TV review: Michael Palin: Travels of a Lifetime

Benjie Goodhart / 30 September 2020

A new series looks back at Michael Palin's travelogues, starting with a look at the making of Around the World in 80 Days. Plus the best of the rest of the week's TV, including Prince William: A Planet for Us All.

Michael Palin: Travels of a Lifetime, Sunday 4th October, 8pm, BBC Two

It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago. Thank you to all the kind readers who sent gifts. (That’s actually none of you, but I figure if I imply that some of you did, I might get more stuff next year…) My sister, who lives in New Zealand, damn her, with her dinner parties and packed sporting events, sent me the most marvellous gift. It was a truly delightful video message from Miriam Margolyes, wishing me a happy birthday. Apparently there are websites where you can arrange for such delights. And Miriam isn’t just my favourite person in the world, she’s arguably my favourite thing in the world – up there with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc and Trevor Sinclair’s overhead kick against Barnsley (yes, I was there!)

In a couple of years, I will be 50. (I’m just letting you know that now so that you can start thinking about a gift of particular significance). How on Earth will my sister follow that up? Who could she possibly get a message from that would match up to Miriam? The language barrier might be a problem for Lionel Messi. I’m a big fan of James Stewart, but he’s been dead for 23 years, so probably wouldn’t do it.

Oh yes. Michael Palin. Along with Miriam, he is probably the best thing in the world. And if you don’t believe me, just watch this absolute twinkling gem of a programme, the first in a new series looking back at his time travelling the globe.

Whoever first had the idea of turning Michael Palin into a travelogue presenter should immediately be given a Dukedom. Just imagine how different it could have been. It was 1988. They could have picked anyone. Timmy Mallet. Sonia. The woman who danced while using Shake’n’Vac. But they chose Michael Palin, a figure of such charisma, humour, warmth and sheer likeability that we’d have happily watched him present a 38-part series touring the service stations of the M25.

This series will look back at the highlights from Palin’s travel series, of which he has made nine. This first episode charts his experiences making Around the World in 80 Days, which saw him attempt to circumnav… you can probably guess from the title. It is an utter delight. Footage from the series is intercut with Palin’s own recollections and ruminations, aided in no small part by the fact that he assiduously kept a diary, and recorded audio tapes, so he wouldn’t forget the experience. (You might think having a film crew following his every move for the best part of three months would constitute a sufficient record of events, but apparently not…)

Before embarking on his odyssey, Palin paid a visit to the great travel presenter Alan Whicker for a spot of advice. “Don’t try and speak the language,” was the instruction. Whicker had navigated his way around the world in a Panama hat, blazer and tie, taking a high-handed and frightfully British approach to life. Palin, it’s fair to say, did things a little differently.

His route across the world embraced both luxury and of roughing it. He took the Orient Express from London to Venice, and stayed in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in what was then Bombay. But he also stayed in hotels which don’t feature in the higher echelons of Tripadvisor, and memorably travelled from Dubai to India on board a dhow, a traditional working sailing vessel. It is here that Palin really comes into his own. Stuck, for a week, sleeping in the open air and living cheek-by-jowl with the boat’s Gujarati crew, the relationship he forms with them is deeply touching. As Ade Adepitan puts it, these ”little sparks of interaction are the purest joy of travel.”

If it’s pure joy you are after, this is hard to beat. Thanks, Michael. Can’t wait to see what you record for me on my 50th.

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Prince William: A Planet for Us All, Monday 5th October, 9pm, ITV

Before I start this preview, I would like to formally register my objection to this title. Surely, the way it is punctuated, it is suggesting that Prince William himself is a planet we can all enjoy together. And I don’t consider that to be a plausible or rational solution to climate change. “Oh, don’t worry, when the Earth heats up, we can all just up sticks and move to Prince William.” Not gonna happen.

Right. To business.

If you ask me, being a royal must be rubbish. Fine, there’s all the swan you can eat, you don’t have too many mortgage worries, and if you want to know what’s going to happen in season 11 of The Crown you just phone up granny and ask what she did today. But you don’t have much in the way of privacy, you work ruddy hard, and wherever you go, there’s a photographer from The Express just itching to get the scoop that you’ve worn those shoes before.

But if you forced me to become a royal (and I appreciate that would be a strange thing for you to do, and would demand a lengthy series of implausible events to take place for it to become a reality) I would at least take a little solace in the fact that it does provide one with the opportunity to do more than a little good. And Prince William seems to be going a long way towards making the most of that opportunity.

