“I’m not going around the world again. I tell you, this is it!” says Michael Palin as he rushes to board a train during his attempt to recreate the journey of Phileas Fogg from Jules Verne’s classic 1872 novel. Travelling with a blow-up globe beach ball, a Sony Walkman, a Dan Dare t-shirt and five trusty crew (collectively named Passepartout after Fogg’s servant), Michael’s adventures were captured in this 7-part documentary which first aired on the BBC in 1989. I’d read his book but not seen the TV programme before.
There’s little time for sightseeing on this journey but Michael manages to have a variety of experiences (some good, some bad, some just weird) and meet many kind people. It’s quite sad when he finally lands back in England and finds everyone so cold, unfriendly and unimpressed by his journey, compared to the countries he’s been through.
There’s an added interest to watching this series more than 30 years on, as it becomes a historical documentary. I liked the diary narration, the camerawork and the music. The aim of the journey is to get around the world without aeroplanes, so there are a lot of boats involved. It can be dull on a boat, but Michael always finds someone to talk to or a witty observation to make. Not everything is interesting, but this series shows the realities of travel: delays, strange food, language issues, being lost, illness and bad weather.
Episode 1: ‘The Challenge.’ Michael’s declared fit to travel, the paperwork is done, he’s asked Ladbrokes for the odds on whether he’ll get around the world in 80 days and had a farewell meal with Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. Despite a rail strike in Italy, he gets to Venice, where he becomes a sanitation volunteer. “This is the way to see Venice,” he enthuses, as the garbage-collecting boat glides past tourist-laden gondolas. In Athens, we see the bizarrely-dressed evzones, who do a complicated changing of the guard ceremony which bears a resemblance to the Ministry of Silly Walks. Michael himself draws a crowd, with a delighted fan repeating “I love you!” He’s excited about approaching Egypt by ship, except that he hasn’t got any money because he’d been told (in error, it seems) that it’s illegal to bring money into the country. “Jabberwocky! This is Jabberwocky!” he repeats on the phone to a bemused employee of Coutts Bank, who obviously didn’t get the memo about Michael’s code name for when he’s in financial distress.
Episode 2: ‘Arabian Frights.’ After a fascinating yet confusing few hours in Alexandria, Michael travels across the Nile Delta by train and is mildly astonished to hear that there is no milk for his cup of tea. In Cairo, he experiences the noisy, colourful streets, enjoys a shisha and has a cameo in a film. Of course he has to see the Pyramids. There are tourists and hawkers gathered around. “I’m not going to fall for this,” he says, and is then persuaded by a guide (whose name is Michael) to ride a camel (whose name is also apparently Michael). After a delay at Suez, the ship transports hundreds of men to work in Saudi Arabia, where they can earn a lot more than in Egypt. They pray on the deck of the ship, in the sunlight. In Jeddah, Michael has missed his connection to Dubai and the only way to get there in time, without mucking up the whole endeavour, is to drive overland. However, the authorities gave permission only to him, not his crew, so we see him driving off on his own.
Episode 3: ‘Ancient Mariners.’ Six days on an Indian dhow, where creature comforts are non-existent but there’s a lot of laughter. Close-up on Michael’s foot on the pump for his blow-up mattress, which looks like the Monty Python animated foot. The sea is choppy at night, causing Michael to dream about “testing fairground equipment” and then one morning we are shown the toilet, which is a seat fixed on to the side of the boat. The crew chuckle at Michael attempting to bathe. He introduces one of them to the delights of Bruce Springsteen on the Walkman. The adventure is not so exciting when Michael gets sick and can’t even stomach the thought of chapatti. A dhow on the high seas, with nowhere quiet to rest, is not a good place to be ill. Finally the skyline of Bombay is on the horizon after what seems like an epic journey and a very long episode.
Episode 4: ‘A Close Shave.’ Michael is now a week behind the fictional journey of Phileas Fogg. In the “nerve-jangling” bustle of Bombay, he’s given a perfect shave by a blind barber, watched carefully by a large crowd. He walks through a poor area, trailed like the Pied Piper by a band of children. The grand hotel he’s staying in has its own astrologer, who predicts that Michael will have a long life with many more adventures in store. Next is a train journey covering the 777 miles to Madras. The scenery is uneventful, until they pass a wrecked train by the side of the tracks. At Madras it’s very difficult to arrange the next stage, a boat to Singapore. The only way is for himself and the cameraman to go as deckhands. Further delays in heading off and then at sea mean that he’s probably missed the next connection and therefore has no chance of completing the trip in 80 days.
Episode 5: ‘Oriental Express.’ Arriving at Hong Kong after travelling by container ship, Michael is pleasantly surprised to be met with a chauffeured car and a champagne bucket. His luxury room at the grand Peninsula Hotel contains more champagne and an invitation from Tatler for a cocktail party. He gets measured for a bespoke suit, attacked by a cockatoo at the bird market and wins £57 at the horse race. A happy reunion with an old friend Basil, who has a newborn daughter and offers him more champagne. At the swanky party there is again champagne. Basil accompanies him into China, where they go to a snake restaurant in Canton, which is horrible to watch. An interesting train journey to Shanghai, during which he makes friends with all the passengers. The train’s DJ agrees to play Michael’s cassette of Mozart.
Episode 6: ‘Far East and Further East.’ After a nice stay in Shanghai which includes a trip to a Chinese medicine shop and an American jazz band, Michael leaves for Japan on a ship that only runs once a week. It’s comfortable but very quiet: “Now I know why Joseph Conrad wrote so much on the China seas – there’s nothing else to do!” He takes the bullet train from Yokohama to Tokyo, which at 150mph is the fastest he’s travelled so far. Feeling lost in Tokyo, he calls a BBC journalist, David Powers, to show him around. They go to a karaoke bar where Michael is forced to sing. The audience loves this and shouts “Thatcher!” in approval. Michael thinks that “Mrs Thatcher would approve” of the orderly streets at night. He checks into a capsule hotel; the rules prohibit anyone with tattoos or wearing sandals or who is “dead drunk”. Next is an 11-day voyage to America on a container ship, travelling 5000 miles and 8 time zones. Michael is daubed with hot sauce as part of an initiation ceremony for crossing the International Date Line. He decides never to cross it again.
Episode 7: ‘Dateline to Deadline.’ Arriving at Long Beach on Thanksgiving weekend, Michael enjoys people-watching before travelling from Los Angeles by express train. “Outside, the landscape is grand and daunting. Inside, the passengers are chummy and accessible.” He gets out at Glenwood Springs, Colorado, to sample the huge outdoor jacuzzi, his first hot bath in weeks. Then at Aspen, he does something Phileas Fogg did not actually do – go in a hot air balloon (it was in the film of the book). He travels by dog-sled back to Glenwood Springs. The train to Chicago is delayed and he almost misses his connection to New York. Boarding yet another container ship, he’s now on level pegging with Fogg. Arriving at last in England, there’s the train from Felixstowe to Ipswich, to Liverpool Street, the tube (including a delay because of a suspicious package). Michael wants to buy a newspaper and the vendor refuses unless the camera is put away. “It’s good to be back in England. The people are so charming.” Very tired, he drags himself the last few hundred yards to the Reform Club. The club for some reason don’t want them to film inside that night, so the 79-day journey ends on the pavement outside.
Today, it’s 32 years since the journey’s end – 12th December 1988.
If you have access to BBC iPlayer, this programme is available for a year.