle. With his popular programmes, Palin has become that rarest of things: a man we love to love.
Today, he is publicising the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is about to be released on DVD. When it first came out, he says, he felt acute anxiety; now his reaction is more relaxed - 'The further I get away from my films, the more charitable I?eel about them.' And he has, after all, plenty to feel pleased about. At 58, he displays the wholesome geniality of a life well led. He is also, it must be said, rather handsome: lean and lithe with the remains of a desert tan, acquired on a recent trip to the Sahara.
This latest journey - for a new book and television series - took most of last year and part of this, and sounds every bit as gruelling as his fans have come to expect. 'You end up living like a nomad: getting up very early, resting in the middle of the day and partying at night. I didn't really get any sleep for three months. You have to push yourself a bit. In the end it was remarkable.' Helen, his wife of 35 years, has learned to accept his hunger for travel. 'It's not easy for her when I'm away a lot,' he concedes.
'But she knows I enjoy it and she has her own life and her own friends.
That's terribly important in a long-term relationship.' Perhaps, though he does not say so, Helen is simply too wise to try to stop him.
Palin's wanderlust, like his humour, dates back to childhood and a repressive upbringing. He was born and raised in Sheffield, where his father, Edward, managed a steelworks. Edward had a pronounced stammer and comes across as a thwarted figure.
'My father was hampered by his inability to speak fluently. It must have made him angry: with himself and with a world that depended on fluency. If you wanted to get on, you had to be able to give speeches, talk at meetings. …