In defense of Michael Palin’s Brazil

Jungle‘s columnist Victor Fraga really did not like the Michael Palin BBC series on Brazil, did he? (Check Victor’s article here). The old the cliché pra inglês ver – ‘for the English to see’, was coined – which he translated well as superficial, not to be heeded – to damn what he calls a “highly superficial, inaccurate, foreign and barmy look at the fifth largest country and the sixth economy in the world”.

In doing so he missed the point of a television series like this. Because ‘for the English to see’ was exactly what this was: a mainstream television travel show, that went out at 9pm on BBC1. As such, it was not a platform for an in-depth look at Brazil’s pressing problems with education, health, infrastructure, or indeed violence (and you forgot corruption) – pressing as they are.

Palin’s show wasn’t about any of this. It was, primarily, about making what the television industry calls ‘good television’. In this context, it means beautifully filmed, engaging scenes from a very exotic place a very long way away that most British people have very little idea of. A place that seen from British eyes, and I’m sorry but this is true, can seem a little barmy at times. In the best possible sense of the word.

As a British journalist who’s been based in Brazil for five years, I can tell you that it is very difficult to get the British media interested in anything about Brazil – unless it is a major news event, suitably outlandish (those crazy Brazilians), or has a good business angle.

The cultural connection between the two countries simply doesn’t exist. I’m amazed the show got made at all.

And while an in-depth factual programme on Brazil’s bigger problems would be interesting, it wouldn’t go out at 9pm on BBC1. It would get buried at 11pm on BBC4, if at all.

Victor is right that show had numerous problems. Palin is getting old, and his interactions with people really only worked when they spoke English – bar a charming Indian woman who couldn’t stop laughing at him – which the majority of Brazilians don’t.

Hence a lazy reliance on foreigners living in Brazil, or on the few Brazilians they found who did speak English. And the scenes which did charm. Palin in an Amazon river with pink dolphins. Palin eating piranha sashimi on a canoe – with a guide who spoke English. Palin at dusk by a campfire in the Pantanal – with Brazilian ranch owners who spoke English.

It was in these scenes that the ‘good television’ that might hold an audience who could be flipping to whatever else was on that night could be seen. Where Brazil could be shown to be as beautiful and captivating as it can be. Rather than as frustrating and chaotic as it can also often be.

Where the series failed was in cramming too much in, and in a sequence of factual howlers – such as Palin’s insistence on calling Rio natives cariocans, rather than cariocas, even though an American ex-pat corrected him on camera. As if they were aliens from the plant Carioca.

Or in presenting Gaby Amarantos, one of Brazil’s biggest pop-stars, as some sort of Amazon wannabe, playing in a shack in the jungle, instead of headlining the sort of massive shows I’ve seen her play here in Brazil. There were plenty of others. The BBC should be kicking itself over them.

But Victor’s piece also has its factual errors. The São Paulo segment was not just a flypast. It featured, in succession, interviews with two of the city’s most famous figures – former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and rapper Criolo. One after the other. Not a bad spread.

Criolo was interviewed in the Grajaú favela he is from on the southern edge of the city. I recognized the location, and the local samba group, because I interviewed him there a couple of years ago, when I lived in the city. Palin also met the businessman who deals with much of the city’s rubbish.

The show did talk about social inequality and touched on violence in Rio’s favelas and the pacification programme. Drug-related violence in Rio de Janeiro has diminished somewhat with the favela pacification programme, which has in turn thrown up new problems: be that the rise of milítias of corrupt police, an increase in common crimes like burglary that the drug gangs previously prohibited, or overheating favela property prices. Social works that should go alongside the pacification programme are often lacking.

It is an imperfect solution, but surely better than leaving 1.2 million favela residents in the control of armed gangs? People in Rio now visit favelas whereas previously they never did, unless they wanted to buy drugs or worked for an NGO. People in pacified favelas now have to pay for their electricity bills, whereas previously they stole it from nearby power lines using dangerous homemade tangles of wires called gatos, or cats.

But some sort of process of bringing these favelas into society is, slowly, beginning. And there is undoubtedly a feeling amongst cariocas – or as Palin would have it, Cariocans – that the city is more secure.

In a travel programme, how do you sum that up? You say it’s been problematic but seems to be working. Which is pretty much what Palin did. Just as in one scene shot in a giant open-cast iron ore mine, he even got in the impact of declining Chinese GDP growth on Brazil’s iron ore industry.

