In 2007 my parents generously gave me the box set of Michael Palin’s travel documentaries for Christmas. I took notes as I watched them and more than ten years later, I want to share my viewing experience.
There are 49 travel documentary episodes in the DVD boxset spanning from Palin’s first crack at the genre, Great Railway Journeys to New Europe released in 2007. (He’s since gone on make documentaries on Brazil and North Korea.)
I realised that if I started after New Year and watched one episode each Sunday evening I would be finished the Michael Palin travel documentary DVD boxset by Christmas 2008. But only just. The plan relied on absolutely everything going right. If I missed episodes because of social plans, electricity failures or prioritisation of craft projects I could easily become hopelessly behind schedule and fail.
In the twentieth century, television programs were drip fed to us, one episode a week. If you wanted to know whether Darcy and Elizabeth got together, you had to tune in next week. In those days, spoilers were only for cars (I think, like mufflers, also not sure about those though). Modern life, however, is alarming with people having easy access to entire seasons of shows. I can’t get through a day without hearing about someone binge watching something they shouldn’t have.
To the modern media consumer (and even a semi-modern 2008 media consumer) watching one Michael Palin travel documentary per week is stultifying slow. Why watch one episode when you could watch three and a half and get a headache? However, as I found myself entering 2008, the calculated consistency of the plan appealed to me. In amongst the bustle of the multiple platforms and viewer control I found myself longing for the older style of television viewing – strictly timetabled and out of my hands. I accepted the Around the Palins in a Year challenge. I also set the challenge, and did the challenge and was the only person who cared about the challenge, which only made it more challenging.
Like Michael Palin in Around the World in 80 Days and Jules Vern before him, I did bring a Paspatu on my journey. My Paspatu’s duties included making cups of tea and turning on the television.
January 2008: Great Train Journeys
I made a strong start with Great Rail Journeys, filmed in the early 80s. The plot centres on Michael Palin travelling across Britain on trains. Michael Palin has a daggy love of trains. He is not alone in this and spends each fifty-minute program talking to other people about their daggy love of trains.
January-February 2008: Around the World in 80 Days
When we arrived at week three I was excited, it was time for Around the World in 80 Days. I first watched this show when I was seven. Michael Palin made travel seem incredibly exciting, glamorous, and the whole point of growing up. I also swore that when I began my travels I would NOT fly by plane but would catch boats and trains everywhere. I’m was also pretty sure I’d be accompanied constantly by a film crew.
And also, the theme song for Around the World in 80 Days features brass instruments, train whistles and a ticking clock. It’s stirring stuff. Sometimes when I need to reignite my enthusiasm for life, I pop the music on and gallop around for a bit (not the versions that they change to ‘suit’ the featured location, because I don’t agree with those.)
Around the World in 80 Days is fantastic and stood re-watching. The sense of a pressing schedule, varied modes of transport and pleated trousers, all make for marvellous television. We had seven very happy Sundays watching it and success in our televisual slowjourn seemed assured.
March-April 2008: Pole to Pole
Feeling smugly confident we moved on to Pole to Pole where we met the first of our problems that would threaten to derail the entire project.
Around the World in 80 Days was experimental television in its time. No-one had done a completely unscripted travel documentary before. During filming they had no idea that the program would be the fabulous success that it was. Unfortunately, Michael Palin let this go to his head. For the first three episodes of P to P he is an insufferable, over confident idiot. He sweeps his way down from the North Pole patronising the locals and doing irritating stunts for the camera.
Even when it’s obvious that they’ve been pissing around in St Petersberg for four days and could have left at any time, they try to maintain the manifestly ridiculous pretence that they are on a tight schedule and simply must get to the next boat or train.
My commitment to Around the Palins in a Year waned but I still forced myself and Paspatu to sit down every Sunday night. This was difficult but there were even greater challenges ahead.
Paspatu was off to America for six weeks. We had known this from the start and reasoned it was like the time that Michael Palin missed a connection at Jedha then drove across Saudi Arabia alone while his Paspatu caught the plane. I should go on alone and Paspatu would catch me up at Full Circle.
It seemed like a good plan while still immersed in 80 Days. After three episodes of Palin patronising Scandinavians I doubted my resolve and for the first time I skipped a week. I was behind schedule. !!! Have I got your attention? I thought so.
The next week I forced myself to tackle another episode. At this point Palin reached Africa and started to have a very nasty time. This took the edge off his smugness. Enjoying the Palin-with-gastro viewing experience I watched two episodes in a row and I was back on track. Queue stirring music and gallop around the couch.
May-June 2008: Full Circle
It is a lot like Pole to Pole. Still counting the days when the days don’t really count. Still patronising the locals and still at his best when he’s been vomiting.
And it was during Full Circle that we reached our biggest hurdle. Someone gave us a box set of the West Wing. Our interest levels waned, as did my notes, so it’s going to be quick from here.
July 2008: The Hemmingway Adventures
If nothing else, Palin was back on form with the theme song for this one. It was gusty and adventurous, and I want it played at my funeral. I like Hemmingway and he had an interesting life. The lack of a pretend schedule was also refreshing. It was extremely easy to watch one episode a week and we sailed through it like Michael Palin on the boat from Singapore to somewhere else.
August 2008: Sahara
Palin visits all the countries near the Sahara Desert. It looked hot! He looked sick! Therefore, I enjoyed it. There was a particularly good bit where Palin was walking through the desert with some camels. It looked like hard work and I was happy to watch an hour of that a week.
September-October 2008: Himalaya
This was good. Lots of nice cultural things. But I was starting to worry, we were still two episodes behind schedule. I thought about doubling up on a Himalaya but decided to wait for New Europe expecting an interesting political element that would pull us through and fully around the Palins within the year.
November-December 2008: New Europe
Palin visits all the countries that have joined the European family since the end of the Soviet era. The theme song is very Eurovision and very annoying. The show is just very dull.
We needed to watch two episodes a week for two weeks just before Christmas 2008.
It was tight. Would we make it Around the Palins in a Year?
And then, like the moment in Around the World in 80 Days when Michael Palin arrives back in London and isn’t allowed into the gentlemen’s club, our triumph was an anticlimax. We did it. No-one noticed or cared. If anyone is still reading now, I’m astonished at you.