Mr Hall and Mr Brown by Michael Palin

10th July 2015 at 01:00
One was bald and brave, the other eccentric and enthusiastic. These two singular characters inspired the actor and documentary-maker to explore the world

The teachers who had the biggest impact on me both taught geography and were responsible for sparking my interest and curiosity in the world.

John Hall was at Birkdale School in Sheffield, which I attended between the ages of 5 and 14. He was quite strict but had a strong sense of humour. He had a rather wonderful laugh and would rock backwards and forwards like a strange bird.

We did a lot of visits with him. He took us to Nottingham, not just to the castle but also to the John Player cigarette factory. It was nirvana to us 12-year-old aspiring smokers. Mr Hall didn't see anything controversial about taking children there - it seemed perfectly reasonable as we were investigating how things were made and how economies grew.

We called him Eggo as he had a completely hairless, domed head. After I left I heard that he had invested in a hairpiece and bravely shown all the boys in assembly one morning. He said, "You can have a laugh now but this is what I'm going to look like", and he put it on. I think that's pretty impressive.

I did as much as I could to get by but I didn't latch on to any subject other than geography. Trainspotting meant as much to me as maths, unfortunately. I enjoyed impersonating the teachers and aligned myself with the boys who liked to have a laugh.

Between the ages of 14 and 18, I boarded at Shrewsbury School. There I met David Brown, who taught me geography A-level. He was wonderfully eccentric. He had a shock of dark, curly hair and would scratch his head and gesticulate wildly. All the maps in the geography room were German because he said German cartographers were better than English ones. This wasn't long after the war so it was brave of him to order those.

It was David who suggested I study geography A-level in one year instead of two. I thought the pressure would be too much, but he was right. I did it and got myself a year ahead. He could see that I had the ability and he pushed me. I responded to his enthusiasm and he taught me to think for myself.

He was left-wing and his views were different from what you might expect at an English public school. Then again, Shrewsbury had a reputation for turning out eccentrics. The people who started Private Eye magazine went there, as did John Peel (although he was John Ravenscroft then - I was with him for one term).

Later, David became a Rajneeshee [follower of the Indian mystic Osho] and in the early 1970s he came to see me in London wearing orange robes. I made some tea and we got on well. We did discuss his conversion - you couldn't really ignore it - but I think I expected it of him.

He's still around. He's in his nineties now and very much his own man.

I kept in touch with Mr Hall until his death. In the 1980s I interviewed him for a BBC series called Comic Roots. He was rather disparaging about my humour in Monty Python, but gently so. I know he was exceedingly proud when I started making travel programmes and made a name for myself in geography.

People ask me why I do these programmes when I'm an actor. I say that I've always had a curiosity about the world and I'm grateful that it was nurtured, fostered and encouraged by these two remarkable men.

Michael Palin was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. He is a patron of the charity Farm Africa, which is asking schools in the UK to organise sponsored walks to support African farmers to help end hunger. Information and lesson plans can be found at www.farmafrica.orgwellywalk

Off the beaten track

Michael Palin

Born 5 May 1943, Sheffield

Education Birkdale School, Sheffield; Shrewsbury School; Brasenose College, Oxford

Career Actor, comedian, author and television presenter. Palin is best known for being a member of comedy group Monty Python and for presenting travel documentaries

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