Without the award-winning film-maker Roger Mills, there would never have been a Michael Palin, travel presenter. Here, the duo look back on a decade spent criss-crossing the world – the tiffs, the bungee jumps, the fermented spittle…
IAN BURRELL Sunday 14 September 2014
“Do you remember when you had to drink the old lady’s fermented spittle?” Michael Palin is being asked to reminisce on the many discomforting tasks he’s been obliged to perform by Roger Mills, the mischief-making Oxford classicist with whom he has travelled the world.
“I didn’t know it was the old lady’s fermented spittle until we asked what it was – I thought it was rather nice,” Palin recalls. It was pink and yoghurt-like, and he quaffed it on the banks of the Urubamba River in Peru. “They were having a celebration. It was a welcoming thing and I couldn’t turn it down; it would have been very, very rude. So I drank it.”
Aside from having to imbibe the saliva of elderly Peruvians, Palin has many reasons to be grateful to Mills – the man he calls “The Professor”. For it was this self-same Roger Mills, a seasoned and much-awarded documentary-maker, who turned the vendor of the Dead Parrot into a real-life Phileas Fogg a quarter of a century ago.
Palin was then at the peak of his 1980s success, but as co-producer of Around the World in 80 Days, Mills had the power to transform his life. Although Palin was one of Britain’s most popular comic performers, he was not quite a shoo-in for the new show, which would re-create the fictional itinerary undertaken by Fogg in Jules Verne’s 1873 novel of the same name. First, Mills had to dampen the wanderlust of Alan Whicker, then the unrivalled doyen of British travel broadcasting and anointed by BBC bosses for the Phileas role. Fortunately, Mills knew how to dissuade the famously smooth Whicker from taking the gig. “Stress the discomfort of it,” he advised co-producer Clem Vallance, who, like Mills, preferred Palin for the job.
Over a lunch with Whicker in London’s Kensington, Mills made clear what the job would entail: “Alan,” he said, “you will have to share deck space with the crew between Oman and Bombay.” From then on, Mills says, “He looked into the middle distance and took no further part in the discussions. He wrote a letter the next day to the effect that he thought the pace of the show would be such that he wouldn’t have time to prepare his interviews.”
That seven-night, eight-day dhow journey to Bombay – with 18 Gujarati crew but no radio or radar – was the making of Palin as a travel presenter. The audience warmed to the sight of him sleeping under the stars on deck, not to mention relieving himself via the precarious outboard toilet. “Never have I been in a situation where, for so long, I depended upon a group of people quite different from me in wealth, class, race, religion and circumstance,” Palin writes in Travelling for Work, the third and latest volume of his diaries.
Continue reading Presenter Michael Palin and film-maker Roger Mills look back on 25 years of globe-trotting