Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Michael Palin's New Europe - a defence

I am an unapologetic fan of Michael Palin and currently, when I’m not watching his current series New Europe, I’m pouring over the accompanying book, which Kerry bought me for my birthday.

Unfortunately I have misplaced the link, but Palin’s current series has not attracted universal acclaim. I read one review in the Guardian which suggested that the ex-Python was exacerbating perceptions of the “otherness” of eastern Europeans by focusing on the quirks and eccentricities of their cultures. The reviewer believed that this would undermine the purpose he seemed to ascribe to the programme, namely harmonising relationships between the so-called “old” and “new” Europes and encouraging acceptance of new members of the European Union (!!).

I don’t know quite what the most disturbing facet of this critique is. It may be the overarching responsibility assigned to an amiable television presenter or indeed it may be the subtext that the people of the United Kingdom can only empathise with bland identikit cultures and that the viewers don’t have the wit to realise that Palin may focus occasionally on unusual or atypical subject matter. Perhaps the reviewer fears that the accession states and aspirant accession states are simply too unique and interesting to be encompassed in a supra national EU mulch of identical bananas and precisely delineated chocolate.

In any case I reject the criticisms levelled at Palin’s series. In the programmes so far, he has picked up on various cultural intricacies (as he is bound to do in a travel programme) but has also deployed his affable charm to draw local people into talking about their own perspectives on the past , perceptions of the present and aspirations for the future. His touch is light and subtle and he allows people to develop their own thoughts on difficult subjects such as conflict and history without infusing them with the nuance of his own interpretations.

I contend that the presenter’s light-hearted style is not only entertaining, but also allows a more natural insight into the places he visits than more “serious” broadcasters sometimes deliver. In not seeking to uncover dramatic social or political revelations, but experiencing other cultures with an open mind and a generous spirit, I firmly believe that Michael Palin still produces the best travel documentaries on television.

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