TV review: ‘Pole to Pole’ with Michael Palin (1992)

“It’s going to be a hell of a long journey. But, well, let’s go.” Michael Palin crunches over the ice at the North Pole and begins his travels, 30 degrees east longitude. This was his second epic travel programme, following Around the World in 80 Days. The tone of this one was a little less jolly, I thought. The 5 and a half-month journey was also tougher, particularly when Michael travelled through Africa. It’s quite amazing how upbeat he remained, at least on camera. It also appeared that he and the crew coped mostly without translators and guides. His friend Basil Pao, whom we met in the previous series, was the stills photographer.

Episode 1: ‘Cold Start’

Michael has brought a pole with him to the start of his journey at the North Pole. At Spitsbergen, everyone drives on snowmobiles through the night (the sun doesn’t set). While he travels on a boat which is ploughing slowly through the icy sea, Michael checks his trusty inflatable globe and sees “we’re hardly clear of the bit where you blow it up!” By day 15, he has reached Tromsø, Norway, where he meets drinkers, football fans and a statue of Roald Amundsen. In Lapland, he is plagued by mosquitoes and then pans for gold. He crosses into Finland by bus and goes to Santa Claus Village, where an army of children (elves) are sorting letters and he meets the real Santa. Reaching Helsinki by train, Michael has an interesting sauna experience with two other naked men. Finally we leave Scandinavia and cross into Estonia, USSR.

Episode 2: ‘Russian Steps’

At Leningrad, Michael is greeted by a Lenin impersonator, who gives a fascinating tour of the historic city. Then Michael almost gets christened by a Russian Orthodox priest by mistake, escaping to see the memorials to Dostoevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. He’s honoured to fire the noon-day cannon – “I waited for a revolution to start, but nothing happened.” A confusing time is had, as he attempts to buy vodka in a state food hall. In Ukraine, he visits an abandoned maternity hospital, not too far from Chernobyl (the disaster happened 5 years ago). In Odessa, Michael is wrapped up naked in warm black mud, as a health treatment. “I can’t imagine I shall ever be clean again. This is a job for Dyno-Rod.” He leaves the Soviet Union – two days later, there is the attempted coup that will trigger the end of it – and sails to Istanbul.

Episode 3: ‘Mediterranean Maze’

Michael stays in the hotel room in which Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express. He has a massage at a Turkish bath house from a huge man who is like “a very friendly steamroller.” On the island of Rhodes, while he waits for his connection, Michael visits the famous astrologer Patric Walker, who says that “retrograde Mercury” may disrupt the journey. In Cyprus, there’s a massive wedding with about 3000 guests. After an errant camera tripod is rescued from the water at Port Said, and Customs are finally over, we look at some ships on the Suez Canal. A leisurely cruise down the Nile, but there are few tourists, due to the Gulf War (which had ended a few months earlier). Michael makes friends with an extrovert couple from Sheffield while touring the Ancient Egyptian monuments. Arriving at Wadi Halfa, he feels anxious for the next stage, through Sudan.

Episode 4: ‘Shifting Sands’

Sudan seems eccentric and chaotic. The erratic train service to Khartoum, a legacy of the British Empire, finally departs with an air of festivity. A “single-track railway through the middle of nowhere”, the train breaks down in the desert a few times. There are passengers lying on the carriage roof, travelling for free. Michael explains to them that people in the UK don’t travel like this because of bridges. It’s so hot in the desert that everything is rippling with haze. Unfortunately, civil war prevents travel through the south of Sudan. The only way to go is via Ethiopia (recently out of the war with Eritrea). The road to the border is extremely rough. They keep having to stop to tow cars out of the deeply rutted ground. They stay in a village police station overnight. After getting stuck again, towed out, delayed behind other vehicles, they finally arrive at the rendezvous point.

Episode 5: ‘Crossing the Line’

“I want to go home!” Michael says, on learning that the rest of the road to Gondar (Ethiopia) is just as bad. The crew travels with an armed guard, as there are bandits around. The Ethiopians have their own calendar – it’s 1984 instead of 1991. Gondar is bustling and friendly. Michael gets his trousers mended and sees some stunning landscape around Lake Tana. On to Addis Ababa which is scattered with evidence of the recent war. Michael ponders this while sitting on a toppled Lenin statue which is now scrap metal. After hitch-hiking to the Kenyan border, they visit the Samburu tribe, where he made a documentary nine years ago as a roof was put on the school. Now, he leaves his beloved blow-up globe for the excited children. Continuing on through Nairobi and into nice green countryside “like Surrey, with hippos”, the crew have a comparatively luxurious stay at a safari camp.

Episode 6: ‘Plains and Boats and Trains’

The weather in Kenya turns gloomy. “It’s like November in Manchester.” A trip in a hot-air balloon with other tourists fails to lift Michael’s spirits. Then the sun comes out and so does the wildlife, including lion cubs with their mum, and elephants having a mud bath. Through the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, where he is excited to see the Ngorongoro Crater. A curious train journey from Dodoma to Kigoma, which is very full because it’s the only way of crossing the swampy country. There are few comforts on board: “I feel like a used paper bag.” Finally he’s on the correct longitude. Sadly he has cracked, giggling manically while wrapped in a mosquito net. He visits Ujiji and sees the monument of “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” fame. A boat trip along Lake Tanganyika, down to Zambia, while refugees are arriving from Zaire (which became DR Congo six years later).

Episode 7: ‘Evil Shadow’

A witch-doctor says Michael has an evil shadow and should wash with tree bark. A stay at English-style grand country estate, Shiwa, is as much of a culture shock. He stays with the owners John and Lorna Harvey (who were tragically to be murdered 6 months after this). Nervously, the team go white-water rafting on the Zambesi River. The microphone is waterproofed inside 3 condoms, which is lucky because everyone gets absolutely soaked. The witch-doctor appears to be right about the evil shadow – Michael cracks a rib, a suitcase is stolen and one of the crew gets malaria. On to Zimbabwe, where a lively time is had in Bulawayo, and then South Africa – which officially abolished apartheid 4 months previously. Michael visits the deepest gold mine and then sings ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ while walking through sweltering Johannesburg streets decorated for Xmas.

Episode 8: ‘Bitter End’

The ship from Cape Town to Antarctica goes once a year. There is apparently no room on it. A private company will take the crew there, from another continent – South America. It’s either go home, or fly to Santiago. An exciting but scary flight over the ice to Patriot Hills, Antarctica. “I’d like to spend my whole life here”, Michael enthuses about the view from an open-air toilet made of ice blocks. Motorcyclist Shinji Kazama is there, having already reached the North Pole on a motorbike and is doing the same here. Peter Hillary (son of Sir Edmund) is also there, leading a climbing expedition. Finally it’s time to fly to the South Pole itself, in an old plane that has never done it before, with a pilot who hasn’t either. Arriving safely, Michael finds there are 120 scientists. Passing the ‘ceremonial’ Pole and flags, he reaches the geographic Pole. It’s very cold and time to go home.

First broadcast in 1992 on BBC1. If you have access to BBC iPlayer, this programme is available for a few months.

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