[11 November 2008]
PopMatters Features Editor
Good grief, this is a lot of stuff to watch.
Sixteen DVDs, each a few hours long, comprising all seven of this famed Monty Python alum’s celebrated BBC travel films, from his earliest efforts (The Hemmingway Adventures, Great Railway Journeys) to his later, more outlandish, attempts to combine travel with great thematic feats (Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole). All told, we’re talking about 2,100+ minutes of travelling.
This huge box set includes glimpses of the New Europe (or, the former Soviet Bloc), the Sahara desert, the Pacific Rim, and the Himalayas, along with copious extras in the form of outtakes and interviews. In short, this set has a bit of everything. It covers much of the globe, and meets hundreds of people along the way. It offers the most entertaining, and certainly the most endearing, travelogues ever put on film.
However, it also offers some of the most obviously pre-fabricated, hyper-constructed, and plainly unreal action you’re likely to find in what would surely today be dubbed “reality” TV. Palin is frequently shown to be meeting people and doing stuff as though there weren’t a camera and microphone boom just beside him; he is often shown pretending that he’s just coming up to someone for the first time, “Oh, fancy meeting you here”, etc.
This is, at first, weird, and then gets a bit annoying, and then winds up being kind of a charming quirk. It’s totally unbelievable that this man thinks we can’t see through the artifice (like when we watch Palin setting out on a ship by way of a shot from shore – I mean, we all know that you’re not actually leaving the cameraman behind), so it seems to help to watch these films from the perspective that he is playing a bit of let’s pretend with his audience. And, once we get to this point, it becomes eminently watchable.
Undoubtedly, the reason it’s all so watchable is that Michael Palin is simply as winning as a cricket match on a balmy day. I’ll admit here that I generally don’t care for travel TV shows, finding them tremendously tedious and fabricated and inauthentic and lame. TV travel shows generally do for the experience of actual travel what watching porno does for the experience of actual sex, which is to offer a stylized, make-believe version of it, in which everyone involved pretends to be having fun, even when (and this is weird) they actually are having fun, and in which time becomes compressed and stretched and loses all relevance so that something that took five minutes can last an hour while something that took hours is over in seconds. This inevitably leaves the viewer in the position of having just not really done what s/he has just watched others do, and feeling vaguely emptier as a result, but also painfully interested in doing what they just saw, and knowing that they can’t.
Regardless, Palin is irrepressibly charming. Even when he is (for example) stumbling like a buffoon through a series of broken conversations with Russian shopkeepers while trying to track down a plug for his bath, he is simultaneously funny and earnest. He really needs the bath plug, but the absurdity of his failure to find one is played for laughs. If you’ve never seen Palin’s stuff before, then imagine a series of like episodes interspersed throughout a few hours of footage of scenery and local colour. That’s pretty well it.
There is little doubt that Palin makes for a wonderful travel companion. He is affable and quite happy to embarrass himself in the pursuit of adventure and experience. He does, in other words, all the stuff you’d probably be afraid to do yourself. And, while doing it, he makes witty little jokes and smiles like a bastard. Insight-wise, he offers some vaguely helpful, prosaic, and/or throwaway information – but, it doesn’t take long before one discovers that the real joy in these films isn’t their educational worth, but rather it is their value as sheer entertainment.
Palin’s films are, in a word, fun. Now, thanks to the Beeb, if you’ve got a spare $250(US), you can get the whole shebang.