Giddy globetrotter Preview: Travel with Michael Palin, whose 10-part series debuts on PBS. It's a trip.

September 15, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

I am not a big fan of travel programs on television.

If you are interested in travel, go travel. Don't sit on a couch with a bag of potato chips and watch an 8-inch-tall video image of someone else traveling.

Forget the loss of any sense of adventure or participating in life as a doer instead of a viewer; television can't even really deliver much of a visual sense of the exotic or the different. The scope of the screen is too small for panorama, too flat for texture; and television deals best in the repetition of the familiar until it becomes cliche or stereotype.

All that said, I love "Full Circle With Michael Palin," a 10-week travel series starting tonight on PBS. It takes Palin on a 245-day journey around the Pacific Ocean starting with Eskimos on an island in the Bering Strait.

The reason I love it is Palin. For those not familiar with his career, he is perhaps best known for his work with John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam in "Monty Python's Flying Circus" during the 1960s and '70s.

One reason "Full Circle" works so well is that producer Clem Vallance never lets the camera stray too far from Palin. Television is best when it is focused on people, and the more they are in close-up the better. It's the Pacific Rim up close and personal with Michael Palin.

It is not so much Vallance showing us this vast, strange expanse of geography through Palin's eyes as it is showing Palin reacting to it and engaging its people, animals and oddities in his own bemused, curious, wacky, friendly, admiring and gently mocking ways. And, then, there are the people and animals reacting to Palin.

After going slightly stir-crazy in the bush of Alaska thanks to several days of heavy fog that kept a transport plane from arriving, Palin finally gets across to Kamchatka in Russia, a town that was closed to foreigners until six years ago.

CAt the tiny airport, there's a welcoming delegation of men in suits and teen-age girls in peasant costumes bearing huge loaves of bread and salt -- a traditional greeting.

Palin eagerly strides toward the reception line, acting as if he thinks it's all for him. As this strange Englishman approaches, the girls with the bread start to whisper and giggle. In subtitle, they are shown to be saying, "Who's that idiot?"

When Palin discovers the bread is for a group of officials arriving from a small Alaskan town -- part of a Kamchatka-Alaska Friendship Society -- his enthusiasm turns to mock envy, and he complains bitterly about the way the "Alaskan mayor is tucking into [wolfing down] the bread."

A final sequence after the delegation has departed shows Palin hiding behind an airport bus, digging into the very loaf that had been given to the mayor.

The series is filled with such delightfully Pythonesque moments: Palin on a camel roundup in Australia, Palin nervously looking out the corner of his eye at Filipino sailors said to be pirates, Palin rolling his eyes as a con man of a guide explains how the tickets Palin paid him to buy have been lost, Palin singing his 16th-century school song in Latin to bewildered Maori warriors in New Zealand.

And, yet, for all the delicious silliness, Palin knows exactly when to stop mugging and fade into the background so that nature can have center stage.

Tonight, for example, not long after the airport scene and some fun with a shifty-eyed Russian guide in a beret, Palin arrives in the Kronotsky Reserve (a kind of national park), a surreal landscape of volcanoes, hot springs, geysers and strange land formations.

What the television camera can only suggest is amplified and brought to life by Palin's narration, which is suddenly quiet and serious. The reverence in his voice as he describes what he is DTC seeing and feeling, coupled with his body language as he moves across the burbling landscape like a pilgrim on sacred ground, comes as close as anything I've ever seen on film or television to communicating an awe for the natural world.

'Full Circle'

What: 10-part travel series

Where: PBS (MPT, Channels 22, 67)

When: 8 p.m.-9 p.m.

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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