Michael Palin, co-founder of Monty Python and host of classic travelogue Around The World In 80 Days, tells Deadline how he ended up making a film in North Korea despite thinking “for a long time it would never happen.”
Palin told Deadline that when he was approached by the two companies he had “no hesitation” but questioned when the time would be right to make the doc.
“Until the beginning of this year, the time wasn’t right, things were getting belligerent and people calling each other names and it’s hard to underestimate how bad things were. Then there was this new year’s speech where Kim Jong-Un held out an olive branch to South Korea and things changed with the Olympics and then it suddenly became possible,” he said.
He admitted that there were times over the last three years when he didn’t think it would ever happen. “During the bad year, there was a point where I thought it’d be rather foolish. Quite uncharacteristically, my dear wife, said ‘I don’t really want you to do this’ and normally she’s rather keen for me to go on long journeys around the world, so that was an indication of how worrying it was and for a long time we thought it would never happen,” he told Deadline.
Palin entered the country after North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In shook hands and the crew, headed by director Neil Ferguson, captured these historic days with the ordinary people of the secretive country. Palin visited sites and locations that are rarely, if ever, explored, while spending time with citizens from all walks of life and witnessing the country’s extraordinary annual May Day celebrations. He covered more than 1,300 miles from south to north of the country, from discovering everyday life for the population in the capital Pyongyang to exploring the snowy peaks of Mount Paektu. Palin also celebrated his own 75th birthday while in the country.
“It wasn’t what I expected; all I expected was conditioned by the idea that this was a dark place, a grim place, lack of freedom and when we were going there, I felt this would be reflected in the look of the place and how the people behaved towards me and it was going to be an interesting and threatening experience, and that just didn’t happen,” he added.
The show is Palin’s first for Channel 5 and marks a turnaround for the Viacom-owned broadcaster, which has steadily been securing A-list talent, presenters that would generally be associated with the BBC.
Channel 5 Director of Programmes Ben Frow admitted that he wasn’t going to commission the show at first. “When ITN brought it to us it was called Let’s All Go To North Korea and I said, “North Korea, Channel 5? C’mon. We do The Dog Rescuers and shows like that so I can’t see our audience working on it.” But the commissioning editor Guy Davies is a very persistent man and he said, “What if we go to North Korea with Michael Palin” and I thought that’s a whole different ballgame and so I said “Let’s all go to North Korea”.”
Frow said that the show highlights how the channel has “come a long way in the last five and a half years.”
“I’m very proud how the channel has evolved. We like to do different things with talent; it’s great to have Michael on the channel and I know it’s another travel program but it’s North Korea and that is a little bit special. I was very keen to change the perception of the channel; I wanted to bring in popular programs that could bring in money and could get great ratings but I also wanted to make challenging programs and shows that others wouldn’t be brave enough to make.”
Michael Palin in North Korea launches on Thursday September 20 at 9pm on Channel 5.