Age does not weary Michael Palin’s thirst for tripping lightly through old trouble spots, writes
‘ IT makes me anxious each time I embark on one of these programs whether this format will work again, whether people watching have finally sussed me out,’’ Michael Palin is saying, sighing a lot and crinkling his weary eyes. ‘‘ Hello, I can hear them say, he doesn’t actually know anything.’’
In his latest series, Michael Palin’s New Europe , the former Python shines his amiable documentary lights on 20 Eastern European countries. Once exotic and, in some cases, dangerous, they have become increasingly of interest to travellers, aided by membership of the European Union in 2004 and the increased availability of flights.
There is plenty of booze on his travels, a lot of arthritic sighs from the 65- year- old presenter and a collection of characters sometimes so eccentric they might have emerged from a series of Palin’s television comedy sketches.
In the series there are many references to his age and creaky bones, and ‘‘ the old arthritis’’. So much so that after the show went to air in Britain, he was invited to become a patron of the British arthritis society.
But age is not all that differentiates this from other travels Palin has undertaken: ‘‘ Europe is closer to home and everybody has an opinion about European history,’’ he says. The recent political narrative of much of Europe is bloody and violent, he adds almost tentatively. Skull and crossbones signs still warn travellers against entering certain forests because of the prevalence of mines and at times Palin is positively haggard as he wanders the killing fields.
Not that he lingers on, or even seeks out, the political implications of the places with which he engages. It is an approach he is still slightly defensive about in the light of acerbic critic A. A. Gill’s recent attack on the series in The Sunday Times . Gill typically lampooned Palin’s charming ineptness, his self- deprecation and seeming inability to ask penetrating questions.
‘‘ So, watching him wandering through the former Yugoslavia, muttering embarrassed regrets for their civil wars, massacres, concentration camps, death squads, pogroms, bitterness and vendettas, all sounded like a dinner lady tutting over a playground game that ended in tears,’’ Gill wrote. ‘‘ You wonder if Palin has the humility or range to show anger and disgust, indignation, sadness or regret or anything much more than a bemused incomprehension.’’
Palin sighs, winces, and well, shows more of the bemused incomprehension that so infuriated the British critic, actually twisting on the hotel couch as if insects were suddenly crawling around under his pullover.
‘‘ Oh, Adrian Gill,’’ he mutters, scratching at his arms. ‘‘ I just haven’t got the knowledge or ability to engage people from these countries about their politics or their history,’’ he says at last. ‘‘ I don’t have the questions to ask and I think it’s bad to pretend you do.’’
What he prefers to do is to engage people in conversation and let them say what they will about how they live.
‘‘ I like to let the audience make up their own minds from the way people are, the gestures they use, and the way they talk.’’
He believes his audience doesn’t need the famous comedian Michael Palin summing up at the end, asking the hard political questions that his interviewees have begged off actually confronting. ‘‘ Let someone else do that,’’ he says, in his perplexed way. He gives the impression this kind of criticism, which obviously has at times rankled, is akin to a critic suggesting an airport novelist failed because he had not written another War and Peace .
He doesn’t work with a script, so he never knows what will happen anyway. There is a schedule and some interviews lined up.
‘‘ But we always hoped we would have encounters along the way, people you meet on trains or ferries.’’ The best television he feels is where the audience watches him suffer en route, when he is sick or confused, though there are also many silly moments. ‘‘ Occasionally I just have to do something Pythonic, and I do get just a little outrageous.’’
He’s at his brightest in interviews, discussing the whimsical things that happened during the shoots, the sheer silliness of some encounters, and his propensity to overdo the comic moments that serendipitously cross his path. Like his vaudeville improvisation atop an Albanian sea front pillar box merrily repainted blue and yellow in the style of a jolly English beach hut (‘‘ You could ’ ave a nice ’ oliday and repel an invasion from ’ ere,’’ he joyfully shouts.)
As a presenter he simply uses his charm and easy comic wariness to draw local people into just talking. It is simple, beguiling and colourful TV. And it’s what we want from him. We don’t like clowns playing Hamlet too often, after all.
Palin appreciates that the best travel journal- ism is about the interior journey, the coming to terms with what was perhaps never sought in the first place. He propels us easily into a world where every moment is an adventure, taking us into that quite jolly place where experience and imagination conspire. Just as they do in good comedy. He says he feels most comfortable when he is himself in his programs. ‘‘ Not having to put on the air of someone who goes about doing these things for a living.’’ The convention is a thoroughly engaging comedy- adventure tale as seen through the eyes of an engaging funny man.
It’s an idea also exploited by comic Billy Connolly, in whose hands it became irksome and irritating. Palin says, ‘‘ I think it’s important to get things right but I also distrust pretension and the pomposity of some people who think that as long as you dazzle with facts that’s enough.’’
The strangest thing is the isolation he feels on his return. ‘‘ You become a kind of social outcast,’’ he says, still seemingly perplexed. ‘‘ My wife is not particularly interested in epic travel or long adventures. On my return she only wants to talk about environmentally friendly washing machines or the new cracks that have recently appeared in my study.’’
He says it’s a complete fallacy that because he has been around the world everyone will want to talk to him about it.
‘‘ It’s more of a social embarrassment. No one really knows what to ask. They are more interested in telling me about how hard it’s become journeying into London from Northampton now there’s a single line track.’’ Michael Palin’s New Europe, Saturday, 7.30pm, Seven.
No tricks: Occasionally I just have to do something Pythonic,’ says travel show host Michael Palin, whose series, New Europe , is about to screen here