How Michael Palin Introduced North Korea to Monty Python

Michael Palin in North Korea - H Publicity - 2018
Credit: ITN Productions

The much loved British funnyman and TV personality told the Edinburgh TV Festival about his new travel documentary set in the secluded country.

Almost 50 years after it first aired on TV, Monty Python's Flying Circus has — finally — been introduced to North Korea.

Michael Palin, speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival on Thursday, revealed that while filming his new travel documentary series in the secretive country, his producer showed some clips — including the famed fish-slapping dance sketch featuring Palin and John Cleese — to their North Korean minder, who had never heard of the show before.

"As we sat in the airport, we played it to her, and she just cracked up," he said, noting that there was now a "new market for us."

Michael Palin in North Korea, made by ITN for Viacom-owned U.K. network Channel 5, was two years in the making, with high-level negotiations required. The much loved Python star spent more than a week in the secluded nation in the days surrounding the historic meeting between leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in May.

"Nowhere is further from the beaten track than North Korea," said Palin, who covered more than 1,300 miles for the two-part show. "When Channel 5 asked, I said I've got to go. I'm interested in countries demonized from the outside. I wanted to get below the barrier of authority but above the tourist barrier — somewhere in the middle — to meet the people, to create a portrait of North Korea as it is now."

Despite having North Korean minders, who would shadow Palin and his crew and inspect everything that they’d shot at the end of each day, he claimed they rarely asked for changes. One time they got involved, however, was when he was filming a piece to camera on a hill featuring two enormous statues of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

"There were certain conditions. If they were in the shot, they had to be in their entirety, so we had to do the piece camera a long way," he explained. While Palin adhered to this rule, he was told he had to shoot again because the first time around he had his hands in his pockets. "It was seen as disrespectful. It had to look just right," he said.

Palin celebrated his 75th birthday while in North Korea, with a birthday cake presented by his guides. "It was a huge, creamy birthday cake. They must have used up most of their agricultural output," he joked.

Although admitting that he'd been initially fearful about visiting North Korea, Palin claimed that, when it came to leave the country at the end of the shoot, he and his crew didn't want to go.

"There was this feeling that it hadn’t been this monster," he said. "It had been very serene and peaceful. Pyongyang is a wonderful city; it's very quiet, there's no traffic or advertising. I'd love to go back."