I love travelogues. Not only can travel enable you to see the world, but the act of traveling itself can open your eyes to the world at its best. Done well, a travel documentary can take you on that same journey, open a window into a world past and present, and provide comfort and inspiration to those of us stuck at home. Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing some of my favorites. This is Travelogia.
Journey time: September-December 1988
Countries visited: United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Japan, United States1
“It’s the usual story. I spend my life traveling and seeing nothing at all. There’s no time. Air travel is just a way of seeing airports. Real travel is something you find in the bookstands and read about in seat 89K. Whoever nowadays could afford eighty days to go around the world? Well, somewhere in the middle of another anonymous flight to another anonymous airport, I decided that perhaps after all I could.”
In 1988, the BBC approached veteran travel host Alan Whicker with a challenge: circumnavigate the Earth in 80 days without the use of air travel, following as close as possible the route of Phileas Fogg, protagonist of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days.
Getting up in years, Whicker said no, and the Beeb instead proposed the idea to Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin, purely on the basis that Palin had proven unexpectedly popular with a one-off local documentary called Confessions of a Trainspotter. Consulting experts in every conceivable field and refereed by personal friends and fellow Pythons Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, a plan was hatched. Palin ultimately saw more of the world than Fogg ever did, and travelogues changed forever.
In Neither Here Nor There, author Bill Bryson lamented that the end of the Cold War was also the end of a golden age of travel, and here we can see some of the lingering romance (the Cold War itself is little-noted but makes an interesting appearance when Palin meets some executives planning an oil pipeline from Canada to Britain which was ultimately pre-empted by restored trade links with Russia). But golden age or no, the odds are against Palin; most of his journey is by sea, and with the age of ocean liners long over, our host and his crew mostly seek passage on container ships and on memorable occasion an traditional wooden sailing ship called a dhow.
In certain ways, Palin would have an easier time today– high-speed rail now traverses most of Europe and China, and many of his difficulties seeking passage would be remedied by email and smartphones. But in other ways it would be more difficult; only one of the three seagoing passenger services he managed to find is still in operation, and counterterrorism measures have restricted container service and eliminated dhow passengers altogether.
In any case, Around the World in 80 Days is not only a darling artifact of the past, with its 16mm film and 1980s newsmagazine-style editing, but the vanguard of a new brand of travel documentary exemplified by improvisational and meta humor as well as a total disinterest in hiding the realities of documentary filmmaking. The crew, collectively dubbed “Passepartout,” are very much characters in the show, and Palin’s plans and preparations are front and center in the first episode; now standard tropes from Big Earth’s series with Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman to Ian Wright’s episodes of Globe Trekker. Add in a race against the clock and you have one of the finest travelogues ever made.
Five Stars: As the late Anthony Bourdain might have agreed, the Asian segments of Palin’s journeys are the most colorful and enviable, from a heartwarming dhow journey across the Arabian Sea to a flavorful rail trip across India and a surprise black-tie reception in Hong Kong requiring a visit to Sam’s Tailor (if any readers ever win the lotto, this is what I want for my birthday).
One Star: Palin’s brief adventure across the United States is pathetically bland, due in equal part to time constraints and the fact that the late 1980s were an absolute low point in American rail travel. The entire episode comprises a day off in Los Angeles, a night’s stay in Glenwood Springs, and an eternity of pathetic train delays.
Availability: Around the World in 80 Days is frustratingly unavailable legally as far as I can tell, but a good non-stretched version can be found on Dailymotion.
Tune in next time when Palin chases Roald Amundsen– and revolution– in 1991’s Pole to Pole.
“Pretty boys like us…”