Monty Python star brings real history to Harrogate

Much-loved TV globetrotter and Monty Python legend Michael Palin is returning to Harrogate - and he's taking history seriously this time, he tells the Harrogate Advertiser.

Thursday, 13th September 2018, 4:37 pm
Updated Thursday, 13th September 2018, 4:42 pm
Much-loved story teller Michael Palin.

Nearly 40 years after Monty Python’s Life of Brian was banned in Harrogate, Palin, one of its main stars, appears to have forgiven the town.Such was the furore at the time over its alleged 'blasphemy', Harrogate council became one of 39 local authorities in the UK to refuse to give permission for the hit film to be screened in local cinemas.

As a leading member of the Monty Python comedy team along with John Cleese, Eric Idle et al, the actor, broadcaster, writer had a key role in the creation of this notorious spoof history.But it’s real history Palin will be talking about when he arrives in Harrogate on Septtember 23 for the opening date of a UK-wide tour promoting his new book, Erebus The Story of a Ship.

Speaking on the phone after returning from a family holiday in Majorca (“the quiet side of the island,” he is keen emphasise), the Sheffield-born Palin says the word ‘Harrogate’ no longer strikes terror in his heart.

Part of the the cover of Michael Palin's new book Erebus The Story of a Ship.

But Palin, who it's hard to believe is now 75, does admit to approaching next month’s tour with a little anxiety.He said: “I’m a bit nervous. The first talk will be on the day it’s published at the Royal Geographical Society in London.“Three days later the tour starts properly in Harrogate at the Royal Hall.“There was quite a lot of history in Life of Brian. I suppose even when you’re lampooning something you draw on things you’re thinking about.”There’s precious little funny about Palin’s new book, though early reviews are hailing the epic tale of daring-do as “thrilling” and “expertly written.”

Palin first came across one of British 19th century stories in 2014 when he heard the news that the wreck of a sailing vessel had finally been discovered at the bottom of the sea in the frozen waters of the Canadian Arctic more than 150 years after HMS Erebus and its crew had mysteriously vanished.

He said: "I was trying to do a number of things with the book. Telling the story, getting the research right and make it an exciting narrative.“I didn’t want to fall into the trap of turning it into a naval history.“I wanted the voices of real people to be heard as much as possible.”

Palin says his approach to writing the book, published by Hutchinson on September 20, was influenced by, perhaps, Britain’s greatest living was historian, Anthony Beevor who is also a master of showing what conditions were really like.

But this most charming of storytellers laughs at the suggestion that his new book meant his time at Brasenose studying modern history had finally paid off.“Any history I did at Oxford was done quickly. I was mainly interested in comedy at the time and meeting new people like Terry Jones.“In my final year I did wonder what I would do with my history degree.”

His illustrated talk at Harrogate’s Royal Hall will reveal just how courageous these historical British figures really were.“It ended up a great British failure but I was fascinated by how these guys went into the unknown without a second thought. It was perilous, to say the least.

“Most of the crew members were only there because after the end of the Napoleonic Wars they were looking for a good-paying job. The most important pieces of information I found came from the crew themselves, from their letters back to loved ones.”

After agreeing that he is now writing about the kind of Boy’s Own heroes he used to lampoon in his classic 1970s comedy Ripping Yarns, the sort of people who inspired Jules Verne to write Around The World in 80 Days, which was Palin’s first TV travelogue, I make a minor blunder.

“When you come to Harrogate are you just talking?” I ask, then pause too long, perhaps, before trying to complete the sentence.Palin, as sharp as ever, spots the open goal and fires his shot. “No," he replies quicky, "I’ve hired dancing girls and tightrope walkers.”

An Evening with Michael Palin - HMS Erebus, The Story of a Ship is at the Royal Hall, Harrogate on Sunday, September 23.

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