For different, though ultimately convergent, reasons, September 25, 1988, was a significant date in the lives of both Michael Palin and Basil Pao Ho-yun.
On that day, Palin, already famous as a member of British comedy team Monty Python and as a writer and actor in his own right, set off with a BBC camera crew from the Reform Club in London, to follow the Around the World in 80 Days route taken by Jules Verne’s fictitious Phileas Fogg.
In Hong Kong, that same day, designer-turned-photographer Pao’s daughter, Sonia, was born.
Palin and Pao had become friends while working together on Montypythonscrapbook (sic), which was published in 1979 and which Pao designed. Hong Kong was the halfway point in the Around the World itinerary and, in Palin’s words, he and the crew “doorstepped” Pao at his home on Cheung Chau, meeting the baby girl.
Pao, who had already been commissioned to shoot photographs of Palin during his Hong Kong sojourn, accepted an invitation to carry on in that capacity with the crew through China. Their reunion marked the beginning of a creative association that has now lasted through 12 travel books, based on eight television series.
Four of those books have a foreword by Palin but are otherwise composed entirely of Pao’s work: spectacular landscape photography and more intimate images of towns, villages and people encountered along the way.
Sonia is now 25, and although there have doubtless been other reminders, both men say this is the reason they know 2013 marks a quarter of a century of them travelling together.
“Basil is a good travelling companion,” says Palin, thoughtfully, when we meet at the Union Club, in London’s Soho. It was here, in May, that Palin celebrated his 70th birthday. “He has a nice Chinese attitude to things – as well as an English attitude [Pao was largely British educated] – and he sees things as I wouldn’t necessarily see them. And he’s also a brilliant photographer.”
Palin has adopted a policy over the years of working as far as possible with people he likes, but Pao clearly wouldn’t have been by his side if his skills were not so well-suited to capturing the pictures required for the books.
“You’d sometimes get to places that were hard to work in – towns and villages that were not particularly easy to get to and quite uncomfortable when you got there – but Basil managed to create a portrait of the people in those places,” says Palin. “A lot of it was him picking out faces – he’s very good at that, and colours and juxtapositions and contrasts. He is an artist. He’s got an artist’s touch, and an artist’s eye, and it makes all the material much more vivid, much more unexpected. And, to my delight and pleasure, it doesn’t involve me grinning in every shot.”
Their 25 years of travelling together are celebrated in an exhibition of Pao’s photographs, which Palin will open on Tuesday, at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, titled “Around The World in 8,000 Days: Travels With Michael Palin, Photographs By Basil Pao”.
Two smaller versions of the show have been seen in Britain, at the National Trust Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock, Wiltshire, and in London, at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), of which Palin is the immediate past president.
“This is the first time the exhibition has been outside the UK, which is particularly interesting because a lot of Basil’s influences are from Chinese and Japanese work. Maybe in Hong Kong there will be those who will appreciate his composition more,” says Palin. “The exhibition has got bigger each time. What you’ll be seeing in Hong Kong is by far the largest selection of Basil’s work. A lot of these photos haven’t been seen; they haven’t necessarily even been in the books. Basil has got a completely free hand in choosing them. The RGS ones were much admired by the people who came by.”
An occasional visitor to Hong Kong since that noteworthy stopover in 1988, Palin has reservations about “the way they’ve filled in the harbour” but still enjoys the city and is particularly grateful for the generous response to a charity auction here three years ago, which, he estimates, paid for about a third of the costs of a rebuilding programme (including a new reading room) at the RGS under his presidency.
“I threw myself into that role a lot more thoroughly than I’d expected.
It’s just a wonderful place with a great history. You go there and you feel the weight of the past, and all the great explorers who have been sent out from there since 1830. There was a weight of expectation, but it worked out well, and I think that stimulated me rather than intimidated me,” he reflects.
That responsibility now behind him, and the four-part Brazil with Michael Palin series airing internationally, he has had the opportunity to turn his attention to other projects. After a long time mostly away from acting and writing fiction – largely because of his commitments to the travel programmes – Palin has recently returned to both.
Around the World in 80 Days, he says, was intended to be a one-off, but the success of both the series and the book – the former still airing and selling on DVD and the latter still in print, having now sold between 750,000 and a million copies – took everyone by surprise.
Palin had won a Bafta (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Award for his performance in 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda, in which he appeared with fellow Python John Cleese, and he went straight back to acting after finishing that first travel series. Then he was asked to do a second and succumbed to the temptation.
