Magazine article The Spectator

Palin Surprises

Magazine article The Spectator

Palin Surprises

Article excerpt

Michael Palin pulls the legs off puppies for fun and next to all the awards for his round-the-world TV adventures he keeps jars of boiled babies. When he dies and they start digging up the bodies from beneath his floorboards, everyone will say: `But he seemed such a nice man.'

Not that I have proof of any of this, you understand. But I surely can't be the only one who squirms at the carefully posed artlessness of that tanned, leanly handsome, ever-so-slightly cheeky-chappie mug smiling coyly from every sodding magazine cover from Radio Times to Reader's Digest and thinks: `You're hiding something, you bastard.' So I was gearing up to be as infuriated by his latest travel series as I was about the last one, when he kept doing stupid, distracting, gimmicky things that no real traveller would ever do, like, oh goodness me I seem accidentally to be dressed in a sailor's costume singing a folk song with the Russian Pacific Fleet Choir, how terribly embarrassing. But then I made the mistake of watching Sahara with Michael Palin and discovering to my chagrin that it's actually rather good.

Did the BBC perhaps realise that they had been pushing the sub-Pythonesque anticry that little bit too far? Or is Palin growing just that little bit too long in the tooth to keep acting like Zephir the monkey in the land of the Gogottes? Whatever, though you could never accuse it of rivalling the new Mike Leigh in terms of gritty realism, the first episode did seem to strike a fairly honourable balance between glossy, ratings-grabbing celebrity travelogue and honest depiction of what it's really like to travel through a desert `the size of the United States with the population of Norfolk'.

It took off once Palin left Morocco. Before that it was charming enough -- eccentric, cockerel-owning expatriates in Tangier, lovable Moroccan church vergers saying `Thank you very much' every five seconds, photogenic vistas of dye-vats in Fez, Berber villages - but it did rather do that cheaty thing that all travel series about Morocco do, namely, neglect to tell you how incredibly hassly the place is.

Palin's stay in the Polisario refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria, though, was the real thing. He dined on camel, travelled with Polisario guerrillas to the heavily guarded 1,000-mile wall the Moroccans have built to keep the former inhabitants of Western Sahara out of their homeland, and gently, unhectoringly did more to publicise their plight than a dozen World In Action-style documentaries.

Mauretania was amazing, too. …

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