HMS Erebus and Other Stories

Within a minute of entering Cadogan Hall I heard someone say ‘ya’. I was out of my usual territory, in West London, at a venue I’d not previously heard of for a very special event; the only London date for Michael Palin’s new show.


Sir Michael Palin

Coinciding with the paperback publishing of his book: “Erebus: The Story of a Ship”, Palin would be telling the story of the nineteenth century vessel abandoned and found over 150 years later sunk off the coast of Canada in 2014. In all honesty he could have been speaking about the mating rituals of dung beetles and I would have jumped through hoops to see him.

With the stage still empty, a large screen began scrolling through images of Palin’s many Monty Python characters with his book hilariously pasted into each image, followed by an excerpt from one of his travel programmes. Palin was standing on a mountain peak discussing the excitement of hiking a particular trail before taking two steps into some snow and tripping to fall flat on his face half out of shot. It was to the resulting laughter and rapturous applause that Palin took to the stage, sharing the space with a life size cardboard cut-out of him as Gumby, complete with an image of his book balanced in his hands.


2D Cardboard Palin

I am certainly not up to date with any sort of naval history. I would have been approaching the evening completely ignorant if it wasn’t for the entertainment aboard a long haul flight earlier this year. A single episode of a series called “The Terror” drew my attention; unexpectedly this was about the Franklin Expedition, the ill-fated mission undertaken by the ship HMS Terror accompanied by HMS Erebus.

A former bomb vessel, the word ‘Erebus’ translates from the Greek as the personification of darkness; a name fit to strike fear into the hearts of enemies. In peace times the ship pioneered expeditions to both poles before disappearing alongside HMS Terror in 1845 along with both crews. Palin took us on the fascinating journey through the ship’s life, from being built in 1826 and subsequently refitted as an exploration vessel over a decade later, to the crew’s time in New Zealand and beyond.

Palin took us on the adventure of the Ross Expedition to the South Pole in the 1840s, detailing so many characters, discoveries and artefacts he was able to see himself – including a purely functional looking pair of preserved stockings. He spoke about how the ambitious success of this mission was eclipsed by the unmitigated disaster of the Franklin Expedition where the ship failed to complete a crossing of the Northwest Passage resulting in the awfully bleak deaths of around 130 crew members, rumoured to have resorted to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to survive.


‘Erebus’ and the ‘Terror’ in New Zealand, 1841 by John Wilson Carmichael

Palin was so engaging while telling the story, his passion for the subject infectious. He respectfully retold the tragedy but was enthusiastic about the success of the ship’s previous mission and the incredibly interesting life of the vessel itself and the crew. It left me in a contemplative space as the interval commenced, brought back to earth by a brief chat with my seat neighbour about how we agreed that Palin was indeed our favourite of the Pythons.

The second half of Palin’s show was centred on the innumerable anecdotes and experiences from throughout his incredible comedy career and travels, drawing comparisons between the two. A prime example was in a video clip he showed us of being on a boat in China, trying and repeatedly failing to communicate with the captain that he could start the engine and then having the same difficulty once on the move to ask him to stop ; equal parts funny and frustrating to watch, much like some Python sketches.

Palin gave us a chronological whistle stop tour of his life in essence, from his school days in Yorkshire and how they influenced his Python writing, collaborating with Terry Jones whom he met at Oxford University, and then meeting the rest of the Pythons while they all worked on The Frost Report. Jones has sadly been diagnosed with dementia and Palin shared a personal photo of the two from a recent visit which stirred a warm round of applause for Jones from the audience, which Palin joined.


Monty Python: Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin

Further pictures from his travels included a road sign from the Falkland Islands reading ‘Thatcher Way’ with a tree leaning left (bent by the prevailing winds) directly behind it. I didn’t actually notice the tree until Palin mentioned it was ‘leaning the wrong way’ in reference to the sign, making us all chuckle. An anecdote of receiving a phone call from a pushy Hungarian journalist trying to force an interview at a bad time frustrating him had everyone giggling, but when the journalist insisted he would only talk about John Cleese, Palin realised it was Cleese himself playing a prank on him which erupted a loud chortle from us.

He told us about his very interesting trip to North Korea and showing the famous Fish-Slapping dance sketch to his young guide. We watched a video of her reaction, laughing and asking about the fish they used, that I found really heart-warming. This illustrated my interpretation the long-lasting appeal of Monty Python; there is something transcendent and charming about grown men behaving ridiculously, somehow remaining relatable no matter how surreal.

Palin abruptly exited the stage during a video clip and as the screen dissolved I muttered out loud: “that can’t be it”. The polite applause then exploded as Palin emerged in a flannel shirt and trapper hat. It reminded me of the excellent Python live show years ago, but on a much more intimate level. The show concluded with Palin telling us about Tom Hanks asking to join in the on stage chorus performing the Lumberjack Song at a memorial concert for George Harrison, already knowing all the words. He then invited us to be the chorus for him which was met with great enthusiasm.


Performing the Lumberjack Song with Carol Cleveland at the O2 in 2014

It was a sweet and fitting way to close the show, but I couldn’t help but thinking it was an understated farewell. I certainly hope I am wrong, because this cynical world needs many more like Palin to gracefully remind us of silver linings and the joy of just being silly.

Take a look at Palin’s website here and order a copy of Erebus: The Story of a Ship, I’m about to do so myself.

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