Of all the places in the world where Michael Palin could have celebrated his 75th birthday, this must be the most unlikely. The intrepid explorer, now as famous for his walks around the world as his exploits of Monty Python, has been in far away places, granted.
But by putting the birthday pennant in North Korea, is the so-called Hermit Kingdom of the world such an elusive country? Impossible, sure?
North Korea is a closed nation: there are no telephone lines connecting it to the rest of the world, there is no internet, there are no trips outside its borders for citizens. The press and broadcasting organizations are under state control, radio and television are pre-adjusted to government stations. Life is strictly regulated by the dictatorial regime.
Michael Palin visited North Korea (pictured) for a Channel 5 show. Michael and a documentary team ensured what is believed to be the most extensive access to date by a Western television crew
It is famous for being a place that is more restricted for visitors (particularly those that come with cameras and questions).
However, in what could well become the biggest travel hit of his career, Michael and a team of documentaries ensured what is believed to be the most extensive access to date by a Western television crew. The trip, two years in the planning, was the only one of his career, he says, that his wife Helen asked him not to take, such was his fear of danger.
"She usually wants to leave me for several months, but she held back on this, but at the time it was planned, things looked very bad between the West and North Korea.
"President Trump and Kim Jong-Un joined in. Nobody had any idea what would happen.
The trip came after Michael was approached by a Channel 5 crew that had an ambitious plan to film within the self-styled socialist state. "It was very tentative," he explains.
He admitted that he and his wife were not sure of the documentary. However, he said he was surprised at how well people received him, even described dancing all day at a festival (pictured)
"I said," Yeah, well, that sounds interesting, "and then I did not hear anything for a terribly long time." Relations between the West and North Korea did not exactly fill him with confidence that documentary was possible.
"It seemed horrible," he says, recalling the scandal between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un who saw Trump calling the North Korean leader "crazy" and "crazy," while the North Korean administration called the US president "old." lunatic & # 39;
But when Michael and the crew received the blessing of the North Korean authorities to enter the country, relations improved a lot. "The atmosphere simply changed," he says.
"Suddenly, Trump was going to meet Kim Jong-Un."
Michael agreed with the documentary, but relations between the West and North Korea did not give him the assurance that the documentary would be possible at that time. In the photo is Michael next to a propaganda poster
The 14 days of filming came days after North Korean Prime Minister Kim Jong-Un met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27.
"While we were there, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in the lobby of our hotel with his entourage, negotiating the return of the hostages." Three US citizens detained in North Korea were released on May 9.
The trip also coincided with Michael turning 75 years old. He laughs at the memories of the real day.
"My birthday was very surreal," he admits. "It was the hardest day I've ever had."
"We were filming and I had to get up to leave the hotel at 6.30 in the morning, so I was getting ready when the hotel reception rang and I said," Oh, Mr. Palin, we have to tell you that as a result of the meeting between Kim Jong -One and President Moon, the time difference between North Korea and South Korea has been abolished.
However, relations improve rapidly and the 14 days of filming came days after North Korean Prime Minister Kim Jong-Un met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on March 27. April. Michael appears in the arch of reunification
"So now you're late."
The trip was strictly controlled and the ITN Productions team had a group of caregivers ("five or six," says Michael) who restricted where they could go. "They were not a hard hand at all." They were from the tourism ministry, but they had orders about what we could and could not see. "
His passport was also taken from him. "They kept us a little restless, and probably deliberately."
So, what did he expect to see? Most of us have a preconceived idea of life in North Korea and Michael too.
We were filming and had to get up to leave the hotel at 6.30 in the morning, so I was getting ready when the hotel reception rang and I said, "Oh, Mr. Palin, we have to tell you that as a result of the meeting between Kim Jong – Un and President Moon, the time difference between North Korea and South Korea has been abolished
"I went with the feeling that it would be an atmosphere of threat, absolute conformity, a gloomy and conformist society." And was it?
– Well, no, not at all. Even taking into account the fact that they took us to see things they wanted us to see, I was surprised at how different it was. "
There are images of Michael in his annual May Day celebrations. There is music, dancing and drinking.
It shows Michael (who, ironically, seems to be the most tense) who offer him rice wine and encourages him to relax. He ends up using a garland of leaves on his head.
"We were there all day to see them celebrate, it was an atmosphere of joyful and fun celebration, and that is not something that can be programmed by any regime."
