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Creaky Palin is back on the box

Capturing the many sides of Brazil should be no bother to Michael Palin, Monty Python legend-turned-TV's most well-travelled traveller. This is the man, remember, who went Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, across the Sahara and . . . well, practically everywhere, really.

Still, though: he's been away from it all for five years.

His last series went no further than Eastern Europe -- which for him must be like a weekend trip to Old Trafford is for the rest of us.

Plus, he's 70. He's looking great for it, mind you, but it's hardly an age where a man wants to be hanging his a**e over the edge of a rickety boat in turbulent waters, as Palin has been known to do in earlier series.

The choppy first half-hour of Brazil with Michael Palin found him looking a bit ring-rusty, more like a well-heeled tourist than an intrepid explorer. As the programme skipped speedily around various locations in the country's north-east, where the first European invaders settled, Palin seemed to be looking but not taking much in; politely observing without sharing his observations.

Not that there wasn't plenty worth observing. At a colourful religious festival, which mixes Christian beliefs with older, earthier ones, people dressed up as animals and a "bull" was baptised.

Palin strode across giant sand dunes that move inland from the sea, the wind continually whipping them into new shapes so the landscape never looks exactly the same two days running.

Elsewhere, he was captivated by a striking sculpture of a man suspended inside a massive square, a memorial to those tortured during the dark chapters of Brazil's history.

There were fascinating facts: of the 11 million slaves brought from Africa, 40% of them ended up in Brazil. In one city, where the tobacco and sugar trades took a nosedive after the abolition of slavery, 82% of the population are of African descent.

Palin is rarely stuck for a witty, well-turned phrase. At a beach where both rich and poor come to play, he noted: "Girl-watching is like trainspotting, but largely carried out by adolescent boys". Agreeable as all this was, it felt a lot like one of those bland, witless celebrity travelogues you find on UTV. Then, suddenly, the old Palin -- the one who immerses himself in everything and is never afraid to make a fool of himself -- emerged.

He joined a swarm of jelly-hipped dancers, his awkward, traditionally English stiffness resembling Robocop trying to body-pop. He tried a bit of drumming (which was no better than his dancing) at a street carnival and came over all Keith Moon by throwing his drumstick in the air.

He was whisked through bustling food markets by a local celebrity chef, an exuberant, ebullient woman who compared cooking to an orgasm, and asked a fortune teller if England would ever again win the World Cup (answer, No).

This was the Palin we know and love, and it bodes well for the remaining three episodes.

The cheapjack reality series Ireland's Ultimate Debutante offered the most excruciatingly painful viewing moment of the week, courtesy of "etiquette expert" Noel Cunningham, a regular fixture on TV3's Ireland: AM.

It came during the judging stage, when three young girls were lined up before Cunningham, model Roz Purcell and helium-voiced fashionista Courtney Smith.

Cunningham, whose orange face and spiky silver hair makes his head look like something Michael Palin might encounter at a Brazilian vegetable stall, spontaneously started blabbing on to one of the girls about how well she looked and how impressed he was at the way she'd handled herself, given society's obsession with body-shape.

Your heart went out to the poor kid.

She was a large girl, to be fair, but she looked mortified and had to take a moment out. She won this week's show, but it's small compensation for being patronised by an absurd-looking nitwit.

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