Michael Palin in North Korea: Magical Michael Palin finds joy and humanity inside Kim Jong-un’s modern horror regime

David Sexton
Wish you were here? Michael Palin beside a propaganda poster in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang: Channel 5

By and large, we’ve just about had enough of those travel programmes in which faded celebrities or former politicians set off on a train or boat or bicycle journey, or in somebody’s footsteps, or attempting some challenge or other — Across the Andes by Frog as it might be, that ripping yarn in which Michael Palin skewered the genre long before he ever went to the Poles, the Sahara and the Himalayas or around the world in 80 days himself.

These shows take the basic definition of “television”, letting us see things that are distant, a bit too literally. The format is knackered. Yet here comes Palin with another such programme (9pm, Channel 5) — and it’s terrific.

Almost nobody has been able to film openly in North Korea before — but, after two years of negotiations, Palin and his production team were able to visit for a fortnight just after the April inter-Korean summit, just before the Trump talks in June.

They were by no means able to film at will, being strictly monitored by half-a-dozen guards and escorted only to what the regime wanted them to see. So it’s hardly investigative reporting

Pictured: Michael Palin standing near Sino-Korean Friendship bridge that seperates North Korea and South Korea (Channel 5)

Yet daily life in North Korea is so very odd, and has been so little seen before in the West, that even the most humdrum street scenes or repressively organised visits are riveting to watch — and there is no more likeable or trustworthy presenter than Michael Palin. His curiosity and humour make him the perfect intermediary, the ideal stand in for what we might feel were we there, a magic everyman.

In this first episode Palin goes to the capital, Pyongyang, a city completely reconstructed to the plans of Kim Il-sung, relatively prosperous compared with the poverty of the countryside.

Waking up in this weird city, its ugly blocks all painted bright colours to make them look more cheerful, he hears peculiar music emanating from all over the empty streets. “Vaguely Brian Eno”, it’s actually a propaganda song called “Where are you, dear General?” “You can’t avoid it, that’s the thing, you can’t avoid it,” he reflects.

He visits the colossal statues of beaming Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il and tries gently to ask one of his guides about them. She loyally tells him: “We Korean people think they are still alive, they’re alive in our hearts even though they passed away.” But evidently even this enquiry is reprimanded by his minders as crossing a line.

In a school classroom, Palin clowns about, blowing up an inflatable globe to see what the students know of the world. They throw it about between themselves as if keen not to be caught in possession of such an incriminating object. A girl nervously recites a patriotic poem.

Their teacher looks on with an extraordinary expression, not just worried but clearly frightened. You can see that she knows if this filming goes wrong, there might be terrible consequences for her. It’s the face of a person living under a totalitarian dictatorship with no regard for human rights, that stricken face sometimes visible in photographs from the horror regimes of the last century but here captured a few months ago as part of a travel show.

Yet Palin finds pleasure in North Korea too: joining mass May Day celebrations in a park, miming being knocked out by strong drink, joining in the dancing even. “These people might live under a repressive system that’s hard to understand but there’s a joy and humanity that’s undimmed”, he says. I can’t wait to see what he finds when he heads out of Pyongyang next week.

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