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British Icon Michael Palin talks about his career in television

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The opening gala for the BFI TV and Radio festival included an hour and a half conversation with Michael Palin, looking back at his career - which has spanned over six decades.

Palin’s warm presence greeted the audiences' cheers as he walked on stage to conduct the Q&A with BBC Radio 4's Eddie Mair. It took only a few seconds before Palin stood up and began singing ‘the lumberjack song’ with a Germanic twist.

Conversation began with a discussion of one of Palin’s most successful documentaries, Around The World in 80 Days, where Palin confessed: “I was trying to be an actor playing Phileas Fogg”. Though it is one of Palin’s most acknowledged works, he claimed that it was a very strenuous time during his life. “The best thing was to be yourself…I’m not cheating”.

The conversation soon lead to Palin’s own interviewing techniques to which he said “I’m probably too nice”. Palin’s loving and warm presence can be a pain when it comes to interviewing others, which Palin acknowledged. A clip was shown during the conversation that took the audience on a trip through Palin’s on screen life. The clips included Monty Python, Great Railway Journeys, G.B.H and Twice A Fortnight.

From all the extracts shown, Palin joked and claimed “DMU Valley was my best work”. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was one of the feature clips in the short screening, which featured former Beatles member Ringo Starr and 60’s icon Lulu. The episode, which included an on screen fight between Palin and the two musicians, created a mass amount of laughter in the sold out audience. “Lulu was well in there with a knee in the groin,” laughed Palin, reminiscing on the fun onscreen antics he had with fellow celebrities.

The legacy of The Beatles was brought to attention by Palin, who like many others is a keen fan on the fab four: “They were Gods. George Harrison saved The Life of Brian.” The busy lifestyles that Michael Palin and The Beatles lived were very alike. “Python worked well for musicians,” Palin mused, almost as an escape from their gruelling on stage experiences during the 60s.

It was clear that audience members had mainly come to hear Palin talk about the phenomenon that was Monty Python. Palin began by stating that “Python was originally a scrappy show” and that the BBC had so much on their plate that “they didn't care if you failed”. It’s clear that Python never failed to live up to the expectations of producers and writers as it spanned an infamous 50 years on TV.

Besides TV work and documentary making, Palin has also dabbled in films, including The Wind in The Willows, Arthur Christmas and American Friends. Keen on promoting his own work, Palin humbly claimed “you’ve got to go and do your bit”. The conversation which followed Palin’s work throughout the years was drawing to an end as the two began to discuss the legacy that Palin has achieved through his dedication to entertainment and travelling.

Jokingly, Palin spoke of how he had two trains named after him - a major compliment after he claimed that he has “always had the travel bug”. The pair invited the audience to join in the conversation, with one member asking how it feels to be a national treasure. Palin jokingly replied “I always think a national treasure should be kept in a glass box.”  In light of the amount of national icons who passed away in 2016, that could be a smart idea.

One key moment during the Gala was Palin’s discussion of the people he met on his travels. Several times during the range of travel documentaries he has made, Palin has confessed to just wanting to give up and go back to the life he lives in the UK. But an epiphany moment happened during one of his documentaries, where the people he meets live in some of the most deprived areas in the world: “The people who have the least give you the most." 

Despite meeting some of the greatest stars of his generation and being able to call them his friends, the very humble Palin simply concluded that those he meets who have nothing but still manage to live with a smile are those the people that inspire him the most.

As the conversation came to a close, Palin was inducted into the Radio Times Hall of Fame, joining friend and documentary maker David Attenborough, who Palin joked about “being kept a close eye on” as he is 90 years old and still pushing the boundaries in documentary making.

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