Stagecoach to Somewhere – Michael Palin in Brazil


I know a trick.  If you want to create a space around you, simply say you do not find ‘Monty Python’ or ‘Fawlty Towers’ funny.  If you want to hasten the process, add that you think ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ is crass and callous.   This minority thing of mine has lasted a while.

After ‘The Life Of Brian’ was released, John Cleese and Michael Palin met, on TV, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Malcolm Muggeridge.   Michael Palin became indignant at the reaction of the establishment to the film.  The encounter was important

Life of Brian

Life of Brian

because it was a symbol of the conflict that existed between the generations after the sixties.   I was one of the few atheists on the planet who sympathised with those representing the Church.   At the time, Michael Palin appeared to me more small minded than the people he criticised.  Now it feels different, as if one generation understood respect but not tolerance and the other recognised only the latter.    Years later, Palin acted in a TV series called ‘G.B.H’.    The playwright, Alan Bleasdale, had written a drama about extremism within the Labour Party.   Palin was convincing as a decent man bullied by extremists and brutal opportunists.    Bleasdale argued that the extremes of both left and right were very similar.  There is some truth in this but the argument is simple minded.  The convergence that exists says more about the will to power within hierarchies than it does about radical political thought.

Palin  and travelBut Palin is good at occupying ground where opposites meet.  The two examples above and his popular travel programmes all have this in common.   Michael Palin is an admirable example of the decent men and women that Oxbridge occasionally produces.  He is thoughtful, liberal, self-effacing and supports worthy causes.   But he does have a knack of pulling opposites and attitudes together in a way that becomes restrictive.   This is why bland travel programmes suit his personality.    Admittedly, he is charming and witty but travel is where the curious and not so curious are obliged to meet.   Some of the passengers who fill aeroplanes are genuinely interested in where they visit.   Others are merely clocking experiences to discuss at parties when they return home.  For some, travel supports the contemplated life while for many it merely suspends thinking.   The programmes of Michael Palin need an audience and are meant to appeal to both.   The BBC producer can argue that the show is professional and, providing no one steps out to make a cup of tea, all the audience will have heard the 30 second reference to the torture that existed under the 20 year Brazilian military dictatorship.    Something has been achieved.

Maybe it is me.  I have never favoured programmes which promote a view of abroad as none threatening parochial exotica.   Indeed, their influence plus an aversion to flying explains why so much of my own travel has focussed on my homeland.   But I am interested in Brazil.  Not the cliché of Samba which is okay for those who like to relax that way but a different Brazil.  This Brazil has people with endurance who have faith in themselves and sometimes God.   Despite all the exploitation and abuse, goodwill and amiability have prevailed in ordinary people.    This needs to be recognised and honoured.   If politics is always a struggle between the powerful and the powerless, it is difficult for anyone to visit Brazil and not want to identify with its poor.

Palin is a big fan of Ernest Hemingway but there was little of his hero in the first programme on Brazil that appeared this week.

Hugh Laurie - Down By The River

Hugh Laurie – ‘Down By The River’

The episode followed a formula.   Mix attractive landscapes, a few talking heads and some eccentric but personable characters that stand only as monuments to themselves.  The BBC has had a very good year producing some excellent dramas.  It can do better than this and so I suspect can Michael Palin.  Later, in the evening, ITV showed a programme called ‘Down By The River’.  This featured Hugh Laurie in New Orleans.  Laurie has used his success, influence and power to reinvent himself as a blues musician.   His musical talent is limited and that is being kind.  But, embarrassment aside, the programme was watchable because Laurie does love and know the music of New Orleans.  It meant that we had the pleasure of seeing two famous icons, Alan Toussaint and Irma Thomas.    Throughout the programme, the merits of New Orleans were obvious and enticing albeit slightly marred by the sight of a deluded Englishman who thinks he can sing the blues.

Michael Palin cleverly avoided the mistakes made by Laurie.   He is very good at pretending to be awkward which he did when he had to play the drums and dance.    But we need some sense of engagement for the programme to have value.  Voyeurism and the tipsy party at the end of the holiday are not acceptable any more.

The Brazil in this BBC programme, I find unrecognisable.  Perhaps Salvador has had a coat of paint everywhere since I was there or the authorities and the locals responded to the arrival of the BBC.   Even the favela Palin visited looked cleaner and smarter than the areas I remembered.    Of course, it could be as Proust says.  We can only see what our eyes allow and maybe mine have a

Salvador, Brazil

Salvador, Brazil

fascination with grime.  But the eyes are important and the first film left a strong sense that Palin had left his at home, deliberately.  There was an important scene when Palin appears on the local radio station with a DJ that has stayed loyal to the community.  The DJ plays the Brazilian music that he loves but also ‘It’s Now Or Never’.  Palin responds by saying, ‘this is my least favourite record by Elvis.‘  The Englishman, though, sings along with the DJ because he has to and because he is a good sport.   But that is it.   There is no curiosity as to why a record that Palin regards as Elvis in his more vulgar moments resonates so strongly with the oppressed.   No suggestion that, in the absence of comfort, the sex and sentimentality in the song exist as defiance and sustenance.  These travel programmes respect and admire the poor because there is decency in its appealing presenter.  He represents what is good in British sensibility but he also resists the genuine feeling demanded by his hero, Hemingway.  Laurie is embarrassing to music purists because he has stolen something that does not really suit him but nobody can complain that he has not learnt from his records as to how to identify and understand.

My own obsession with Brazil began with the novel, ‘The War Of The End Of The World’, by Mario Vargas LLosa.  This told how in a town called Canudos, 30,000 people had been slaughtered by the new Republican Government in 1897.  The programme this week featured the North East of Brazil.  Only so much can be shown in one programme but to tour the region and not mention the event that is fundamental to its history has to be regarded as bewildering and offensively casual.  Nothing can be done to properly atone for the unnecessary slaughter but the 30,000 deserved a mention.    More than that, actually, an emotional response was warranted.

This post is related to my own trip to Brazil, which resulted in my latest book, Innocent Mosquitoes. If you want Innocent Mosquitoesto read about Brazil and the War of Canudos click here

If you want to read about Elvis, rock and roll and much more click here.

If you want to read what the author says about the Mary Shelley novel ‘Frankenstein’ click here.

If you want to know more about Red Rattle Books click here.




  1. A really enjoyable read, as usual, which highlights the essential differences between the showbiz approach with that of the genuine and curious mind.

  2. Well done Howard a this would be a vibrant and fascinating read in any of the daily broadsheets. Keep it up. Your time will come. Indeed though, how could Palin/The BBC miss Canudos? mind you they (the BBC) missed Savile!

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