“If Pole to Pole had not worked I suppose we would have stopped,” he says. “The fact that the series (which was really just an arbitrary line on the map showing me making my way through various countries) worked meant I felt that I could just open an Atlas and feel, ‘Well, why not go somewhere else that I haven’t been to, that people haven’t seen?’ From there the acting ran down, and I’ve done very little.”
There followed filmed trips, with Pao, called Full Circle, a 10-month journey around the Pacific Rim; Hemingway Adventure, which followed in the footsteps of the writer through Spain, Africa, Cuba, Chicago and elsewhere; Sahara; Himalaya; New Europe, which visited 20 countries in central and eastern parts of the continent; and Brazil.
Now, though, his agent’s phone is once again ringing. Earlier this year, Palin played a general in The Wipers Times, a television film set in battleravaged Ypres, Belgium, during the first world war, and written by Nick Newman and Private Eye editor Ian Hislop.
“People noticed that and liked it, and as a result of that I’ve been suddenly offered more acting work than I have been for a while. I’m in my 70s now, so the direction of my life isn’t quite so important. I’m not making career moves. What I should be doing is what I enjoy, so I might do a bit more acting,” he says.
He also enjoys writing, and The Truth, his second novel, was published last year.
“I wrote a novel back in 1995 called Hemingway’s Chair and haven’t followed it up, just because I’ve been travelling so much. You need time to write a novel,” he explains.
“The idea for The Truth came to me and I got down to it in 2010 and 2011, when I had a break between big journeys, but even then a lot of it is written about places I had to visit, like Orissa in India – Odisha I think it is called now – and the Shetland Isles, in the north of Scotland, which I’d never been to before. I had to travel to get the source material. It was still a journey, but I could make up the story,” he says.
Now that Palin is focusing on projects other than his travel programmes, have the epic journeys through deserts, over mountains and across oceans which he, Pao and the other members of his close-knit team have spent much of the last quarter of a century undertaking, come to an end? Is this exhibition valedictory?
Maybe. Palin says that he has always thought each series would be the last, but he does not see this as the end of the road.
“I still feel quite fit enough, and I certainly feel curious enough, to want to see what’s out in the world, but whether we’ll make programmes in the same way I’m not so sure. Television changes and moves on, and so, in a sense, we’re looking back over eight series, all of which had a particular style that unified them and held them together. I think maybe we’ve milked that one as much as we can.
There are other ways of travelling, other ways of looking at the world.”
Pao and Palin both say they intend to travel together in the future, but it may be that Palin, who doesn’t enjoy having his picture taken, will be able to get away with being photographed less frequently in situations of acute discomfort – a niche area of photography in which Pao has become a specialist.
“He was quite keen every now and then to get me close to something that was extremely uncomfortable, like the edge of a volcano. Basil was always pushing it a bit, but that was the way the programmes were made.
The director was doing that to me anyway. Just occasionally [Pao] would get me that much longer on some fierce horse that I wasn’t enjoying riding. ‘Just stay on for another minute or two and we’ll get a great picture.’ And he’s quite bossy. He directs me,” says Palin.
In turn, the ex-Monty Python japester – a respectable photographer himself – has teased Pao, by putting forward his own pictures for inclusion in the books. This has tended to make the Hongkonger, says Palin, “a little ratty”.
Although Pao was on camera in Around the World in 80 Days, it was decided, for subsequent series, that he should be kept out of sight.
This proved to be easier said than done, although Palin estimates that Pao makes only about eight or nine unintended appearances in the edited programmes.
“There were some wonderful moments when Basil would be in shot while we were filming, always distinguished by his white straw hat,” says Palin. “There were good things and bad things about that. One was that you got Basil in a lot of shots where you really just wanted the people of that particular country, and whatever they were wearing. But the good thing was that with Basil’s hat I could always tell where the film unit was.
“Basil’s hat guided me through the world.”
He adds: “I’m very excited about the exhibition, because basically it’s Basil’s thing. He took the photos. I suppose I was the man who took him on the journeys, but basically it’s Basil’s work. I can be a spectator like anybody else and ‘Ooh’ and ‘Aaah’ at them. That’s something I’ve not done ever before in Hong Kong, and it adds another dimension.”
