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  The Chatter Box : Messages from Michael
Still Climbing Mountains, But I Can See The Top by Michael Palin on 13 September 2004 3:47pm
Himalaya Progress Report

To all Palin Travellers. By the next time we talk my new book (fantastic value at £3,000, reduced to £20, Basil Pao's gorgeous gallery of delights (50p, increased to £30) and 6 hefty chunks of Himalaya on TV will be rolling down a hill towards YOU!

I've one commentary left to write and record. At the same time I'm having to stick my head above the parapet and tell newspapers, magazines, radio stations, TV chat-shows and all three of my cats just what it's all about. I know publicity is important but in a way I'd much rather talk about the book and series after they've gone out than before. Then at least we'll have something to talk about.

I'm really most concerned about all of you who have loyally supported the site. I mean if you don't like it I might have to sell the site to Des Lynam or Loudoun Wainwright or someone.

Well, all I can say to you is that I hope you'll find the whole mess well up to standard of our previous messes. We like it, anyway. As the end of the production process looms everyone involved is completely out of breath, like we've run a marathon in 10.3 seconds. But the rewards - when we can get together and celebrate over a drink or three - are not far off.

How hard has it been? Well, I enjoy my work, so I can't pretend that I've suffered, but a recent chance encounter made me do a few sums. Which I shall share with you if you care to read on.

Last week someone on the south coast asked me how much time it will have taken me to make the book and film of the Himalaya journey. I thought about it and, though it seemed almost unbelievable, replied with a certain quiet modesty, "About eighteen months from start to finish".
His reply knocked me back a bit.
"That long!" he said.

I don't want to moan on and become all precious about how hard we work, but I think there is still a feeling that we're having too good a time for it to be hard work. Well, it's true, most of the time we are having a good time, but we have to make sure on each day of the filming that someone is shooting and someone is recording and someone is telling the audience-to-be why we are having a good time and what the good time looks like.

And that's where the lines of fun and work blur a little, and sometimes after a week of continuous days trekking, camping out, and filming at the same time we become almost numb to the beauty of the world and would swap another fabulous mountain view for a smelly old pub any day.

Let's tot up the figures. First there's the preparation. You can't just turn up at the Khyber Pass and start work. It's on the North-West Frontier, which like many other places we visited on our journey, is a potentially dangerous and unstable area, where terrorists live. So a great deal of chatting up, flannelling and soothing of egos has to go on before we can even leave home. Some of this work was done from our office in London, (thank you the wonderful Natalia, Mirabel and later Sue, team) but most of it had to be done on the ground. Step forward directors Roger Mills and John Paul Davidson and location managers Vanessa Courtney and Claire Houdret. They set the ball rolling, scouting the world, talking to potential contributors, checking out possible stories and wheedling permissions from reluctant governments while I was still at home looking at maps and deciding which kind of toilet paper to take.

So that's about 3 of the 18 months gone before we've left home. The actual shooting took up 6 more months. This involved some 2,000 miles travelling and 7 separate flights out to Asia and back. India, Nepal, Tibet and Yunnan in China was one continuous shoot, as was Pakistan and Assam-Bhutan-Bangladesh, but three short individual trips had to be made in addition. One to a 12,000 foot high polo match in Pakistan, one to a week-long horse fair in the centre of the Tibetan Plateau and one to an amazing annual festival in Bhutan. By my reckoning that's 14 doses of jet lag. In between the jet lags I was writing hard to keep up with deadlines for the book, so months off became months on. Add two.

Ever since staggering off the plane for the last time in April, after our festival shoot in Bhutan, I have been re-living the six months of our Himalayan journey almost day and night. By night in strange dreams in which I find palm trees halfway up Annapurna (my subconscious reminding me that perhaps I shouldn't have taken on Himalaya quite so soon after Sahara), and by day in deciphering the scrawled details in my black notebooks, which together with Dictaphone transcripts I made at the time, form the basis of the copy for the Himalaya book.
At the same time Basil Pao was going mad back at his home in Washington DC selecting the best from thousands of photos he took for my book and for his spectacular Inside Himalaya companion volume.

110,000 words and several hundred photos had to be sent to the printers by early June, two months after the end of shooting. So add 3 to 6 to 2 to 2 and I make that 13 months' hard labour.

Meanwhile Alex Richardson was working 25-hours a day, 8 days a week up in trendy Scrubs Lane trying to squeeze all the material into six bite-size, hour-long chunks. Our filming ratio (what's shot to what's used) is about 12 to 1, so he has to weed out the waste before he can begin to start making the good sequences work. Meanwhile the DVD material has to be assembled. Quite a lot of this is in the form of add-ons; an interview with me and a selection of out-takes of perfectly good material for which there was no time in the shows.

Once editor, director, myself and the executive producers are happy with the cuts I begin work on writing a commentary for each one. The entire package, 6 finished shows at one hour each, plus a ten-minute shorter international version (so they can put breaks in the hour. Grrrrr!!!) has to be handed to the BBC by the end of September, which by my reckoning means another 4 months added to our 13.

Which makes the total time taken for full Himalaya books and series to 18 months. No sorry, 17.

"That long?"

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