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Around the World in 79 Days

Monty Python's Michael Palin ruled out air travel to duplicate Phileas Fogg's fictional feat. GLOBAL TRAVELOGUE

By Christopher AndreaeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 19, 1989


AND now for something completely different.... Well, not completely. After all, Mr. Phil'eas Fogg (and Mr. David Niven on film) have done it before. Now Michael Palin - who made his name as one of the slightly less kooky members of ``Monty Python's Flying Circus'' - has done it again: He's gone around the world in 80 days. In 79 days, 7 hours, that is.

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Mr. Palin is not just a performer and writer of comic sketches, screenplays, and children's books. He is a railway enthusiast. And he describes himself as a ``dromomaniac,'' which means he has a ``compulsive urge to travel.''

This was more than borne out by his latter-day duplication of Jules Verne's 116-year-old novel in real life. And he had the added complication of writing and starring in a seven-part BBC-TV show about the trip that aired this fall in the United Kingdom. (It is scheduled to air on the Arts & Entertainment cable channel here starting Jan. 7.)

But what could be easier in this day and age than getting round the world in 80 days? It only takes 36 hours by air - and far less by space shuttle.

The Palin journey, however, had one splendidly old-fashioned ground rule: no travel by aircraft. The aim was to see the world, not airports. As he puts it: ``Air travel shrink-wraps the world, leaving it small, odorless, tidy, and usually out of sight.'' So if you want to see the big, wide, untidy, smelly world, do it the Palin way - by train, boat, camel (a short ride near the pyramids), taxi, rickshaw, dog sled - but not by plane. From this premise (and from the fact that passenger liners have virtually disappeared since Fogg's day) stemmed a host of fascinating, infuriating - but ultimately entertaining - difficulties.

It was touch-and-go right up to the last few days and hours. A storm on the Atlantic could have meant disastrous time loss. None came. But back in London, on the last millimeters of the inflatable globe he took with him to check his progress, his underground train was suddenly delayed by a bomb scare. He was on his way to the Reform Club, where both he and Fogg started and ended their journeys.

The public nature of Palin's trip inevitably made him a sightseer. But Fogg was no sightseer: He let his manservant Passepartout do that for him. Palin dubbed the TV film crew ``Passepartout.'' In fact, though, he was their servant, carrying the sound equipment and performing obligingly for the camera.

Terry Jones, one of his ``Python'' friends, had said at the send-off: ``You're going to have to look happy for 80 days.'' But Palin was determined there would be ``no cheating,'' and although he naturally smiles a lot (``I think my face got stuck,'' he admits), it's made quite clear in the series that his mood was forever changing, as most travelers find, from weariness to exhilaration and from gloom to excitement. And he never hides the frustration caused by endless delays.