Synopsis: “Not until dawn on the day of departure did a full-blown, gut-tightening panic set in. I had volunteered to deliver these documentaries, (having only done one in my life before), against the clock, with absolutely no script at all, on a route that might change without warning. Nothing like it had been attempted before.” – Michael Palin
A Venetian refuse barge, a battered taxi in Egypt, a primitive boat across the Persian Gulf, a Chinese steam engine and a container ship across the Date Line…Michael Palin’s attempt to circumnavigate the world heralds a phenomenal journey of dhows, diarrhea, hungry parrots and a world full of surprises.
eyelights: Michael Palin. the challenge. the ending.
eyesores: the poor picture quality. the ending.
I’m a fan of Michael Palin. It took me a while, but he grew on me over the years, since I was first introduced to him via Monty Python. My favourite was always the terse yet goofy John Cleese, followed by the idiosyncratic Eric Idle, but Michael Palin’s natural charm and wit won me over after I watched his travelogue series ‘Pole to Pole’.
In ‘Pole to Pole’ I discovered a knowledgeable, thoughtful and unpretentious man. And he retained his wry humour throughout!
And so it was that I watched this mini-series three times over the course of a few years, unaware that there were more adventures of the silly Englishman who frequently claimed that “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”. I relished every moment of the series, and, when I found out that there were more, I simply had to get my hands on them too.
Via my local library, I was able to find a few of them. I never got around to them, sadly, given the investment of time these mini-series require, but I always had the intention to. Then, one day, I found out that the BBC had collected his entire set of shows in a massive boxed set. Jiminy crispy! I just had to get myself one! Once I found an offer I couldn’t refuse on one of those online shops, I did.
A buddy of mine is a huge fan of Jules Vernes’ ‘Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours’ and, when I told him that Michael Palin attempted to follow Phileas Fogg’s footsteps, he was so excited at the prospect of seeing it done for real that we promised to watch the mini-series together. Or, at the very least, start it – for we didn’t know if he would enjoy Palin’s style as much as I do.
He did. He absolutely did. As did I, yet again.
The thing is that Michael Palin, despite being hired only after the BBC’s top three choices were unavailable, has the right demeanour for the series: he’s an average person with seemingly little ego, he’s down-to-earth and congenial. He’s just some guy like so many others – not a stuffy commentator or someone who is trying to prove something to his audience.
If anything, Palin is trying to prove something to himself: he wants to get to the end of the journey, to succeed on his race against time. And we get to watch, are taken along with him for the ride, through the highs and lows, privy to his hopes and his fears, his elation and disappointments. Through it all, Palin keeps a certain dignified presence, never utterly discouraged or upset, always bringing his best.
At one point, Palin tells us that, when he was a boy, he wanted to be an explorer. ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ gave him the chance to be one, to emulate his heroes, if only in a distant fashion. We get the sense that he really wants to realize his dream, that to recreate Jules Vernes’ adventure in his own way (traveling has certainly changed over the last century) was the ultimate fantasy.
It was quite fun to watch him try his hand at it, as unlikely as it was in that day and time (which was the fall of 1988): right from the start, we were told that it was unlikely that he could ever manage the trip in 80 days, given that the aeroplane had changed the way that people traveled; he would not likely be able to find connecting ships no matter how much planning was put into the endeavour.
Because, even though there are now faster, more efficient ways to get around the world, Palin insisted on doing anything but air travel, just as Phileas Fogg did. This meant finding ways to get around their hurdles, and within a time frame that didn’t set him off schedule – meaning that he ended up on many cargo or trading ships instead of passenger ones. If needed, he would rent a car and get by on his own.
In no time flat, Palin fell behind, proving that it was indeed more challenging to get around by land and sea than it once was. Admittedly, the adventure he was on was based on fiction, not reality, but he was incapable of meeting his deadlines due to frustrating delays or unexpected turns of events; it seemed as though everything was thrown in his way. And yet, the intrepid Palin put on a brave face and carried on.
Neither my buddy nor myself had any idea whether or not Palin would finish his adventure nor whether he would pull it off in the time alloted, so we were riveted to our seats as the drama unfolded, as he found ways to surmount his obstacles – always with a twinkle in his eye. And we truly enjoyed meeting the many people that he mingled with, many friendly and helpful, irrespective of the cultural differences.
Of course, given that Palin was on a race against the clock, there isn’t much time for exploring the locales or even for mixing it up with the locals. If anyone watching this series is expecting a travelogue, they’d be dearly disappointed, as it really is an adventure above all else. Still, Palin does spend some time visiting when time allows for it, and it’s always interesting. It’s just that it’s limited, if not rushed.
Another unfortunate aspect of the show is that it might have been shot on video instead of film, meaning that it didn’t take advantage of the beautiful scenery, giving us bland scenery throughout. Not that the cameraman (or “Passepartout”) was making any efforts to take beautiful shots; he was just doing the job of documenting the trip. He did it well, but he was capturing a moment, not to making art: everything looked diffuse, bland, no matter where they went.
My favourite moments were in the first episode, which carefully set up the journey and gave us insight into what made it happen and how Palin prepared for it, the second episode, which showed us that Palin was in no way guaranteed of succeeding as he started to fall far behind schedule, and the third episode, which had him spending an extended period with the same mariners; it was far more intimate than other episodes.
I also enjoyed the final episode, because it wrapped things up, and it was satisfying to see, but I also found it kind of sad that it ended in such a deflated way, without a major sense of achievement, some sort of fanfare, or anything significant, despite all he went through. However, I enjoyed how grounded it was, because it gave the impression that none of it was staged, that it was all very real. This was a bittersweet moment.
All this to say that, even though the whole viewing took us close to six hours, which we broke up in bits over the course of 8 hours for food and various other relief, we had a blast going on this world-trekking adventure together, with Michael Palin. I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves world traveling and/or real-world adventure. Travelogue fans, however, might not be satisfied with the series’ lack of historical or cultural perspective.
Date of viewing: July 1, 2013