Michael Palin’s New Europe
Sunday, September 16, 2007 by Ian Jones
A few days ago several newspapers took great glee in revisiting the second most over-egged story of the summer: TV “fakery”.
Presumably they had grown tired, albeit momentarily, of over-hyping the first most over-egged story of the summer, and thought a photograph of a plucky Michael Palin made a change from a photograph of the back of Kate McCann’s head. For it was he, apparently, at the centre of this latest “storm”, the latest in “a long line” of “scandalous” revelations concerning standards and practices at the BBC.
What was the nature of this terrible crime? Just how had “the nation’s favourite traveller” conspired to dupe, mislead and generally outrage the unquestioning minds of his viewers? Why, by interrupting the shooting of his latest televised voyage to, gasp, “fly home”. Yes. You read that right. On a break between filming, our man boarded a plane and, instead of kicking around doing nothing in a desolate corner of Eastern Europe, popped home to see his family, do a bit of work, meet a few people and generally get on with living his life. Diabolical behaviour, naturally.
For heaven’s sake, has it really come to this? Has the business, or rather the art, of programme-making lost so much value and wonder as to be found wanting for presuming to be art rather than merely artless? Must everything that is involved in crafting a piece of television be sacrificed in some kind of McCarthy-esque holier-than-thou witch trial?
If so, what have you got left? Because television does, by its very definition, have to be crafted. That’s the whole point. It’s a customised form of entertainment, just like the pages of a newspaper are customised to best fit their layout and the words of this review are customised to best fit the argument its writer is trying to make.
This entire debate has moved beyond any useful consideration of a broadcaster’s responsibility to admit mistakes during live transmissions to a hysterical naming and shaming of techniques upon which the entire history of television has been built. What, you wonder, would those journalists prefer: an unedited, disorganised, unstructured set of sequences with Palin out of focus or stumbling over words or standing in someone’s way or discussing procedure with the director; or a carefully planned, expertly executed and seamlessly edited series that allows both traveller and environment to make the most of their medium?
Maybe it’s just Palin’s turn to be knocked. Maybe Mark Lawson is behind it all, seeing as how he’s been joylessly moaning about the artifice behind these kind of travelogues ever since Around the World in 80 Days. Perhaps Lawson enjoys only watching television where you can see the joins. In which case he would have hated the first episode of Michael Palin’s New Europe, and would have rushed off to pen another earnest theory on how the only true form of media is one where the lone voice (ie. him) brutalises rather than cultivates the limitations of the small screen.
The fact is it matters not a jot when or how this series was made. The beauty of its images and the power of its narrative surmount each and every possible quibble over whether what we’re seeing is the second or 22nd take of the day. What’s more, unlike each of his previous travelogues, Palin doesn’t even have a cartographical hook to hang all his observations upon. He is simply dropping in and out of Eastern Europe, dispatching observations as and when the occasion demands, and not – as was particularly the case with Sahara and Himalaya – continually having to find ways to frame everything within a brand-enhancing motif.
Thanks to geography being such less of a thematic importance, New Europe allowed, for the first time since Around the World in 80 Days, people and cultures to become Palin’s co-stars. It was really quite restorative to watch this episode and find expositions about this or that “untamed” landscape and “towering” mountain almost non-existent. You can have too much of, well, too much. Here were mere humble topographical propositions; supporting players, almost, to an imaginatively-varied cast of articulate locals, petty concerns, historic rivalries and native tomfoolery.
Palin said he wanted a change from tackling the world’s extremes – so far it looks like his decision to explore more modest surroundings has paid off. It was also adroit to begin the series in the Balkans, a region supplying potent resonance for anybody with a passing knowledge of recent history and providing Michael with a score of affecting tales to tell and people to meet.
The closer he got to flashpoints of the various 1990s wars, the more lucid the programme became. Interviews with residents of Mostar, Belgrade and Sarajevo – from DJs to professional mine clearers to one of a seemingly never-ending supply of avuncular restaurateurs – showed Palin at his best: knowing the right things to say, knowing the right way to say them, and above all knowing when to shut up.
But the less intense moments sparkled as well, typified by our host finding himself on possibly the slowest fishing boat in existence from Croatia to Albania, trapped on board with a skipper prone to belting out extracts of Italian opera at anti-social hours (and volumes), yet nonetheless revelling in the fact “you just don’t get hotel rooms like this”. Such occasions of character-based eccentricity bode well for the quality of future episodes when there won’t be so much raw politics to thicken Palin’s sociological stew.
The one misfire was, ironically, the most undisciplined and ill-sequenced bit of the whole programme: the opening montage of “things to come” that conformed to every possible cliché of a Michael Palin travel series imaginable – Michael jigging with a peasant, Michael taking an unusual public bath, Michael looking discomfited in the presence of an eccentric, Michael rising above the clouds in a hot air balloon … and so on, all set to incongruous dance music. Unnecessary, predictable and noisy, it was everything the subsequent 55 minutes was not, though presumably evidence enough for the fakery mob that Palin and co stand guilty as charged.
But then what does this reviewer know? Rather than continue straight on into this paragraph, he just got up to make a cup of tea, leaving the text for a scandalously incriminating three minutes. Fake! Burn him!