January 31, 2008

Michael Palin: Calm after the Storm

I realise it's over four months since my last message. Since then New Europe has been out, both on television and in the bookshops and, increasingly, in supermarkets and on internet retailers.

The response has been very gratifying. The largest single audience for a documentary on UK TV last year (7.8 million for Episode 1), and with the BBC 2 and BBC 4 repeats, a weekly audience average of around 8 million for the series as a whole. The book has just slipped out of the Top 10 after 17 healthy weeks there and total worldwide sales are looking to hit 350,000.

The pressure of publicity, especially book signings, catapulted me up to Christmas, and it's only now that the dust of filming, production and marketing has begun to settle and I can look back on New Europe and begin to assess its strengths and weaknesses.

I was very happy with the production values, which remained as high as ever. In terms of the material, well maybe there just was too much to chew on. Although the BBC gave us an extra programme, the material we saw en route was richer than any of us expected, and we would have needed another four or five programmes to cover all the countries as they fully deserved.

So, my apologies to some of the countries on our route that were not covered sufficiently. All of them are in the book, and many good sequences we just didn't have space for can be seen on the DVD. Maybe we were a little over-ambitious to take on twenty countries, all of which have such different characters and identities, histories and cultures, but the series was intended, like all the series I've made, to open a few windows on the world, and there was nowhere I didn't enjoy visiting, or learning about.

I hope that where we have succeeded is to reveal Central and Eastern Europe to audiences in such places as Britain, Australia, New Zealand and America, who knew very little about it, and now hopefully will know more. We can’t do everything, but I’m happy if we’ve done enough to stimulate the curiosity of those who, like the Palin's Travel website fans, like to do some finding out for themselves.

As often happens after a series, my appetite for finding out more of the background to what I've just seen, is very strong, and I'm currently enjoying a Dutch writer's trip through 20th century Europe. It's called In Europe, by Geert Mak (Harvill-Secker) and is a terrific and very readable insight into the turbulent history of Europe's last three generations. And there's a gem of a movie from Romania called "12.08, East of Bucharest". Bleak and very funny.

For all of those out there who might suspect that all I do these days is play with grandson Archie, I've already been on the move in 2008, visiting Lisbon to see the world premiere of Terry Jones's weird and wonderful opera "Evil Machines", and then further south to take Mrs Palin for a few days in one of my favourite places - Marrakesh. My feet itch and the wanderlust certainly hasn't cleared up, but this year I want to have time for other things - like catching up on movies and books and art and generally seeing what everyone else is doing.

After 18 solid months on New Europe, the thought of a new long series is far from my mind, but as long as there are maps I shall be looking at them.

Meanwhile, keep travelling - by train and canoe, if possible. Watch out for anything with Bruce Parry in it (he likes suffering almost as much as I used to) and have a restless 2008 !

Michael P, London, January 31st 2008

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