Published: 4 March 2010
by GERALD ISAAMAN
It will be a kind of homecoming, a time to reminisce about his early days halfway up the hill, when Michael Palin steps on stage at Hampstead Town Hall on March 18 to provide an evening of wit, wonder and nostalgia.
The much-travelled Monty Python star will be speaking as a patron of the Friends of Hampstead Town Hall to raise funds for the local enterprise that helped save the building from being sold off by Camden Council.
And he is well aware of the community effort that went into creating the InterChange arts centre now based in the venue, which has experienced its own vicissitudes since Prince Charles declared it open a decade ago.
It was to nearby Belsize Park Gardens that Michael and Helen, his wife to be, moved from Earl’s Court in 1960. It was in the refurbished Town Hall that he staged his 60th birthday party six years ago. And his local life, for some 40 years, has centred on Oak Village on the edge of the Heath.
“It’s our home,” he says – while forever being conscious that he has never made it up the hill to Hampstead proper.
“The Town Hall is a building of distinction in its own right, paid for by subscription by the residents.
“InterChange is a very sound cause. That’s why I became a patron of the Friends who support it.”
The late Graham Chapman, an early part of the comedy circus, lived round the corner in Ornan Road, later in Gayton Road, when Michael arrived in Hampstead.
So it seemed natural that Michael should become part of Python, along with Eric Idle and university friend Terry Jones when John Cleese proposed the show.
Through Al Levinson, an American writer he was friends with, Michael linked up with the likes of the late Labour councillor Jack Cooper, who almost defeated Tory MP Henry Brooke at the 1964 general election.
Jack was famed for his Sunday morning drinks parties. “Through Jack I met members of the Hampstead mafia,” he recalls.
“Helen and I liked to shop at Forster’s in Hampstead High Street, a wonderful little place where they added up the grocery bill by hand – to check that the calculator was correct.
“They didn’t like modernisation at all.
“We bought the Gospel Oak house in 1968. It cost £12,100, which seemed a lot at the time, as you could buy a house in Albert Street, Camden Town, or Primrose Hill, for £7,000. And today those houses are worth £1million or more.”
The attraction was that the Oak Village property – he has since added two neighbouring houses – had just been redecorated and was ready to move into. “And the area was a great attraction with the friendly Duke of Cornwall pub nearby plus the Heath.”
Nevertheless, he had to do battle with Camden Council when bulldozers threatened to demolish Oak Village for redevelopment – a project that brought the community together with a successful outcome, though Lismore Circus as it was disappeared.
Parliament Hill, with its view across London, became part of Michael’s landscape.
“It didn’t remind me of the hills around Sheffield where I grew up,” he says. “But Hampstead and Highgate are London’s northern heights and something to appreciate.
“I jogged occasionally in the early days but now I’m out there regularly twice a week. I run to Kenwood and back, covering up to four or five miles. And that’s important and satisfying. I don’t worry about people recognising me. I just keep my head down and plod on.”
That – and his insatiable curiosity – is very much his motto when confronting the world’s worst terrains, the North and South Poles and the slopes of Everest included, on his TV travels.
While he worries that his journeys inspire others to follow, their airplane trails adding to climate change, he believes that travel widens the mind and ensures that those of different nations understand each other better.
And he would like to continue.
“There are places I would like to go to – to Mongolia and Xanadu, to Argentina, Brazil and central America,” he says. “So I wouldn’t mind doing another TV series. The organisation is there. The trouble is the time it takes – a minimum of 18 months to do the trip, write the book – and the stamina that’s needed.”
His social conscience remains alive as he contemplates writing a second novel, and, as a student of modern history, he is concerned about greedy bankers and corrupt MPs. His imperative nevertheless is that we should not give up and ensure that everyone with talent has the opportunity to use it.
“We need a culture where everything is run more fairly so that we don’t end up with privileged groups running the world,” he insists. “People do grumble and complain but life today is far better than it was when I first came to Hampstead 40 years ago.
“I was surprised when it was revealed what MPs were up to. It was appalling, but the scandal with the bankers is far worse and so much greater than just worrying about bonuses.”
But, alas, he has no desire to become an independent voice of sanity in Parliament.
“Not at all, I can’t lie,” he protests. “And, in any case, I’ve never been interested in becoming a politician. For one thing, I’m a scatterbrain.
“I couldn’t deal with all that bureaucracy. I do admire those who take it on, but it’s definitely not for me.”
• Michael Palin is at Hampstead Town Hall, 213 Haverstock Hill,
NW3, on March 16 at 7.30pm, and will be signing copies of his latest diaries, Halfway to Hollywood (Orion Publishing).
Tickets at the door £5.