Having watched the first episode of “Michael Palin’s New Europe”, my lasting impression was that Palin has a lot of confidence in his viewers. In the following, I would like to explain what precisely I mean by this, why I have come to this particular conclusion and whether I think his approach pays dividends or not.
As Michael Palin travels trough the various Eastern European countries (the Balkans in the first episode), the viewer follows him from place to place and from interview to interview. This means that every couple of minutes (or seconds, at some points), the viewer is confronted with a new person, place and/ or story. As the minutes pass by, one begins to wonder when Palin will be so kind as to explain where this trip is going eventually, and what the purpose of it all is. Throughout the first episode at least, Palin does not offer any such explanation. Thus, he is at odds with a great many documentaries (which Jerome de Groot has called “epic” documentaries ). Unlike ‘New Europe’, these offer the viewer plenty of interpretation, to the point where all that is shown on the screen is knitted into one comprehensive and all-encompassing narrative. Palin, on the other hand, seems to have very different ideas about storytelling. Instead of using voice-over or lecturing his audience, he mostly limits himself to interviewing people, letting them tell their stories rather than he telling his (or theirs). In other words, Palin chooses complexity over simplicity, variety over coherence. As has been shown by De Groot, most historians have been suspicious of the “superficiality” of television, that is to say they do not believe that this medium is able to present complex realities adequately.
. Although this might be interpreting a lot into Palin’s approach, one could nonetheless say that he is rather more postmodern in his way of proceeding. Instead of explaining ‘the past’, which does not exist as such in the postmodern sense, he prefers to show different representations of the past side by side.((De Groot, Consuming History, p. 153)) Several remarks need to be made here. First of all, the so-called postmodern ‘turn’ mentioned by De Groot has greatly affected historiography, that is to say many of today’s historians who criticise television would probably agree that text (being their principal medium) cannot render ‘the past’ in the postmodern sense either. Secondly, Palin’s lack of voice-over lecturing does not mean that his series is devoid of personal interpretations. By interviewing one person rather than another, by cutting and linking those interviews, but also by simply adding music to some scenes (and so forth), he does in fact give his own personal view, just like any other director or producer.
One of the key differences between the director/ presenter Michael Palin and the historians mentioned by De Groot, then, is the confidence Palin seems to have in television’s aptitude (as a medium) to present complexity, but also in the viewer’s ability to deal with that intricacy.((De Groot, Consuming History, p. 151-152.)) Only at the end of the episode does Palin ask what links himself as a Western European to the people he chooses to present in his work, thus offering at least a guideline for reflecting upon what he has confronted the viewer with. I can of course only speak for myself, but at least for me this worked tremendously well. The interviews with young men (not that much older than me) who have experienced war in their lifetime, but also shorter instances like the sheep sacrifice in Albania, had led me to some sort of comparison between my life and that of the people on screen. However, I only really became aware of this after Palin had put forward his questions at the end. In hindsight, I think that his choice to not offer his own interpretations at every corner has helped in what I now believe to be his main goal: to push his mostly Western European audience into familiarising themselves with and into alienating themselves from the people in the series, ultimately questioning whether, how and why we live in one Europe. However, it could also be that I have misinterpreted Palin’s intentions and that he wanted his viewers to draw a different conclusion. This being said, his program has led me to asking myself some interesting new questions and to refining some older ones. Watching it has therefore definitely been worthwhile, although at first, I perceived the lack of interpretation offered by Palin to be taxing. I could therefore understand perfectly well if another person disliked Palin’s ‘New Europe’ for those reasons and preferred a more classical “epic” documentary-type of approach.
Finally then, I would like to comment on the type of sources that Palin bases his documentary on. He rarely uses original historical footage, although the subject of the Balkan wars would certainly lend itself to that kind of presentation. In doing so, he voluntarily distances himself from ‘classical’ documentaries, which rely heavily on original footage or even on re-enacted scenes. Instead, Palin and his team go down the harder (and certainly more expensive) path of filming almost every bit of footage themselves, mostly in the form of interviews. Apart from these oral-history type of sources, he also relies heavily on architecture, landscape, but also on cultural practices such as dancing, making music or culinary traditions. This differentiates him not only from most other directors and producers, but also from many historians, who prefer textual sources and who often already see original video footage as a ‘new’, non-classical type of source. Watching this documentary and seeing how much it can teach viewers about the past, I would therefore think that it could serve as ‘food for thought’ for historians to reflect on how they can use various ‘new’ types of sources in their own work, even when in the end they publish texts rather than documentaries.