Michael Palin: Pole to Pole

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: June-December 1991

Countries visited: Norway, Finland, Soviet Union1, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa,

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Brazil,2 Chile

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Pole to Pole is a work of accidental genius.

With Around the World in 80 Days an unexpected global hit, and Michael Palin the new BBC travel presenter du jour, a follow-up was inevitable, with a preferably roomier schedule and a way bigger budget. A new goal was set: from the north pole to the south, following the summer sun along the 30th meridian east (passing through Eastern Europe and the length of Africa for maximum content.

While Pole to Pole tries to recreate the race-against-the-clock thrill of its predecessor, setting an arbitrary goal to reach Cape Town in time to board the scientific vessel Agulhas, Palin and company are still covering half the distance of 80 Days in twice the time. Nevertheless, the new series devotes just as much attention to the act of traveling as 80 Days did, and the expanded budget and timetable give the show far more breathing room for Palin to play explorer and ambassador.

The crowning glory of the series, however, is its timing: filmed from June to December of 1991, Palin arrives in the USSR to the sound of Estonia’s Singing Revolution, sung in the hope that that country could someday regain independence. In fact, their independence comes within weeks– in a breathtaking turn worthy of his now-fellow polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, Palin leaves the Soviet Empire by ferry and arrives in Istanbul the next day to discover the country he just left no longer exists, and thence spends the entire journey riding the wave of revolution to Ethiopia, Zambia, South Africa,

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and Chile

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, adding a thrilling layer of historical significance to a show that needed the additional energy.

Of all Palin’s travels over the past 30 years, Pole to Pole is easily the most worthy of the title “adventure.”

Five Stars: Although never short on thrills, Pole to Pole may be the only BBC documentary to inspire travel to the former Soviet Union. from the glory of Leningrad aided by a professional Lenin impersonator to a night in at a local filmmaker’s illegal vodka distillery, all days from the utter downfall of Gorbachev. Soon after Palin hops to Turkey, Rhodes, and finally crashing a massive old-fashioned wedding in Cyprus. Opa.

One Star: For Palin and Passepartout, the lowpoint of the journey came in Southern Africa, where all involved were struck with injuries, illnesses, and overall bad luck. For the viewers however, the worst of the series immediately follows the best, as Palin finds himself trapped on a Nile riverboat with an extraordinarily corny British couple who demand the center of attention.

Tune in next time for an inexplicable but fruitful journey around the Pacific Rim in Full Circle.