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Michael Palin: TV production has become like selling toilet paper

Michael Palin, the travel documentary presenter and Monty Python comedian, has taken a swipe at some modern forms of documentary storytelling.

Palin, who has made several travel series for the BBC including Sahara, Himalaya and most recently Brazil, said: “TV production today is like selling toilet paper. You are selling a product.”

Speaking to journalist and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer at Sheffield Doc/Fest, Palin said he preferred films that “unfolded” over time rather than frontloading all the information.

“Documentaries are now selling the programme before it has even started,” he said.

“They tell you what you are going to see in the first three minutes. Documentaries seemingly aren’t allowed to unfold like they used to. Everything has to be pre-sold like toothpaste.”

He added that classic comedy series Monty Python would not have been commissioned today because executives “would ask for a description of what we were going to do and we couldn’t have told them”.

But he rallied to the defence of the BBC, which has been the subject of cuts and criticism in recent years.

“The BBC are more nervous now about what they say and how they say it, and there are more rules and regulations,” he said.

“But there are politicians and others having a go at the BBC, focussed on the license fee. But when you consider the cost compared to a monthly subscription to Sky, it is actually very reasonable.”

Palin was in conversation with Sawyer in front of a packed audience at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.

He added that if he was to make another travel series, he would like to focus on one place in more detail rather than move across several countries in a short time.

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