Michael Palin’s New Europe

When Michael Palin made Around the World in 80 Days, I was 14 years old. I thought it was amazing. I was – and still am – a major Monty Python fan, as well as many of the off-shoot projects Palin had been involved in over the years, such as Ripping Yarns. I’ll have to review that one day on the blog.

Anyway, I digress. I was 14, I knew who Palin was, and I was so happy to see him “later in life” making a fun travel documentary of a kind that felt new at the time. In reality, he would have been 46 years old when that series came out; the same age I am now. I get a slight chill up the spine realising that.

Michael Palin’s New Europe was released in 2007 but it’s a series I’d never seen. Or at least not completely. I don’t rule out having seen the odd episode here or there over the years, but I know I’d never sat down in front of the tele with the express desire to watch the series from start to finish.

Why? Who knows. Perhaps the kind of travel documentary with Palin at the helm that seemed so new to me in Around the World in 80 Days just didn’t seem as glossy any more. While I also loved Clive James’ travel shows very much in the late 80s and 1990s, that kind of content along with Palin’s – done in a more humorous, dare I say even ‘gonzo’ style – was rare then, but seems a dime-a-dozen these days. Indeed, watching this 2007 series, I felt the formula was played out. Which I might not have felt as much in 2007, but from 2021, I’ve just seen so much of this stuff by now that Palin’s adventures across a “new” Europe (which already feels like an “old” Europe), just seem a bit twee.

Palin takes in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Transnistria, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia (in the form of Kaliningrad Oblast), Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Germany. It’s quite a trip. Yet across the seven episodes, I never sensed anything profound or incredibly interesting. By talking to ordinary people most of the time (there are exceptions such as Lech Wałęsa), Palin doesn’t strike a lot of gold like I remember him doing in earlier documentaries. Sure, it’s interesting to see how someone lives in a country I might know little about, or hear what they think of this bold “new” Europe – especially from 14 years in the future – but it’s not Big Stuff. You don’t come away from any of the episodes feeling profoundly moved, or more intelligent, or wanting to start a riot. It’s just… quaint.

I feel like a traitor writing all of this because I genuinely like Palin and all the work he’s done to date. I think his travel documentaries did change the way these things are made. Whenever I see Griff Rhys Jones, in particular, on some great journey somewhere I think, “Look, he’s doing a Palin…” and I’ve just ordered a copy of Palin’s North Korea diary from a travel series I seem to have a missed from a few years ago and can’t be bought for love or money on DVD. So the book will have to do. I say all of this to reinforce I love the guy and his work but, at the same time, this series just seems to have missed the mark somehow and, having finally seen it after so long, I really didn’t like it as much as earlier ones.

EDIT: Subsequent to writing this piece, I’ve read another review of the series which has nailed it far better than I did. The piece mentions how Around the World in 80 Days had a younger Palin, having a genuine adventure, and running into random people. There seemed to be an ‘x factor’ when Palin would chat with a stranger. Anything could happen. Whereas by the time of New Europe it feels more like a team of researchers have found a bunch of people for Palin to speak to and he simply travels around, fairly comfortably, stays in nice hotels, and has gentle pre-arranged chats with people. I think that’s perfect. I think that, aside from the genre being far bigger on TV these days in general, it’s why something like Around the World in 80 Days was thrilling to me, whereas this felt a bit pedestrian.

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