Michael Palin and Basil Pao will be signing copies of a new book that accompanies the Maritime Museum exhibition (which runs from Wednesday to November 10) at Bookazine in Exchange Square, Central, tomorrow, from 6.30pm. On Tuesday, Palin will deliver a lunchtime talk – “Still Travelling After All These Years” – at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (e-mail email@example.com for tickets). On Saturday, from 2.30pm to 4pm, Pao will deliver a talk at the Maritime Museum about his travels and the photographs in the new book. For more details, call 3713 2500.
Brazil with Michael Palin is the first of his travel programmes to focus on a single country rather than a route.
"Brazil didn't fit into the patterns of any of our previous journeys, but there it was - this huge country that I knew nothing about," says Michael Palin. "It was being talked about as one of this group of BRIC countries which have been identified as the future big economies, and at the same time the [football] World Cup had been chosen to be in Brazil, and the Olympics. I thought, 'Now is the time to go. Everyone is going to be talking about Brazil and I'd quite like to get my own vision of Brazil in before everybody else's."
While the series records the scenery, beaches and other picturesque aspects of the country,"there were the more difficult aspects of life in Brazil, particularly the favelas [shanty towns] in the cities, which we dealt with in some detail, particularly in Rio. In fact we did less of the tourist sites of Rio and more of the favelas because it is such an important area of policy for Brazil - how they are going to deal with these no-go areas before 2014, when the world comes for the Cup," says Palin.
"We did some tough stories as well as some nice comfy spectacular ones, and made two unforgettable visits to tribes in the heart of the rainforest, tribes that have not long been contacted."
Basil Pao, who this time designed the book of the series as well as taking the photographs, was in his element, shooting the spectacular waterfalls at Iguazu - and being photographed himself.
"Basil enjoyed Brazil, and his name kept coming up," says Palin. "The Brazilian [Portuguese] word for bread is pao, so we got various shots of him standing against the wall outside places with names like Casa do Pao.
"Some rather good photos I took actually."
Brazil with Michael Palin will be shown again by BBC Knowledge, beginning on November 10, at 11.05am.
A portrait of Palin
In the early evening of October 9, Basil Pao was to be found in the main bar of the Foreign Correspondents' Club, before making his way home, to Cheung Chau. Here is what he had to say about Michael Palin.
"SONIA [PAO'S DAUGHTER] was born, almost to the hour, when Michael left the station to go on 80 Days. I called his office after she was born and the people there had just gotten back from sending Michael off. The relationship between him and Sonia is fantastic. She wants to be a writer because Uncle Michael says, 'Go for it'. They had a conversation at one of these dinners in London and that's when she said, 'I want to pursue creative writing'."
"MIKE WILL BASICALLY eat anything, sleep anywhere and talk to anyone. He is a gentle man, who's game to try anything - once. People the world over, from street urchins in the favelas to the Dalai Lama, warm to this gentleness, with the notable exception of the Zambian witch doctor in Mpulungu, who put a curse on him.
"Mike doesn't do 'panic', and he's a tough traveller. I remember the trek up to Annapurna Base Camp [in the Himalayas], when we both had severe lung infections. Many times, when I felt I just couldn't go any further, I saw him still struggling up the hill, and I knew I had to follow.
"Walking is not my thing. Mike likes to tell a story about me yelling at the director during Himalaya about 'Another unnecessary trek - just for the sake of filming!' I said, 'Paos don't walk. In 100,000 years there has never been a Pao who likes to walk'. I'm not cut out for it.
"He has a good sense of humour about things, and he is courteous to everyone, but don't buy into this 'He's the nicest Englishman in the world' nonsense. It's an urban myth. I've seen him blow up in somebody's face a couple of times, and it's not a pretty sight, but I suppose a couple of explosions over a span of 25 years still qualifies him as a very nice man. There are volcanoes that erupt more often than that."
"AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, Mike's been liberated by 'digital'. He used to be all thumbs back in the film camera days, but now, with his compact digital and his iPhone, he'll take a picture of anything. Snap, snap, snap all day long - it makes me a bit twitchy because I think he's planning on doing it all by himself next time around.
"I remember the 'Casa do Pao' picture well. He's particularly fond of that because he managed to turn the tables on me. He found the shot, came and got me where I was snapping down the main street, and said, 'Stand there,' which is usually my line."
"MIKE AND I HAVE always joked about the day when we're both too old to get around. We'll have two pretty nurses push us around the world in wheelchairs, and on occasion I'll call out, 'Push him closer to the edge of the volcano so I can get all the smoke in frame.'"