Our planet is a fascinating place, but few of us can afford the luxury of unlimited travel. And that’s where television comes into its own, taking us to far corners of the world so we can at least see them and learn about them, even if we can’t get there.
Former Conservative Party cabinet minister Michael Portillo is a master at taking us along for the ride in his SBS TV series Great British Railway Journeys.
The intriguing idea behind the series is Portillo’s dedication to following George Bradshaw’s 1840s tourist handbook, visiting by train the destinations recommended by Bradshaw, and looking at the history of the places visited, and how they have changed since Victorian times. And in some cases, how the traditions have been maintained right up until the present day.
There are many good television travel hosts, but knowing that Portillo was a man with great political power, known as ‘the darling of the right’, gives spice to this new direction he has taken since leaving politics in 1997. And despite his impeccable Conservative Party history, he is no British blueblood, having been born to an exiled Spanish republican father and a Scottish mother.
His wild taste in brightly coloured jackets, usually teamed with violently contrasting trousers, has made the genial Portillo something of a cult figure for his fashion taste, as much as his train travels.
As there have now been eight series of Great British Railway Journeys, followed by Great Continental Railway Journeys and now Great American Railroad Journeys, Portillo has developed a loyal following.
Unlike many ex-politicians, Portillo is a natural communicator who has the ability to relate easily to people of every class and creed in his travels around Britain.
Watching him become involved in making the historic custard creams at a Carlisle biscuit factory, and then enthusiastically offering them to fellow train travellers, made good television, and Portillo obviously throws himself into whatever activities his beloved battered Bradshaw guide suggests.
In the ‘Windermere to Carnforth’ episode he visited the Lake District, exploring the magical work of Beatrix Potter who lived there and created many of her famous stories in that setting. Then Portillo ends up at the famous Carnforth station where the wartime film Brief Encounter was filmed, and re-creates the scene, Portillo-style.
In another episode he visits a historic country house, where he becomes an under-butler for the day, with stern scrutiny from role-playing upper servants, who comment severely on his too-short trousers that reveal—shock horror!—his socks.
Two thousand years ago Jesus liked to travel around and mix with all levels of society, and in his own interactions with people on his travels, Michael Portillo demonstrates a true sense of fellowship and easy camaraderie with the people he encounters.
Throughout all his experiences Portillo’s love for train journeys and people shines through, making Great British Railway Journeys a charming television experience for the viewer.