Michael Palin, of “Monty Python” fame, has carved out a very strong second career for himself as a professional world traveler — a job I’d probably commit mayhem for.
It started way back in 1989 with his 7-part BBC series “Around the World in 80 Days.” It was fun, informative, and you really felt like you were along for the ride with Palin. Back in ’89 this was new…again. People had forgotten of the days of the newsreel and black and white syndicated travelogues where grainy stock footage of the pyramids or Eiffel Tower held those of us with wanderlust in a trance.
Palin’s 1989 attempt to replicate the fictionalized feat of going from London to London around the world just like Jules Verne’s intrepid traveling hero Phileas Fogg — using the exact same modes of transportation that were available to the 18th century Fogg — was, and still is a treat. I highly recommend it.
The series was a combination of nostalgic travel show with the bonus of Palin’s deadpan wit and clever exchanges with locals. And you could tell that travel, and meeting people from all walks of life, were passions for Palin and, unlike many of the best moments of Monty Python humor, basically devoid of animus.
The series spawned a nice coffee table book, and then several other series of Palin trekking from Pole to Pole, going “Full Circle” around the equator, climbing around the Himalayas, and following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway. Palin has many other video travel adventures all worth the time to seek out.
Except — and you knew this was coming — his latest endeavor.
The National Geographic Channel broadcast a new Michael Palin travel adventure into the “hermit kingdom,” otherwise known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). You would think a person with Palin’s humor quotient would find the words “democratic” and “republic” attached to a crushing dictatorial regime that has been ruled by three generations of the same family ironic at least — look at the mileage Palin and the Pythons got out of the “Spanish Inquisition.”
But the official name of this brutish system falls tripling along from Palin’s mouth as if he was describing a seaside restaurant in Brighton. Granted, as Palin takes us along on visits throughout the countryside as well as the capital Pyongyang, it is obvious that just on the other side of his cameraman is a slew of North Korean officials with the power to stop the program at any hint of a Python-style jab at the expense of North Korea’s supreme leader.
I don’t blame Plain for his caution. The North Korean government has made it painfully clear they have no time for Ministry of Funny Walks, Dead Parrots or the Spanish Inquisition. Just the simple act of taking down a propaganda poster in North Korea will get you imprisoned and killed.
Even though no one can blame Palin for his tepid narration while inside the confines of the world’s largest concentration camp, most of the program’s narration was voiceover, which I’m sure was done back in the good old United Kingdom. One would think that Palin would have been comfortable enough there, in the safe, free expression zone where he plied his trade for decades mocking all manner of tory politicians, religious leaders, and western civilization in general, that he could have mustered the “courage” to at least say something pithy about Kim Jong Un’s taste in tailors or barbers.
Instead we got Palin on eggshells trying his best not to be disrespectful to a dictatorial madhouse. This was most poignant when Palin visits a school room. A trembling school girl sings a “patriotic” song to the dear leader, and she seems afraid, as if she knows if she doesn’t perform to some standard of respect for the dear leader, she may be taken away by the shadowy North Korean handlers standing on the back side of the camera. All Palin could muster to say was that she sure seemed to like the leader a lot.
If he did let a bias out, it was the more than once he described about certain places in North Korea that the “Americans bombed.” He does not mention that North Korea invaded the south in 1950 and the American bombs were a response to that aggression. But I digress.
Not demanding Michael Palin share my geo-political outlook on the globe, but this very talented man and fine travel writer would have served us all a little better with a little Monty Python dismissiveness for a regime that enslaves its people.
Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the Director of Communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.
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