Sir Michael Palin is a national treasure. As a core member and writer of the Monty Python comedy group, he appeared in some of the most iconic skits of all time – including The Fish-Slapping Dance and the Dead Parrot sketch. But since 1980, he has been more widely known as a travel documentarian. This new retrospective series, Travels of a Lifetime, sees Palin digging into his archives and looking back at his first four ground-breaking travel programmes across four hour-long episodes.
In intimate and insightful conversation with the effortlessly charming gent, Palin reflects on how and why his career turned to travel and reveals the challenges he faced in making the four acclaimed programmes – Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle and Sahara. Listening to him reminisce is certainly an engrossing experience; Palin is a gifted storyteller and one that is remarkably well-travelled. Hearing first-hand accounts of these incredible adventures alongside old footage is certainly a fascinating experience. And if this is all the show was, it would have been wonderful.
Unfortunately, Travels of a Lifetime falls into the old trap of any retrospective documentary series by pulling in countless talking heads to blabber on about Palin’s legacy and how it inspired their own work. While some of these are certainly pleasant – you won’t hear me complaining about listening to David Attenborough’s thoughts – there are many so-called ‘celebrities’ here that really have nothing even remotely insightful to add. When these interviews are crowbarred in and interrupt Palin’s recollections or some of the remarkable footage of his early expeditions, it just feels jarring and frustrating.
The archive materials in the show are, understandably, a little ropey-looking in parts so it’s debatable whether the Blu-ray of this series is particularly worth the extra pounds. The dated and upscaled footage of Palin’s journeys don’t exactly lend themselves to the format, but it sure is nice to revisit some of the material from the golden age of travel documentaries. Fans who have religiously rewatched the programmes or read Palin’s books over the years might find this series a little tedious in its ‘greatest hits’ approach, but those unfamiliar with the original broadcasts will be happy to experience or revisit them in a bitesize form.
On the whole, Travels of a Lifetime is a charming and quaint reminder of pre-Covid travel and it is wonderful to hear Palin’s fresh insights and reminiscences on his travels. He’s a truly gifted raconteur, and any minute in his company is a minute well spent. But the series lets itself down with the jarring celebrity talking heads that add nothing to proceedings, and will have you regularly fast-forwarding to get back to Michael.