As to whether Brazil is sexually permissive or not, well, in many ways it is. There are love motels everywhere – but the girl interviewed was the presenter of a television programme on sex, not a motel hostess. There are well-documented attacks on homosexuals in cities like São Paulo. There are also gay couples walking hand in hand down the city’s main Avenida Paulista.

Flexible Brazilian relationship arrangements, like the non-exclusive rolinho (an institutionalized ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement popular in big cities, as much with women as with men) are common place. In many ways, there is a more relaxed attitude to sex than in the UK. Brazilians seem to spend a hell of a lot of time talking about sex. In one survey for Durex, the country was rated the most sexually confident country in the world.

And yes, there is a gaggle of minor celebrities with names like Mulher Melancia (Melon Woman), who you can read about on any Brazilian celebrity site. You might cringe about it. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

This is not a negative. It’s a positive. As is the reality that millions of Brazilians have a much better standard of living than they did a decade or so ago. That might not be on a par with the US or Europe, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it was.

But perhaps the problem is not the programme, but that Brazilians don’t really, deep down, like anybody talking about their country, because deep down they don’t feel anybody who isn’t Brazilian has any right to do so. Maybe it has something to do with the so-called complexo de viralata (the mongrel complex). Maybe it is a peculiar mix of pride and insecurity, a feeling that ‘nobody else understands us’. Brazilians need to get over this.

Despite the violence, corruption, social inequality, crumbling infrastructure, the machismo, the fact that abortion is illegal, the overriding influence of religion, the faltering GDP growth, the power-cuts, overcrowded airports, and the woefully inadequate cellphone coverage, this is a great country with a lot of potential that is in a convoluted and difficult and protracted process of sorting itself out. Sort of.

And part of the package of becoming a world power is that the rest of the world has the right to talk about you. Brazil as a society needs to accept this. There are many Brazils, no perfect, all-encompassing vision, instead a hugely-complex, vast, continent-sized country of almost 200 million people. This was just one.

Palin was positive and optimistic about Brazil, despite its problems, and perhaps too rosy-eyed in doing so. Many Brazilians are too: statistics, if they are to be believed, frequently demonstrate this. So am I, that’s why I choose to live here. The optimism, positivity, capacity to extract the joy out of live, drive, sensuality, music, literature, culture, landscape and – yes – the undoubted sexiness of Brazil should all be celebrated.

Television is a populist media form that at times can show viewers people and places they know nothing about. It is not school. It is entertainment which if it’s done well can impart a little information along the way. But primarily, it is emotional, not educational.

Rather than criticising the BBC for daring to attempt a lightweight, primarily visual travel series about Brazil which along the way did manage to get a sense of its scale, diversity, and beauty, Brazilians might be better taking aim at their own television industry.

What does the dominant TV Globo network show at 9pm? Soap operas and football. There is quite simply nothing even remotely similar to Palin’s travel show, except perhaps on cable.

Wouldn’t it be fun to watch Jô Soares (a famous Brazilian chat-show host and comedian) rolling around the UK, drinking tea, eating crumpets and fish and chips, bathing at Bath spa and taking the piss out of Morris Men and cricket? Would anyone in the UK say, ‘Oh but what about racism, declining industrial capacity, the 2011 urban riots and the Jimmy Saville case?’ Or would they just chuckle, and make another cup of tea?

Dom Phillips is a British journalist based in Rio de Janeiro and author of the book “Superstar DJs Here We Go”  published by Random House.


  1. Great article Dom. Full of truths. I really enjoyed the show and agree it was great they did it and broadcasted it the way they did. I might just say that I don’t totally agree that Brazil is sexually permissive. Although you did say “in many ways”, Brazil is still really conservative in many more ways than it is permissive, especially if we compare it to the UK.

    About motels for example, I believe it shows how much of a ‘taboo’ sex is. Many go to motels exactly because there they are hidden. It’s a place to do ‘what’s forbidden’. The vast majority of motels entrances have a sort of shield allowing their guests to hide their faces on their way in and out. If we were so open and relaxed about sex, the motels would not need/offer mechanisms to keep their users’ ID secret.
    Yes we are the society the sexually worship nearly naked bodies at sambo’dromos and TV, but we are also the society who diminish the character of those body owners.
    Overall, however, I think you are right. Brazil is improving not only economically, but culturally too.

    About the TV show, I was pleased to see a Brazil there was more than Rio, samba, beach and semi naked women.

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