Sahara with Michael Palin

Sunday, October 27, 2002 by

Across a searing, unending plain of sand, an isolated camel train picks its way towards the shelter of a scrawny tree. The image of the procession, utterly alone and vulnerable, is immensely powerful. “Nowhere to sit,” a voice suddenly pipes up. “That’s what I really miss most. That’s what I’d bring if I had a camel train of my own – a camel stacked with chairs.”

Jumping nonchalantly between extremes of mood is something Michael Palin’s got down to an art. The comic and the tragic can cheerily sit side by side within one of his commentaries, and neither loses any particular significance. His latest television journey, circumnavigating the Sahara Desert, has already required him to negotiate a whole range of issues from political civil war to the minutiae of a polygamous marriage, while still finding time for a few pratfalls and the obligatory bursts of self-deprecation. Yet somehow the whole thing hangs together.

It was Mark Lawson who made a point of publicly complaining about the amount of artifice propping up Palin’s travelogues. He had a particular pedantic axe to grind about the opening sequence of Around the World in 80 Days, where Palin was “discovered” hard at work in his study only for the phone to ring a few seconds later and the BBC ask him if he wanted to travel around the globe.

The fact is that contrivance underpins the entire structure of these kinds of programmes, and all the better for it. When the camera chances upon Palin yet again dozing in a deckchair you know he’s just pretending, but he knows we know and he has a gleam in his eye accordingly. In the opening episode of Sahara, a whimsical “dream” sequence showed Michael purporting to have a vision about riding on a camel – a somewhat preposterous set-piece perhaps, but done with an element of charm and panache that only the icy hearted would find disagreeable. You cannot help but feel a mixture of breezy respect, that Palin should attempt such an audacious and hammy stunt, and wry amusement – at the possibility the only reason he’s done it is just to piss off Lawson, which is never a bad thing.

Anyway, were these epic voyages not meticulously planned in advance then for one thing our travelling host would probably never complete them, thanks to unforeseen crises and diplomatic incidents. More importantly, though, they wouldn’t be able to work properly as television programmes. Palin’s patented kind of “event”-style exploration of foreign countries on the small screen necessarily depends upon a representative selection of people, places and events being presented to us in an obvious if clumsy fashion. What is lost in insight is compensated for by Palin’s refreshingly ego-free willingness to immerse himself in local culture and never ever talk down to those he meets.

Moreover, as the central idea of Palin’s missions is always that of an ongoing journey rather than a sequence of isolated visits, it’s almost a given that an earnest investigation of context and background is off limits. It’d certainly feel out of place if, during the course of this present series for example, a programme was suddenly railroaded by a long lecture on colonial ethics or heritage delivered while Palin breathlessly paced the corridors of some ancient seat of learning. Instead, much like roadsigns and border checkpoints are staging posts on a real journey, so Palin’s encounters with a colourful local musician or unusual tribal custom are similar markers on his televisual journey. They frame each episode, illustrate changing countries and peoples, and give each programme a much-needed momentum.

The need for a sense of movement, of dynamism and pace, has become more palpable with each of Palin’s journeys subsequent to Around the World in 80 Days. That first voyage had its own inbuilt momentum – the urgency to keep going and try to make it back to London in 80 days. But in each of the follow-up series – Pole to Pole, Full Circle and now Sahara – there’s been no similar ticking clock. They’ve been journeys for the sake of it, uninhibited by time, and have therefore perhaps inevitably all tended to feel rather listless, even pointless, at certain moments. Certainly Sahara has to date entertained its share of somewhat meandering segments, where it’s not clear – literally – which direction the programme is heading.

In fact, reviewing all of these traveller’s tales in order, the emphasis changed considerably in-between the first and second series. From being an addictive study of one man’s tense and gripping efforts to overcome a challenge – specifically, to recreate the achievement of Phileas Fogg – the underlying feel to the “franchise” seemed to evolve into that of Michael Palin, “celebrity”, trekking through yet another foreign country and getting into a few jovial scrapes along the way.

The shows also became more episodic. Sahara is superb in its depiction of isolated incidents and encounters, none more so than Palin’s struggle to cross a small section of the desert with only a bunch of nomads and camels for support. But on a larger scale it feels fragmented. Episodes don’t follow on from each other or pick up where the previous one left off; we’re continually being reminded what day it is, but only numerically, as if the fact it’s “Day 59″ carries symbolic weight; and the wit and verve of those set-piece incidents, contrived or otherwise, is sometimes undermined by the expediency behind the logic that dictates the Sahara Desert is to be conquered for the same reason that Mount Everest was: because it’s there.

One offshoot of this is the way any impression of momentum within the programme has to be generated largely from another Palin voiceover intoning “But it was time to move on,” when in reality there really isn’t any reason to. At the same time, though, there’s the unavoidable fact that here’s a man who can juggle illuminating and well-structured observations on public transport and couscous, then finish off with a neat epithet that finds the perfect balance between tiny details and “the bigger picture”.

Overall Sahara is an entertaining, informative if sometimes frustrating enterprise. It’s not a patch on the show that started the ball rolling, and none of the successors to Around the World in 80 Days have quite lived up to its standards and excitement. But having subtracted time and speed out of the equation there’s only distance left, so what should we expect?


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