Age does not weary Michael Palin’s thirst for trip­ping lightly through old trou­ble spots, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv - Graeme Blun­dell

‘ 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

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