Michael Palin: Into Iraq, review: at nearly 80, he is still the master of the travelogue

Michael Palin: Into Iraq - Channel 5
Michael Palin: Into Iraq - Channel 5

In the diaries he has been publishing since 2006, Michael Palin reveals a vulnerable side in his habit of recording the compliments paid to him. It’s as if his confidence needs to be shored up by the praise of others. Well, he can another one to the list, because Michael Palin: Into Iraq (Channel 5) is a worthy addition to his long travelography.

Palin doesn’t have to venture into such troubled waters. Having slogged around the world and to the poles, he’s now within spitting distance of 80. If he pitched a series on the world’s greatest cocktail lounges or best infinity pools, you wouldn’t begrudge him the well-earned freebie.

Yet he keeps spurning the temptation to wrap himself in cotton wool. The tiger tiger of Palin’s curiosity is still burning bright. For his last foreign jaunt he was trying to make sense of North Korea. Entering another geopolitical hotspot, he announces at the off that with his dicky ticker he needed a doctor’s note before he set out. In the end credits there’s one for security advisers.

An unspoken element of this trip is your worry for him as, for example, he spends many exhausting hours stuck on the border between Turkey and Iraq. Or has a long old traipse to find the hotel. Or experiences Nawroz, the spectacular but extremely noisy Kurdish festival welcoming the spring in the city of Akre. “Watch out for the old guy!” you want to yell at crowds who squeeze by with flaming torches. “I’m sure it’s picturesque,” Palin said, suppressing evident distress in order to get the shot, “but it’s getting a bit warm.”

The theoretical spine of this new journey is the Tigris. In truth it feels less like a picturesque profile of a river than a line to follow on a map which took him to places where stories cluster: in this first episode, the story of Kurdish identity, or of life with and after Islamic State.

Any journey with Palin is also to some extent a portrait of the man. You’d get a harder-nosed narrative from a different reporter. While Palin doesn’t altogether shy away from these subjects, there would probably be more on corruption, torture and endemic sexism. But you wouldn’t get the warmth, the self-mockery, the granddad jokes, or the conversation with a donkey, which was no more talkative than that parrot he once sold to John Cleese.

The capacity to connect across chasms was seen to best effect when he encountered some kids playing in the strafed ruins of Mosul. “It’s their innocence,” he mused. “They didn’t do all this, they just suffered it.” Their cheerfulness in such a place at such a time reduced him to Anglo-Saxon. “F--- me,” he blurted, which may be a first.