Michael Palin enjoying the view over Bombay during the filming of "Around the World in 80 Days (1988) Michael Palin enjoying the view over Bombay during the filming of "Around the World in 80 Days (1988) Julian Charrington
You may know him as the cheese purveyor Mr. Wensleydale, the Cardinal who leads the Spanish Inquisition, or the cross-dressing Canadian lumberjack. Michael Palin’s roles defined the humour of the groundbreaking, carnivalesque comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Palin was in Toronto on June 27th to receive the prestigious Gold Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the highest honour conferred by the Society, recognizing the individual awarded for significant contributions to geographic endeavors. Palin was awarded for his contribution to geographic literacy through his travel documentaries. The awards ceremony was held at the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Koerner Hall.

Sir Michael Palin is an accomplished traveler whose travels are documented in several series-his latest documentary (2012), chronicling his time spent in Brazil. A captivating host, Palin engages with the locals of different cultures, gaining insight into their ways of life. In the wake of political uprisings and protests in Brazil over the country’s political spending, Palin’s Brazil is definitely worth a watch if one wishes to fully understand the ramifications of political unrest in the country.

Palin delivered a thoughtful, eloquent acceptance speech. He spoke of his first encounter with travelling and geography in primary school, where his teacher took the class for visits around the town of Sheffield. Palin pointed out that geography teachers are not given enough credit, and that geography is often put on the back-burner in favour of other academic pursuits. While writing Flying Circus and the Monty Python films, Palin and his close friend and collaborator Terry Jones sought to move filming outside of the BBC studio in London, taking the cast of Python to film in Yorkshire, Scotland (for Holy Grail) and Tunisia (for Life of Brian).

Palin emphasized about how geography impacted Monty Python’s international tours. In particular, he reflected on The Pythons’ first tour to Canada, where they performed on consecutive nights across the country. Since The Pythons’ producer had no real concept of Canadian geography,and had them move across the country with lightning speed: playing in Winnipeg one night and Calgary the next.

Palin continued to the topic of his individual career, one that began with the documentary Around the World in 80 Days. He approached the job using his experience as an actor; attempting to be a Phileas Fogg sort of presenter. However, while he was experiencing the difficulties of seafaring life in India, he decided that he needed to ease up on the acting, and to be himself. “People enjoyed the show more when I missed the train”, Palin recalled with a wry smile. To Palin, the human element, the capacity for error, is an essential portion of his documentaries.

In his speech, Palin said that without an understanding of geography, you fail to understand how geography impacts the development of cultures and infrastructure, how we act and interact with different people from different areas of the world. Palin took questions from the audience, and was personable, animated, and thoughtful with his answers. When asked about the capabilities of online applications like Google Earth, Palin responded that in order to fully understand the state of the world today and gain appreciation for different cultures. His last response from the evening’s talk was that one has to go out and experience the world: “see it, hear it, feel it, touch it, and taste it”.

Palin is an inspiring man who took his childhood passion and turned it into a lifetime of adventure, exploration, and discovery. Palin’s career shows us that one needs to take risks, challenge existing perceptions, seek out new opportunities, and ultimately make your passion your life’s work. It was a great honour to be able to hear Michael Palin speak on his fascinating career.

Alice McClintock is currently pursuing her Masters in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto. She writes creatively, and her poetry has appeared in several small publications. It is one of her aspirations to meet all of the still-living Pythons.

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  • Subtitle: Monty Python legend receives prestigious award for his efforts to put geography on the map
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