Jules Verne’s 1873 classical travel book ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ has inspired many person’s imagination. At that time it was a truly fictional piece of writing covering a trip of 80 days around the world that – supposedly – could not be achieved with the travel means of that era. Nellie Bly & Elizabeth Bisland already proved that assumption wrong in 1889 when they raced each other in a full loop around the world. In 1988 TV legend Michael Palin took Jules Verne’s travel classic to the big screen by making the first televised version of this global round the world journey that has inspired so many of us.
Michael Palin as Phileas Fogg
In 1988 the BBC decided to produce a tv-series retracing the steps of Phileas Fogg around the world in 80 days. For this they needed to find a modern version of him to take the trip and host the show. Seasoned TV traveller Alan Whicker (legendary host of the BBC travel show ‘Whicker’s World) was their first choice. To the BBC’s dismay Whicker declined the job, and so did number two and three on their list (Miles Kington and Noel Edmonds). That’s how they came to Palin who was only their fourth choice. Had it not been for the other’s rejection, Michael Palin the notorious traveler, as we know him might have never materialised!
Years later, in an interview with the Travel Channel, Michael Palin revealed that he became the modern-day Phileas Fogg solely because of the BBC’s penny-pinching way.
“the BBC missed out on its top pick because of its refusal to stump up for some posh nosh. Alan Whicker had been lined up for the spot, but he didn’t do it because they took him for lunch to the Pizza Hut in Shepherd’s Bush. Not his usual standard.
It happens I really like Pizza Hut, and so I landed the gig”
And so Michael Palin the TV travel personality was born…….
Episode 1: The Challenge
In episode 1 Palin accepts the offer from the BBC to attempt travelling around the world in 80 days. After setting off from the Reform Club in London, the same place Phileas Fogg starts his imaginary journey, Palin boards a train at Victoria Station in London. In this episode Palin looks back at his intense preparation for the journey, has a chat with Alan Whicker and he purchases an inflatable globe to put his trip in perspective.
Fogg used some of his close friends as referees for his journey and so does Palin. Two of them happen to be well knonwn Pythons: Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. He meet them as witnesses for his journey together with his third referee Robert Hewison.
After taking a train across England and a ferry across the English Channel, Palin crosses the Alps by train (on the Orient Express) before being stopped in Innsbruck due to an Italian railway strike. He is forced to continue his journey to Venice by bus. After that, he travels by boat through the Corinth Canal to Athens, Crete and subsequently Alexandria.
Episode 2: Arabian Frights
Palin arrives in Alexandria, Egypt and has difficulty getting a train to Cairo. To kill some time and experience the culture he attends a local football match and stars in a guest role in an Egyptian film. After seeing the Pyramids in Giza and riding a camel named Michael, Palin plans get ruined when the ship he was supposed to board has engine problems and cannot sail.
Even though he is able to take a ferry from the city of Suez to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, he misses a key connection that would have taken him to Muscat in Oman. As a last-ditch effort to save the journey, Palin and the director Clem Vallance are permitted by the Saudi authorities to drive across Saudi Arabia to Dubai, with the rest of the crew (and their problematic camera equipment) making the journey by air. The Saudi Arabia leg of the trip is represented in the TV series only with a few still pictures taken by Palin along the way.
Episode 3: Ancient Mariners
Once in Dubai Palin notices that in his trip getting there – driving from Jeddah to Dubai via Riyadh – he drove the distance from London to the Black Sea in one weekend.
In Dubai, the team finds a traditional dhow boat named the Al-Shama to take them to Bombay. Along the way, Palin bonds with the dhow’s crew who were an extended family from the Indian state of Gujarat, letting the oldest one listen to a Bruce Springsteen song on his Walkman, and developing a bad case of diarrhoea, resulting in many trips to the ship’s unique open-air latrine. The journey took seven days on what became the most famous part of the whole trip featured in the series.
The trip on the dhow yielded so much material that the producers gained special permission to craft this extra seventh episode for what was originally planned as a six-episode series.
Around the World in 20 Years
In September 2008, twenty years after the trip on the dhow, Palin announced on his official website that he would be travelling to Gujarat in an attempt to locate the dhow’s crew, reunite with them and thank them again for their gracious hospitality.
On 30 December 2008, the BBC aired a special one-hour documentary entitled Around the World in 20 Years documenting Palin’s search for the crew of the Al Shama, the dhow which carried him from Dubai to Bombay (now Mumbai). After an extensive search involving the shipping company that owned Al Shama, Palin tracks them to the city of Mandvi in Gujarat. There, Palin finds the captain of Al Shama himself, along with five other members of the crew. Two of the original crew members had since died, unfortnuately one of them being the older man whom Palin had let listen to Bruce Springsteen on his Walkman.
