Television review

Palin's hand-tailored route constantly intersects with the off- the-peg exoticism of package travel, so that you get a glimpse of the difference between the cultural performance a country puts on for its visitors and the back-stage clutter of real life
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Full Circle with Michael Palin continues to add to the presenter's growing collection of the world's most hazardous vehicles (maintained alongside "A List of Loathsome Lavatories" and "Global Gag Reflex: a compendium of the internationally inedible"). He long ago confessed to a past as a train-spotter but his current endeavour sometimes looks like an extreme sport version of that low-adrenalin pastime. Seek out modes of transport which are best-known for their close association with newspaper death tolls, then climb on board with a nervous smile for the camera. He began the series flying on a decommissioned Russian military helicopter - an aircraft which looked as if it had last seen service during the Siege of Sevastopol - but yesterday (in the repeat of Sunday's programme) he added a real peach to his list. He embarked on an overloaded Filipino ferry, a class of vessel which has proved over the years to be only marginally more stable than Bernard Manning in a coracle. Just in case he became complacent enough to fall asleep during his overnight passage, the ship was sailing from Zamboanga in the Philippines (the sort of port to which gin-soaked chief engineers retreat after abandoning a ship-load of pilgrims in a typhoon) to Sabah in Borneo, a route which transects the most pirate- ridden stretch of waters on the globe. And yet, apparently within hours of landing, he was visiting an orang-utan sanctuary - one of those Don't Miss bullet points that even the bag-lady nations of the earth can now offer to a passing traveller.

This is one of the interesting things about Palin's circuit (you can see why they couldn't call it Palin's Pacific Rim, incidentally, despite the current ubiquity of the celebrity possessive. It might send the wrong signals in the more raffish quarters of Sydney and San Francisco); his hand-tailored route constantly intersects with the off-the-peg exoticism of package travel, so that you get a glimpse of the difference between the cultural performance a country puts on for its visitors and the back- stage clutter of real life. One moment Palin is suffering through a Javanese shadow play complete with Gamelan accompaniment (a real touristic station of the cross), the next he's up some effluvial creek trying to persuade fishermen to carry him to Timor.

He didn't have much luck with the latter - putting it down to the fishermen's nervousness about the unpredictable weather. It may have occurred to even the less worldly viewer that the boat owners were probably equally anxious about the government's entirely predictable attitude to Western film crews in this region. Full Circle is occasionally guilty of looking away in this manner - of not getting involved in other people's politics because it is "just a guest". More rarely it can also sometimes feel as if it is reluctant to spoil our illusions about the unspoilt nature of the world ("unspoilt" often being a euphemism for "lacking facilities we wouldn't dream of giving up"). During the visit to an Iban longhouse, you couldn't help but notice that the phrase "one of the most traditional long houses you can find in Sarawak" was spoken over a shot which showed a neon strip- light nailed to the crossbeam - a detail which suggested they must have a traditional Iban petrol generator out the back somewhere, chugging away on tapioca root gasoline; during the night sequences the camera stared rather studiously downwards at the picturesque oil lamps on the floor, as if to avoid that embarrassing modernity.

But such prissiness isn't characteristic. Mostly the series works against such sentimental simplifications - by travelling the back roads (or no roads at all) it shows you that, even as the world is becoming steadily more homogeneous, it has quite substantial reserves of foreignness left. What's more, they aren't to be found in those touristic sites where national identity is carefully preserved and sterilised for touristic consumption - but in the messy, miscegenated territory just off the margins of the postcards - places where men with tribal tattoos sit in singlets watching Arsenal on a satellite station.

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