TV review: ‘Full Circle with Michael Palin’ (1997)

The third travel series from Michael Palin was the most epic yet. The concept was travelling the Pacific Rim, in a clockwise direction. There was so much packed into this journey that the episodes seemed quite rushed. No doubt there was a lot of material which couldn’t be included, or there’d be more than 10 episodes, which is a lot to watch anyway. The diversity of people and places is absolutely astonishing. As with previous series Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole, flying is avoided if possible, transport is often by boat and train.

Episode 1: Alaska and Russia

From the island of Little Diomede, the first stop is Nome, where people still prospect for gold. One of them says he has 5 homes and bought Corvettes with the money he made. The crew fly to Kodiak, where they’re treated to the wonderful sight of brown bears in Karluk Lake, which they can just about see through a swarm of flies. Fog has grounded their flight off the island, so they miss their next connection, but luckily they manage to get the season’s last flight to Petropavlosk, Kamchatka. Next stop is Magadan, built by slave labour in the 1930s. Michael accompanies a survivor of the Gulags back to the grim remains of one camp, close to the old uranium mines. In Vladivostok, there’s finally a hotel which has bath plugs, so Michael can now have a bath. “Ah! The pleasure of retained water!” Then he gets to sing with the Navy’s Pacific Fleet Ensemble.

Episode 2: Japan and Korea

On Sado Island, Japan, Michael spends a day with the apprentice Kodo drummers, who have amazing energy and stamina. Arriving in Tokyo, he pronounces the city “very confusing if you’re not Japanese.” He meets up with Japan’s number 1 Monty Python fan, Mayumi, who first sent him a fan letter 20 years ago. She helps him place a bet on a horse named Super Licence and they win 126,000 yen – equivalent to over £800. He takes the bullet train, with a break to visit a Zen Buddhist temple, where he tries meditation. A strange fake Dutch village – “theme park with clogs on.” A sober visit to Nagasaki, where schoolchildren lay tributes to the victims of the bomb. The ferry to South Korea, where in Seoul we get a flavour of the history, tensions and culture of the country. American GIs give a tour to the border with North Korea, which is depressing despite the “frisson of Communism.”

Episode 3: China

The hotel in Qingao is a Bavarian castle, built for the governor when Qingdao was a German colony. Michael is in the room which Mao himself used to stay in. He visits a vineyard producing Chardonnay and climbs 6293 steps up the sacred mountain Taishan before getting the train to Shanghai. Joining the hordes of cyclists in the Shanghai streets, he marvels that Chinese communism was born here, yet they now have a branch of Harvey Nichols. A spectacular trip along the Yangtze, past the construction of the controversial Three Gorges Dam (due to be completed 2009). He stops at Wushan, reflecting that within 10 years, the town will be underwater. He has an interesting haircut there and draws a huge crowd, who are not used to seeing foreigners. In the south of China he meets the Miao people, a minority who live traditionally. He goes uncertainly up to the border with Vietnam.

Episode 4: Vietnam and the Philippines

Michael is invited to a cricket game but a lot of military police turn up and prevent the filming. Joining the hordes of cyclists, he muses on how the country is changing and recovering from its turbulent past. He travels the country mostly by train but also sampan, stopping off to visit historic sites and temples. On to a spectacular post office, where “Uncle Ho beams down as I write all those postcards I’ve been putting off for weeks.” On to Manila, where we see women preparing to work abroad in domestic roles. An epic trip by helicopter and jeepney to see the wondrous Banaue rice terraces but visibility is terrible and no terraces to be seen. You’ve got to laugh really. He assists with some bizarre ‘psychic surgery’ where doctors (not medically trained) who have the ‘third eye’ draw blood from patients. At the port of Zamboanga, Michael witnesses two horrors – a cockfight and a beauty contest.

Episode 5: Borneo and Java

A ferry crossing to Sandakan, Borneo, where it’s monsoon season. Michael wades to an orang-utan rehabilitation centre. In Kuching, there is a festive British air. Michael visits the grand home of the Brooke family, the “white rajahs” who “built Somerset on the Sarawak River.” Then a stay with the Iban people in a longhouse shared by 28 families. He crosses into the southern hemisphere into Java, where on a tea plantation, where he helps test the tea quality and then joins the ladies who pick the tea leaves. Michael finally gets to taste the famously stinky durian fruit. He pronounces the first bite “a bit nauseating” and the second “like rich smelly custard with a bit of burnt rubber.” After a gamelan puppet show and an ancient Buddhist temple, there is a trip to the crater of an active volcano. On hearing that it last erupted a few months ago, Michael gets the hell out of there.

Episode 6: Australia and New Zealand

Michael flies out with a vet, whose visits include a crocodile farm, where Michael breaks open a crocodile egg and pops out the hatchling. He goes to a remote outback post, where the they capture wild camels. He only intended to watch, but he’s induced to actually lasso one. Shaken about from the crazy driving in the dust, he says: “In all these damn fool series, I’ve never done anything so bloody tricky!” After recuperating on the overnight train across the desert, he ends up in Adelaide for the ‘Desperate and Dateless Ball’. Chivalrous, he accompanies a woman whose date is running late. Then he wins 2nd place in a cow racing contest, on a cow which, unlike some others, does not injure her rider. After a cameo in Home and Away, he sails from Sydney to Auckland, but quickly gets to the South Island, where he has some exciting adventures, but does not take part in the bungee jumping.

