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Superficial and lazy treatment of a fascinating semi-continent
on 4 March 2008
Over last few years while living in Old Europe, I grew increasingly conscious of my family's Eastern European roots. I now take every opportunity to explore the lands and people previously familiar to me mostly from childhood stories. I have also with much interest followed Michael Palin's grand escapades since the very first episode of Around the World in 80 Days. With these two loci converging, I keenly anticipated his New Europe series. I was curious whether Palin would confirm my own impressions of the countries I already know, while offering additional insights and interpretations. Similarly, I hoped that he would provide insightful appetisers of the countries I have yet to visit, and help me prioritise my next few journeys. That's what a good travelogue should accomplish.
New Europe, to employ the label this series adopted, is a semi-continent of contrasts and contradictions, of a strident embrace of the future and its new possibilities, as well as a new insecurity and nostalgic clinging to recent past, no matter how painful and deceitful it actually was. Palin's series had an outstanding opportunity to illuminate these tensions, and give us a balanced analysis of our newly rediscovered neighbours.
It is sad that Palin's series fails to achieve this. It is badly let down both by its format and execution. There may be many effective ways of approaching the subject, but the "artificial vignette" style was a poor choice, lazily executed. Backed by the Palin powerful brand and BBC's enterprising resources, a team of researchers were presumably sent out months ahead to various East European capitals with the mission to arrange, typically,
1. a local twenty-something babe to welcome Palin and show him around,
2. a local "character" for Palin to interview ("make sure it's someone quirky and colourful") and,
3. a couple of equally quirky activities for Palin to self-depreciatingly engage in - you know the type, an "impromptu" invitation to get onstage with some performers, drive a steam train, and so on.
City visits often end with a "surprise" invitation by colourful locals for a singalong barbecue - to demonstrate that a typical extended family in New Europe consists of a band of pig roasting folk musicians, forever on the lookout for a lone foreigner to invite along (providing he has an international film crew in tow). Rather than destroy stereotypes, Palin and his team of researchers appear to go out of their way to reinforce them.
Palin visits a health spa and ends up "unexpectedly" sitting in a mudbath next to the current Miss World, who happens to have the next day or two free to accompany him around the city. Pleasant experience for Michael I'm sure and a coup for the research team, but how did this advance our understanding of New Europe?
The formula is tired, predictable and above all dishonest. This side of WWF, once an audience start feeling duped, they rapidly loose empathy with a programme and its presenter. I watched three episodes at random, and I grew increasingly frustrated. The interviews were superficial, with Palin politely asking shallow and uninspired questions. There was no real engagement and debate, no trying to unravel the real web of tension that is New Europe, just Palin majoring in his role of the slightly awkward but polite uncle at a family wedding.
As for the Boratesque historical and cultural insights - hey, we are not that dumb! In these days of budget airlines, one can safely assume that much of Palin's audience have themselves walked across Wenceclas Bridge, suntanned on the Adriatic and/or skied in Bulgaria. We know about the Berlin Wall, many of us have pieces at home. We watched Ceausescu's fall on TV in 1989. Some of us can even recall the essence of the Yalta Agreement. Yet these are the places and events presented by Palin like he's exposing some astounding novelties, and even these are dealt with superficially. This felt painfully patronising at times. Even in our soundbite times, BBC's target audience can surely cope with more substance.
There is little useful travel advice. I do not feel I got to know the places Palin visited any better, and I picked up precious little that would help equip me further for my travels. I cannot replicate most of Palin's exploits and encounters, as I do not have a team of researchers working months ahead to organise these.
The series fizzled out on a Baltic beach. I was expecting Palin to finally synthesise his trip, to distil some interpretation and present his decomposition of the complexities of New Europe. Here was his chance to balance the superficiality of his "artificial vignettes" with some gravitas. I almost physically held my breath, willing him to turn things around with a closing piece of insightful analysis. No chance. After a couple of slender platitudes, Palin turned his back on the camera and walked along the Baltic beach. As another helicopter shot funded by TV licence payers panned across, the question that must have resonated in a thousand households was "is that all?!?".
If I sound bitter, it is because after decades of suffering from dictatorships, hardships, discontinuity and uncertainty, New Europe deserves much better that this superficial, artificial, formulaic and above all lazy treatment.