Sick with jealousy
Since I got married last weekend, I sup- pose I should be the happiest man in the world but I'm not. I should hasten to add that this is by no means the fault of my truly wonderful bride. It has to do with our forthcoming honeymoon in India: at three weeks, it simply isn't long enough.
Now, I don't wish to sound flippant in these times of national mourning, nor ungrateful for such a desirable holiday. I'm simply giving my honest, selfish, embit- tered, knee-jerk response to programmes like Full Circle with Michael PalM (BBC 1, Sunday). It makes me sick with jealousy to think that, while I'm enjoying a miserly 20 days in Goa and Rajasthan, Palin will be scarcely a third of the way through his infinitely more exotic circumnavigation of the whole Pacific basin. And to make mat- ters worse, the bugger's actually being paid heaps for the privilege.
Of course, I'm not suggesting that I'd have made a more deserving candidate for such a spectacular freebie. All right — I am. But I hope it's more than mere sour grapes which leads me to believe that Palin's latest televised jaunt — his third is one round-the-world trip too many for the ex-Python star.
We all know by now that Palin is one of the nicest men you could ever meet. He's funny, he's quirky and he's not afraid to make a fool of himself if 'good television' demands it. The problem is that, while these virtues may have proved engaging and original in his first Around The World . . . series, they've started to look hackneyed and irksome in the latest.
The opening episode in this ten-week series took him from a tiny Eskimo settle- ment on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait via the stunningly primaeval, volcano-dotted landscapes of Petropav- lovsk to the HQ of the Russian Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok. These are not the sort of places you normally see covered on tele- vision and it would have been fascinating to have explored them all in much greater detail.
The programme-makers clearly thought otherwise. What the public really want, they'd decided, was more and more footage of Michael Palin playing the ham. So we saw Palin's bumbling attempts to learn a Russian folk-song; Palin on a silly errand to buy a bath-plug in the former gulag town of Magadan; Palin naughtily gobbling up the ceremonial welcome cake which had really been intended for an Alaskan trade delega- tion; Palin, in sailor's costume, singing aforementioned folk-song with the Pacific Fleet Choir and — natch — getting it wrong . . .
Presumably, it had been thought far too risky to allow these rarely visited locations and native peoples the space to be interest- ing in their own right. Instead — with odd exceptions like the former gulag prisoner shown revisiting his old labour camp they were reduced to a colourful backdrop before which our japesome presenter could perform a succession of easy sight-gags and largely prearranged stunts.
The irony of Full Circle's relentless stagi- ness is that it detracts from the genuine drama of Palin's adventures. When he's stranded on a bear-infested island with lit- tle hope of rescue; when he braves a long journey in an ex-Soviet military helicopter; when cancelled flights or Russian incompe- tence threaten to endanger his quest, you never seriously believe for a moment that he's really in trouble. As the lavish photog- raphy indicates, the BBC is going to spare absolutely no expense in its efforts to get its man round the Pacific on time and in one piece.
And therein lies the true reason for Full Circle's insultingly populist tack: the BBC needs to recoup its vast budget — and it certainly ain't going to do it by making travelogues you need an IQ to appreciate. As if to show us where the BBC has gone wrong, Channel 4 has launched a grown-up new travel series featuring one of the Beeb's most distinguished old hands Mark Tully's Faces of India (Saturday). It's dry; it's cheaply shot; but you learn more about its subject in half an hour than Full Circle will teach you in its full ten hours. In the episode I saw, a young female graduate and a maharaja gave honest, no-nonsense accounts of their country's economic prob- lems and endemic corruption, spiced with anecdotes like the maharaja's account of a 10th-century ancestor who had generously surrounded his arrow-heads with gold hoops in order to pay for the burial of those he had killed.
It's preceded by the equally illuminating Stones of the Raj (Channel 4, Saturday), presented by William Dalrymple — some- one I'm sure I'd hate if he weren't so charming because he's my age and gets to travel all over the world writing books and making programmes like this.
Like Tully, he has a gift for the telling anecdote: the maharaja who'd annually appear naked before his subjects — 'If he managed an impressive erection then things were looking up for the coming year'; and the one who installed the biggest chandeliers in Asia in his durbar hall — but not before testing the strength of the roof by having a dozen elephants trample on it for a week.