Episode 4: A Close Shave
In Bombay, Palin finds himself a week behind Phileas Fogg’s imaginary travel schedule. After getting a quick shave from a blind barber under a tree and seeing a snake charmer’s cobra, he is able to get a train ticket to Madras in south-eastern India. Before leaving Bombay, he visits astrologer Jagjit Uppal who gives him two happy announcements: Firstly he gives him a chart for a baby to be born to one of his referees, Robert Hewison, and secondly he tells him he will complete the 80 day journey on time, possibly even ahead of schedule.
Palin then embarks on the Indian Railways express line called the “Southern Express” for Madras. On the way, it stops in Pune, where Palin talks about his father winning two rowing cups there in 1923. In Madras, he has difficulty finding a connecting boat to Singapore. Eventually, an “…Anglo-German-Indo-Yugoslav agreement the UN would have been proud of” was reached and Palin sets off on a Yugoslavian freighter, eleven days behind. Only Palin and his cameraman Nigel Meakin were allowed to travel aboard the ship, and on condition that they worked as deckhands. That meant that Palin had to take a “crash course in sound recording” so they could film aboard the ship. Arriving in Singapore, Palin worries whether or not his connecting boat from Singapore has sailed. If it had, it would have been impossible to complete the journey in eighty days.
Episode 5: Oriental Express
Palin finds that the ship had indeed sailed from Singapore. However, quite fortunately, it was only four miles from shore and Palin was able to make it on board using a fast motorboat. In Hong Kong he is awaited by a Rolls Royce (due to a mistake in the BBC computer planning).
While in Hong Kong, he has a big win betting on a horse race, is attacked by a cockatoo and meets up with his friend, photographer Basil Pao. He attends a party thrown in his honour at the halfway point (in terms of days) in the journey. Then it is on to Guangzhou for a dinner of shredded cobra and then a train journey to Shanghai.
On the train, he is asked by a Chinese businesswoman if he carries an umbrella all the time. Palin replies, “I just get wet.” He also collects the roofing tile requested by Terry Gilliam from a very old railway station.
Episode 6: Far East and Farther East
In Shanghai, Palin gets some herbal remedies to help him on the rest of his trip. He and Basil Pao take in a Chinese jazz band. After parting with Pao the next day, Palin takes a Chinese ferry to Yokohama, where he rides the world-famous shinkansen train to Tokyo. Here he meets David Powers, a British journalist, and is taken for a real Japanese experience in a sushi bar and then a karaoke bar. In the latter he sings a duet of “You Are My Sunshine”. After spending the night in a capsule hotel, he boards a container ship to cross the Pacific Ocean. The journey takes eleven days and is very dull, enlivened only by a game of pass the parcel with the Singaporean crew, and the crossing of the International Date Line. Palin partakes in an unusual ceremony to commemorate crossing the line, involving getting doused in tomato paste and flour, and drinking a strange cocktail containing many ingredients, among others, “eggs, curry powder, cocoa…”. Palin suggests that some people involved in the ceremony had watched Full Metal Jacket to prepare for it.
Episode 7: Dateline to Deadline
Palin arrives in Long Beach, California only two days behind Fogg, and spends his first night in America aboard the permanently berthed Queen Mary. After a few days, he boards Amtrak’s Desert Wind train in Los Angeles and travels to Glenwood Springs in the Rocky Mountains. He takes a hot-air balloon ride and a dog sled trip in Aspen, Colorado.
After a nerve-wracking delay he realizes he probably should have stayed on the Chicago-bound Amtrak train. Eventually he arrives in New York by another train. Here he boards the final ship of his journey dead even with Phileas Fogg on day 71. This container ship takes eight days to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and Palin arrives in Felixstowe, touching Great Britain for the first time in two and a half months. A few train connections later he arrives at his starting point, the Reform Club in London. There the journey ends 79 days and 7 hours after it began. Mission accomplished!
The closing credits show Palin chatting with his referees as he presents the souvenirs requested by them at the beginning to ceremonially prove his accomplishment.
Palin’s journey around the world lasted from 25 September to 12 December 1988. He travelled through the following countries: United Kingdom, France, Switzerland,Liechtenstein, Austria, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Japan, and the United States.
He closely followed the route Jules Verne had come up with over a century before:
Only four members of Palin’s film crew completed the circumnavigation: Clem Vallance, Roger Mills (the directors), Angela Elbourne, and Ann Holland (the production assistants). The three others who started with him left when they got to Hong Kong, and were replaced by others. Strictly speaking, it was only Palin who obeyed the rules of the journey, as the production team was not allowed on the road trip across Saudi Arabia and Qatar (Palin and Clem Vallance did this stretch) or on the Yugoslav ship (Palin and Nigel Meakin did this stretch). The remainder of the team flew on these stretches. During the Jeddah to Dubai episode, Palin managed to snap a few pictures which are seen in the documentary