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The least successful of Palin's travel shows
on 27 October 2007
This is an oddity in Michael Palin's celebrated series of travel programmes for the BBC. Unlike the others, which generally consist of the courageously chipper Palin travelling by any means necessary from one set location to another, this one is basically just Palin going to various places that have been associated in one way or another with Ernest Hemingway. As a result, the drama of shows like 'Around the World in 80 Days', 'Full Circle' or 'Pole to Pole' is lacking; Palin simply roams around the world as the course of Hemingway's life takes him.
It becomes clear that the legendarily macho Hemingway is a bit of a hero for the apparently mild-mannered Palin, which at first seems surprising, but when you consider some of the more manic turns Palin produced as a member of the Python team (such as the neurotic barber who dreamed of being a tough and manly albeit transvestite lumberjack, or the various savage impersonations he did of a repressed accountant) it becomes more understandable. Moreover, Palin went on to write a novel, 'Hemingway's Chair', about a suburban English middle-class guy who develops an ultimately suicidal identification with Hemingway. Clearly, Palin is not free from demons.
However, this show also falls down in its persistent refusal to take those demons seriously. The tone throughout is one of constant mild silliness, which starts out being amusing but which, when you realise it's to disguise the lack of real content, soon becomes annoying. The only moments of real interest are where Palin's more-than-geekish enthusiasm for and knowledge of Hemingway become apparent, and these moments don't happen often. It's as if the programme-makers were embarrassed by how passionate Palin is (or was) about Hemingway.
I love watching Palin's travel shows - we even have a word for them in our house, 'michalpalin', pronounced (with the stress on the second syllable, mik-AL-pa-lin) as if they were a drug that, at the end of a long day, soothes, stimulates and restores one's interest in the wide world, which is the effect of most of the shows Palin has done. Not this one, though. It's only mildly interesting, and was a sign that Palin and his team were running out of ideas.
Fortunately, they got it back. 'Himalaya', his most recent show apart from the current one, was a return to the old intrepid style of one polite comic actor/writer against the elements, and gripping stuff it was. He's not getting any younger, and has recently returned to less trying climates than the roof of the world, but I'll keep watching Palin the traveller. He's good company, and at his best he makes a potentially boring experience (like crossing the Atlantic in a freighter) into something that makes you wish you were there. That's a gift.