The capital, Pyongyang, was surprisingly "different." "There is no point of reference," he says.
& # 39; Skyscrapers could be like any city, but the streets are largely empty. There are very few cars
The trip was strictly controlled and the ITN Productions team had a group of caregivers ("five or six", says Michael) restricting where they could go, although Michael said they were not hard at all.
"It's a slightly dreamlike world, strange but not threatening." It's definitely strange.
On his first morning, Michael woke up to the sound of the music that was playing. Was he being channeled through the hotel, he wondered?
Then he realized that he was coming from outside. "I thought," Are they brainwashing me? "
"But it turns out that this music is played every morning and it just goes through the city, it's supposed to say, 'Get up, get to work, get out and be productive.'
"But it was really scary."
Walking through the city is bombarded with propaganda posters. "There is no internet, there is no free voice, and after a few days you start to feel propaganda seeping into your soul".
He described his sometimes surreal experience. This includes a hairdresser at a state health spa, where he finds a poster showing the recommended haircuts for men from North Korea – not smooth or something like that messy & # 39;
And at a hair salon in a state-run health center, you find a poster that shows the recommended haircuts for men in North Korea – not smooth or something messy.
Michael was allowed to visit a school, and there is a lovely moment when the children are asked if they have any questions for this English. Most people would fall over themselves to ask Michael about their travels or their days in Python, but of course the people in this closed kingdom do not know anything about it.
A child raises a hand and asks: "How many children do you have? & # 39;
"At least it was a question I could answer," laughs Michael.
So, what did the North Koreans do with him? "They were fascinated by someone from the outside world.
"Their world is restricted so that everything is focused on their country, but they want to know about the rest of the world."
He said he was surprised by the welcome of the people of North Korea and raises the tempting possibility that others will follow in his footsteps, describing the country as one that is not happy about being closed.
Conversations about education, family and hobbies were fine, but there were limits.
"I could not talk about the political regime, it's not that they did not want to talk about it, but there was nowhere to go.
They live for their leaders, and through them. All their leaders have done it, they want to do it.
"But they did not brainwash them." They were interested in what it is like to live in the West.
"And I wanted to ask you all kinds of questions, too, the more I learned from them, & # 39;
Michael says, "The more I thought," they do some things better than we do. "There is a general sense of purpose.
& # 39; They do things, and schools are well run. I am sure that I was shown the best, but these children were expressive. I did not think: "These children are terribly repressed," because they were not. But I understand the idea that critical thinking is not on the agenda. "
He also admitted: "I could not talk about the political regime, it's not that they did not want to talk about it, but there was nowhere to go, they live for their leaders, and through them. # 39;
He was surprised at how welcoming the people of North Korea were and the tempting prospect of others following in his footsteps.
"This is not a country satisfied with being closed." They have built resorts and airports that are silent and empty at the moment, but they are ready for what they hope will be a thaw in their relations with the rest of the world, which will bring money to start up their economy again. . & # 39;
While it is a fascinating program to watch, there are those who will not be happy to see it. Your former bosses on the BBC will surely feel sick that this is a Channel 5 production.
Two years ago, he suggested that the BBC's intrusion into film projects had irritated him so much that he would not work for them again. He goes back a bit on that today (& # 39; It would be a mistake to say that I will not work for the BBC & # 39; he says to me), but the fact that he is now working for Channel 5 tells his own story.
What was the problem? He says that the way they handled shows how their change, which means more monitoring, more questions that are asked.
"You have to refer more to the people who commission the shows in a way that did not happen when we did, say, Around The World in 80 days in 1989.
He said the North Koreans were fascinated with him: "Your world is restricted, so everything is focused on your country." However, they want to know about the rest of the world. "
Back then, we are confident to go out and bring a good show. "
The travel program market is also more crowded than it was. "Now you have Simon Reeve and Joanna Lumley, there are more people around."
But the veteran has picked them all up. There are no plans for retirement, then?
"Not with David Attenborough still out at 92," he jokes. & # 39; I still have things to do and the energy to do them.
"I feel almost more in shape than at 35. I certainly drink less, I'm lucky my body is still functioning without too much deterioration.
Your mind, too, is still filled with curiosity. "I do not want to sound tired of the world again," he admits. "I am the opposite of the fatigue of the world, whatever it is! Encouraged by the world?
Michael Palin in North Korea, Thursday, 9 p.m., channel 5.