Michael Palin returns to BBC in an acting capacity for the first time in 20 years in Remember Me, a 3 part ghost story that begins on 23 November. It seems that one of the big attractions to the role was that he was much younger than his on-screen character.
“I was immediately attracted by the prospect of playing quite a challenging and central role in a very good drama. But normally you might get anxious about being an old person playing someone much younger so it was rather nice to be an old person playing someone even older!” laughs Michael.
“Tom’s age is an intriguing element of the whole story and although he is very old he has somehow been preserved and that is part of the tension and mystery.”
There were, in fact, many elements that drew Michael to the drama written by Gwyneth Hughes.
“I felt very comfortable reading the script; it was well written, very assured and the drama develops well. It was a mixture of a ghost story with elements of the past but very firmly set in contemporary Yorkshire and I like the fact that it has this strong backbone to it about life and problems for people growing up in Yorkshire nowadays. The fact it is set up in Yorkshire intrigued me because that is where I come from and I thought it would be nice to go back there and do some filming.”
Much of the drama is filmed in Scarborough but Michael explains: “I had no links to Scarborough, in fact I’d only been once in my lifetime when I was quite small, but it was a revelation. It is a fine town in a marvellous location and I loved my time there. I enjoyed the shoot terrifically and we were very lucky because we had a period of quite good weather when the rest of the country was being swept by terrible storms in February. So we were up in Yorkshire basking in the sunshine hearing about sea walls being broken apart in the south – such a reversal of what usually goes on but very fortunate for us.”
Talking about his character, Michael says: “Tom is a really original creation. It is very hard to compare him to any other characters seen recently in drama, partly because of the extraordinary upbringing he’s had which is the mystery of this drama; why is this very old guy still around?
“He’s rather like somebody who has been preserved in a shell for decades and suddenly breaks out. So in a way Tom is a rather immature man, even though he is over 80 he has not seen much of the world. Because of this extraordinary relationship with his Ayah he has been protected and when he does come out he is like a little boy, the way he looks up at the sky or opens the car windows as he is driving along just to take gulps of fresh air. In a way you feel this man has at last got away from something that has trapped him and imprisoned him for so long but at the same time he isn’t prepared for the world, he doesn’t know how it works which makes his reactions sometime very odd and strange. Sometimes he appears quite rude, at other times funny or quite endearing.
“For Tom it is like he has been living in a dark basement, metaphorically, and here he is in the sun light after a long, long time wanting everything to be suddenly different. The great skill of the story is that his background has not left him, the tentacles of his past are still there which reveals him to be a tragic figure. The story reveals some nasty things he has done in his life but, by the end, one has a certain grudging sympathy for him flailing about in a morass of a past he can’t step clear of.”
Of course Michael had a few challenges to face up to in his return to acting.
“The main thing I was worried about is that I hadn’t acted in a series for a while so learning the lines, getting on top of the part; I was worried about all those things. Fortunately I was blessed with having Ashley Pearce as director. He was superb and we got on from the beginning. I felt he was somebody who really listened and who guided me through but let me feel my way into the part.
“The other challenge was how do I look 80 or even 100. We decided it was not going to be right to put on lots of prosthetic make up, best to use what was already there and accentuate some of the wrinkles already gathering and play the rest of the aging process from within. I was worried would I look old enough or just like Michael Palin with lines on his face but I think in the end the combination of good make up, layering up the right clothes and really feeling like an old man might. That’s a challenge I enjoyed, I would start shuffling along and feeling how I thought Tom would feel at the time. And I had a memory of my dad in his baggy layers so I could empathise.”
Explaining Tom’s relationships with other characters in the drama, Michael continues: “The relationships he has with various women in the story, especially Hannah (Jodie Comer), are quite intriguing. They start by thinking he is a weird old man, then get interested and end up feeling quite protective of him.
“His life has been dominated by this ghostly figure who has probably frightened him and kept him under her control whereas Hannah is bright, fresh and honest, open and sparky and he just loves that. He sees a spirit in her and she in him which they both benefit from. Hannah is having a terrible time in her own life and it’s a really touching relationship where both sides help each other and, despite the fact that he shouts at her, she becomes quite protective of Tom and that creates complications for her as well… it’s a complex set of emotions going on.
“And Rob, the policeman (Mark Addy) who is investigating the death of Tom’s social worker, is also having a terribly hard time in his life. He’s the bluff policeman not having any nonsense, not having anything to do with the supernatural but he gets drawn in as well and I think it’s Gwyneth’s skill that she manages to make all this believable.”
The question we really have to ask though, given that this is a ghost story, does Michael believe in ghosts.
“I used to read lots of ghost stories when I was young, I absolutely loved them but now I have to say most of them terrify me. I’ve never had a psychic experience or seen a ghost but there are moments in your life when something happens; either an extraordinary coincidence that takes your breath away or there is a creak on the stairs in the darkness of the house at night and your imagination goes to work…
“I do think there is a strong area of our own imagination where we respond to what I imagine are perfectly explicable, natural circumstances with supernatural explanation. Who knows, maybe there is such a thing. I wouldn’t close any doors but I’ve not seen it myself.”
Remember Me Begins On BBC-1 23 November 2014.