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Hello everyone from the wilds of Central Burma!
TV's favourite adventurer heads off through some of the
most remote and rugged terrain on Earth en route to the Himalayas.
Brian Courtis reports.
Michael Palin is pretty sure now it is an addiction.
Television's best-known world traveller says his insatiable
curiosity, the places on the map he still wants to visit, and his
very real interest in other people's lives all suggest he will keep coming back for adventure.
Travel is his drug. And the British comedy actor feeds the habit
by producing some of the most watchable of television documentaries
on visiting places. It has led him into a second phase of an
outstanding TV career. After Monty Python's Flying Circus
and Ripping Yarns, they see him here, they see him there,
those viewers see him everywhere.
It began with Around The World In 80 Days in 1989, an
attempt to replicate the adventures of Jules Verne's fictional
adventurer Phileas Fogg by travelling around the world in 80 days
without modern flight. He met Monty Python fans in Greece,
surprised us with a rare display of homesickness from an Arab dhow
in the Red Sea, ate snake in China, and, while fighting that
deadline, took us from one delight to another.
After that there was no looking back. In the 1992 trek Pole
To Pole, he took the team south bearing as close as he could
to 30 degrees longitude, heading through the ice to Finland, the
Soviet Union, Turkey and, after Egypt and the edge of war zones in
Sudan and Ethiopia, down through East Africa to South Africa. Alas,
a visit to a witchdoctor brought some bad luck as he tried to
complete the final trip to the South Pole. There was no room on the
boat to Antarctica. Still, as always Palin came up trumps.
Next came the more intriguing 1997 doco Full Circle, a
25,000-kilometre trip through Alaska, Russia, China, Vietnam,
Australia and other Pacific Rim countries. As always, it was packed
with surprise venues and entertaining characters. We went through
Spain, Florida and Cuba for the more personal, more macho
Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure (1999), and then were
surprised by the visually overwhelming Sahara (2002). The
camel train took Palin through Fez and Marrakech before leading him
into real desert country where, with tribal people, he still found
some curious links with home.
And now life sees him aboard yet another dusty old former
British steam train, chuffing along the rugged, impossibly hilly
border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a place of sterling
military history, now home to warlords and bandits and, presumably,
all sorts of American special forces.
Palin has a passion for these railways, and indeed the trains;
they've even named one after him in Britain (it embarrasses him
occasionally by breaking down on remote sidings). But the
controllable nature of train journeys allows him time to speak to
the locals, while his camera picks up the detail or reveals an
extraordinary landscape slipping by as his backdrop.
This time, for his six-part ABC series Himalaya With Michael
Palin, the charming Englishman is heading into what initially
looks like a Kiplingesque back-to-the-future trip through the
What makes it special is the smiling traveller's
self-deprecating humour, his unquenchable interest in the everyday
life of a Pakistani frontier town, and his willingness to try out
local ways that make the opener, North By Northwest, one
that quickly hits the heights.
The train drops him in Gunga Din territory, in a bizarre wild
town where making and repairing guns is a local art. Kalashnikovs
and Dillinger-style pistols are all over the place, but if he
wanted a couple of WMDs I dare say they could point in him the
"So do they have anything James Bond might want?", wonders
Palin, trying to pretend it's all impromptu and not for a moment
rehearsed. To the visitor's delight, his host produces a pen that
fires bullets. "I don't believe it!" says the pleased-as-Punch
Palin. "I was only joking."
There is more stagey fun and games in the streets of Darra, with
the rattle of the locally made AK7s and old Lee Enfields being
tested from the doorways. Palin always appears willing to play
along. He risks his jawline to a local dentist, becomes the
visiting professor of English for a day in a tribal school, and, as
a Yorkshireman should, plays cricket with the local schoolboys.
But here is a man with whom students and kings can get along. At
a splendid palace somewhere in the Hindu Kush, the local prince
shows off his palominos and racing bulls, not to forget a jockey
who lost an arm at last year's races. Then our man travels from
Chitral to join 10,000 spectators watching a wild freestyle game on
the highest polo field on earth.
Next in the diary will be a visit to Simla, once the summer
capital of India's British colonials; then Kashmir, for the
houseboats of Lake Dal; later, Dharamsala for an audience with the
Dalai Lama; and into troubled Nepal and Tibet before facing the
might of Everest.
There is, of course, always one deception that comes with these
documentaries. While he seems to be exploring with you alone,
Michael Palin the affable, boyish Englishman so jolly excited by
what he learns in the desert, the snows, or the mountain ranges,
has a camera crew of six travelling with him.
And they are not alone in his wake. Adventure tour operators
will undoubtedly be ready again for the phenomenon they call The
Palin Effect. Every time the ex-Python shows us the result of his
explorations, the agencies are swamped with calls showing interest
in the most remote destinations.
Not all that surprising, I suppose. In a recent survey of more
than 1000 travellers, it was again Michael Palin who was
overwhelmingly selected as everyone's ideal travelling
Himalaya With Michael Palin, Saturday 7.30pm,
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