Many a parent who caught their kid watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the 1970s felt, as one 70s American dad proclaimed, that “it was the singularly dumbest thing ever broadcast on the tube.” Fans of the show know otherwise. The Pythons created some of sharpest satire of conservative authority figures and middle-class mores. But they did it in the broadly silliest of ways. The troupe, who met at Oxford and Cambridge, where they’d been studying for professional careers, decided they preferred to follow in the footsteps of their heroes on The Goon Show. What must their parents have thought?
But the Pythons made good. They grew up to be avuncular authorities themselves, of the kind they might have skewered in their younger days. After several decades of making highly regarded travel documentaries, Michael Palin became president of the Royal Geographical Society, an office one can imagine him occupying in the short-pants uniform of a Bruce. Instead, photographed in academic casual holding a globe, he was dubbed by The Independent as “a man with the world in his hands.”
Unlike fellow accomplished Python John Cleese, who can never resist getting in a joke, Palin has mostly played the straight man in his TV presenter career. He brings to this role an earnestness that endeared viewers for decades. It’s a quality that shines through in his documentaries on art for BBC Scotland, in which he explores the worlds of his favorite painters without a hint of the pretentiousness we would find in a Python caricature. Just above, Palin travels to Maine to learn about the life of Andrew Wyeth and the setting of his most famous work, Christina’s World.
Palin’s passion for art and for travel are of a piece—driven not by ideas about what art or travel should be, but rather by what they were like for him. Palin brings this personal approach to the conversation above with Caroline Campbell, Head of Curatorial at the British National Gallery. Here, he discusses “ten paintings which I cannot avoid when I’m going in the gallery. They always catch my eye, and each one means something to me.” Artists included in his “rather esoteric” collection include the late-Medieval/early-Renaissance pioneer Duccio, Hans Holbein the Younger, William Hogarth, and Joseph Mallord William Turner.
While these may be familiar names to any art lover, the works Palin chooses from each artist may not be. His thoughtful, perceptive responses to these works are not those of the professional critic or of the professional comedian. They are the responses of a frequent traveler who notices something new on every trip.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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