He is particularly outspoken on issues concerning mental health and the environment. This film concentrates on the latter, and follows him for two years without interruption. Every loo visit, every late night trip out to the kebab shop, every bad-tempered punch up in an alleyway. It’s really quite shocking, and not at all what you’d expect.

Okay, cards on the table, I haven’t actually seen it, as it’s not available for preview. But we are promised Prince William “as we’ve never seen him before.” They always say that, mind you. Unless he’s wearing lederhosen and a Native American headdress and swigging from a can of Hofmeister, I suspect it’ll be exactly as we’ve seen him before: Looking smart casual, visiting places where charities are doing good work, and chatting amiably to people. Good. That’s fine. I like seeing Prince William do that. He is the very best of eggs.

According to the blurb, we’ll watch the Prince as he embarks on a global mission to champion action for the natural world. He will reveal how becoming a father has brought home to him the importance of safeguarding the planet for future generations, and will explain why the dedication and devotion shown by the younger generation towards environmental causes has given him optimism as to the planet’s future.

The one-off documentary is filmed in Africa and Asia, London and Liverpool, and on the Sandringham Estate, which played a significant role in the Prince’s love of nature. Up in Birkenhead, the Duchess of Cambridge is launching a new research vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough. Wait a minute!! That’s Boaty McBoatface. They weren’t allowed to call it that, so named it after the naturalist. If the Duchess has a scintilla of respect for democracy, she’ll crack the bottle and name the ship just as the public demanded.

Over in Africa, her husband witnesses first-hand the effects of poaching, as he visits Tanzania, and sees an ivory store where 43,000 tusks have been impounded. Still overseas, both William and Kate travel to Pakistan, and go for a short walk in the Hindu Kush, where they see for themselves the rapidly melting glaciers, and hear about the implications of their destruction. Equally exotically, the Prince goes for a thrilling kayaking trip in… Hackney. Well, at least he’ll make it home for tea.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 3rd October

The Wall 1/7, 9:15pm, BBC One: The unique Danny Dyer returns with a new series of the quiz show. Tonight, sisters Paula and Nichola from County Antrim are answering the questions posed by Angela Rippon.

Sunday 4th October

The London Marathon, 10am, BBC One: This year, the race is only open to elite athletes. Shorn of the joy of watching thousands of lunatics in bizarre costumes flog themselves around the course in the name of charity, this one is for athletics fans only. That said, records could tumble, so it could be exciting stuff.

Top Gear 1/5, 8pm, BBC One: Freddie Flintoff, Chris Harris and Paddy McGuinness return with the motoring magazine show. In tonight’s first episode, the trio subject three company cars to a test with a difference – they have to spend 24 hours in them, without getting out once.

25 Siblings and Me, 9pm, BBC Two: Feature-length documentary following Oli, a young man who has Asperger’s syndrome, who discovers he has 25 siblings thanks to his sperm-donor father, and travels to America to meet them.

Monday 5th October

Me, My Brother and Our Balls, 9pm, BBC One: Chris Hughes (with whom I’m sure you are all familiar following his appearance on Love island) and his brother Ben explore the world of male fertility, and investigate whether the subject is taken seriously enough.

Tuesday 6th October

Surgeons: At the Edge of Life 1/6, 9pm, BBC Two: The extraordinary documentary series following some of the country’s top surgeons returns, with the opening episode following one of the most remarkable surgeries you could imagine. It involves draining the patient’s body of blood to remove clots from her lungs.

Alison Hammond: Back to School, 9pm, ITV: The infectiously cheerful and likeable This Morning presenter finds lout about some of the black figures whose roles have been hidden away and excluded from Britain’s history books.

Wednesday 7th October

Murder Case 1/2, 9pm, BBC Two: Return of the series that follows complex and large scale criminal investigations. Tonight, police investigate the brutal, ultimately fatal assault of a 37-year-old man in Renfrewshire. Concludes tomorrow.

Thursday 8th October

Live International Football: England v Wales, 7:30pm, ITV: England friendlies tend to be about as thrilling as cleaning the loo, so on your own head be it. At least their opponents, a capable Welsh team led by Gareth Bale, will be up for the scrap. Mark Pougatch presents.

The Truth About Your Sandwich, 8pm, Channel 4: Helen Skelton looks at the hygiene conditions in high street chains and sandwich production plants. Probably best avoid eating your salmon and cucumber on rye from the supermarket in front of this.

Friday 9th October

Friday on the Farm 1/6, 9pm, Channel 5: A busy week for Helen Skelton, she’s back on again tonight, alongside Jules Hudson, as they present all the week’s comings and goings from Cannon Hall Farm in South Yorkshire.

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