Michael Palin’s most ambitious trek is still a benchmark for the TV travelogue. Matthew Bell celebrates a master broadcaster.
Seen again, almost three decades on, with the world at a virtual standstill due to Covid-19, Pole to Pole can induce mixed reactions. Michael Palin’s most adventurous trek is a delight. It overflows with the presenter’s love of travel and discovery, which, frustratingly, is precisely what we are missing right now.… Our only option is to soak up the sights and hope that, one day soon, we will be able to follow in Palin’s footsteps.
In Pole to Pole, which was first broadcast on BBC One in 1992, Palin undertakes a “hare-brained migration from north to south”. The eight-part series begins when he plants a pole into the Arctic ice, and ends, five and half months later, at the South Pole.
TV, though, is an untrustworthy medium: as Palin happily admits, he actually finished his journey back at the North Pole, after the rest of Pole to Pole was in the can. When the series started filming in July 1991, the summer Arctic ice was too thin for a plane to land there safely.
Having travelled through the Arctic circle and Scandinavia, Palin arrives in what is still the Soviet Union at a fortuitous time. Communism is on its last legs and the country is suffering from shortages of pretty much everything, except the spirit of its people. Palin – a generous, empathetic presenter, who is always interested in the people he meets – marvels at the resolve of the Russians and Ukrainians.
At a distance of almost 30 years, Pole to Pole shows how much of the world has changed – and how much remains, depressingly, the same. In Egypt, Palin navigates the Nile as part of a virtually empty tourist cruise. Tourism has collapsed in the wake of the first Gulf war and the boat, forebodingly, given the horrors to come, is called Isis.
Palin moves south in his usual quirky manner – travelling on the roof of a snail-slow train, visiting Emperor Haile Selassie’s pet lion and battling a mosquito net – before he leaves for the Antarctic, which proves a huge anti-climax.
He had begun his globe-trotting four years earlier, in Around the World in 80 Days, following the route described by Jules Verne in his book. It almost didn’t happen, as Palin revealed a few years ago in his RTS Christmas Lecture. TV broadcaster Alan Whicker, journalist Miles Kington, Clive James and even Noel Edmonds had already turned down the job, before Palin accepted without hesitation.
After Pole to Pole, he continued his adventures in Full Circle with Michael Palin in 1997, then onwards to the Sahara (2002), the Himalayas (2004), Eastern Europe (2007), Brazil (2012) and North Korea (2018).
Travel had been a childhood dream. As a young boy in Sheffield, he told the RTS, “I wanted to travel and see all the parts of the world that were as dramatic as the Peak District, and more so.” But the furthest Palin went as a child was the Player’s factory in Nottingham on a school trip: “Can you imagine that – an 11-year-old boy taken to a place which produces thousands of fags? At the end, they gave us 50 cigarettes for our parents and we all got ashtrays.”
Before the BBC offered him the chance to travel, Palin wrote for The Ken Dodd Show and The Frost Report. The matchless Monty Python’s Flying Circus followed, and then a Hollywood film career with roles in Brazil and A Fish Called Wanda. He still acts: recently, Palin gave memorable performances in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin and ITV’s Vanity Fair.
But, arguably, the Python is now best known as TV’s premier traveller. Plenty of other famous faces have followed in his wake and some, notably his fellow national treasure, the fabulous Joanna Lumley, have excelled. But nobody does it quite like Palin.
Pole to Pole is available on BBC iPlayer.
Michael Palin and Sir David Attenborough discuss their working lives at a 2004 RTS event.