Episode 7: Chile and Bolivia

Cape Horn is the last few yards of the American continent, but it’s the beginning of the American part of the journey. A communal barbecue on the rainy island of Chiloe and then to Santiago, where in the massive cemetery, there is a memorial wall with the names of the victims of the violent Chilean history. In the evening, Michael sits on a park bench in the midst of courting couples while a preacher relentlessly shouts his beliefs. A trip to the Juan Fernandez Islands and the cave where Alexander Selkirk lived. “This is what I imagine it must be like to drive across the moon,” Michael says as he traverses the silent Atacama Desert. A visit to the hellish copper mine and foundry, then the train from Arica across the Andes to La Paz. There’s a scream and the camera goes dark – the carriage has derailed. Luckily no one seems hurt and the delay is only an hour.

Episode 8: Bolivia and Peru

A pilgrimage at Copacabana to see the shrine of the Dark Virgin of the Lake. Two and a half miles above sea level, it’s a test of both fitness and faith. A trip on Lake Titicaca in a traditional reed boat which is like “a waterborne sofa”. A cheery train ride to Cuzco in the Peruvian Andes, formerly the centre of the Incan Empire, where the Corpus Christi festival is in full swing, with effigies of saints paraded through the streets. After this, the journey goes inwards away from the coast. On the train to Quillabamba, Michael wishes we had ‘smellovision’ at home, as there is a very oniony flavour to the air. Stop off at Machu Picchu, the only large Inca archaeological site not found by the Spanish invaders. A hair-raising journey up the Urabamba River, cue splashes on the camera lens. The dreaded rapids are passed and Michael feels “the distinct need for the cocktail cabinet.”

Episode 9: Peru and Colombia

Festivities with the Machiguenga Indians in the Amazon. Michael tries a drink which may or may not be made with saliva. After 6 more days of river travel – cue shots of sunsets, birds, water, Michael laughing out of boredom – the next settlement, Sepahua, is reached. From there, a cargo plane to Iquitos. A blessing from a French shaman who uses ayahuasca for insights. At Bogota, “we’ve swapped one jungle for another” – the Amazon for an urban jungle. He meets up with journalist Tim Ross, who takes him on a tour of the city’s most notorious streets, where drugs-related violence is rife. Tim has even had a death threat but he seems very relaxed. Cosquez Mountain, to an emerald mine. The stream runs out of the mine to a large number of scavengers in the mud: “They search in vain, but always in hope.” Finally, a wild time in Cartagena on a party bus.

Episode 10: Mexico, USA, Canada and Alaska

Mexico “is not the land of the introverted.” There are parties, mariachi bands, wrestling. At Tijuana, at the border with the USA, someone has written ‘WELCOME TO THE NEW BERLIN WALL’ on the fence. Michael and his guide Arturo illegally cross over – it’s possible to duck under the fence, however many people get arrested soon after. California is quite a contrast. Michael flies over LA in a helicopter with Bob Terr, scouting the news. In San Francisco, after a tour of Alcatraz with two former inmates and a tour of the Castro where we meet a gay cop, then a flight to Seattle where Michael actually lands the plane – no, it turns out to be a flight simulator. In British Columbia, due to his lumberjack connection, he’s asked to start off the logging games. The US Coastguard are taking him to Diomede (to complete the journey) and they get within 2 miles but the weather is too bad.

If you have access to BBC iPlayer, this programme is available for a few months.

First episode broadcast 24 years ago – on 31st August 1997.

5 thoughts on “TV review: ‘Full Circle with Michael Palin’ (1997)”

  1. You make me feel as if I HAVE to watch this series!
    The durian story made me smile. A workplace I know of had a plumber attend to investigate a possible gas leak that turned out to be durian fruit scraps in the rubbish bin.

    1. Palin’s series are the standard of travel programmes 🙂 I have not seen or smelt a durian, they must be pungent indeed. That’s amusing, I wonder if they found out who was responsible for the scraps. Sounds like durian could be useful for practical jokes too.

      1. At the time I wondered if a durian might be used on purpose to shut a work site down, but so far it hasn’t! The plumber thought it was funny, and the site manager and staff thought it was funny, but I was the one making the decision whether or not to close the site for safety reasons, arranging the plumber then explaining to the higher ups that it was a false alarm, so didn’t find it quite so funny at the time…

  2. I remember when this came out and enjoyed it then, I think I have watched this again a couple more of times. I also think I have the book for the series. You have also made me realise how long ago this was, 24 years!!!! Wow, that went by fast.

    1. I’d read the book before but not actually seen the series until recently. Yes it might not seem like a long time ago but it is when you think about it 😀

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