16 Jun 2018

Michael Portillo: uncovering history through train travel

From Saturday Morning, 8:13 am on 16 June 2018

The expression "Portillo moment" (a sudden and significant change in political fortunes) was coined after former British MP and cabinet minister Michael Portillo's shock loss of a staunchly Conservative seat at the 1997 UK general election.

Now, Portillo is now most famous for exploring history – with the aid of a 19th-century tourist handbook – on the BBC series Great Railway Journeys.

Michael Portillo

Michael Portillo Photo: FremantleMedia Ltd/ Supplied

Portillo filmed the first series of Great British Railway Journeys in 2009, along the way using George Bradshaw's popular Bradshaw's Guide (1863) to illustrate the largely forgotten influence of railways on England's social, economic and political history.

A second series was broadcast on the BBC in 2011, and since then nine further series have been made.

Portillo has also travelled around continental Europe with his trusty copy of Bradshaw's 1913 Continental Railway Guide for six series of the programme Great Continental Railway Journeys.

He's also made Great American Railroad Journeys, Great Indian Railroad Journeys, and recently finished filming in Australia.

Despite its title, Portillo is at pains to point out the programme is not really about travelling around on trains.

“Trains obviously play a part, and we discuss how railways were great catalysts in history, but basically I think the programmes are about history.

“It’s about getting off trains, it’s not about being on trains.”

Great British Railways Journeys shows a Britain much-changed modern Britain, especially the north whose former industrial might is much dissipated.

Portillo acknowledges one of the attractions of his programme is nostalgia.

“Nostalgia of two sorts – first for the past, but also for [viewers'] own pasts.

“When you travel around in the north of England, and it would happen in some other places too like South Wales and so on, they have this great industrial past and on the whole now you might encounter it only in museums.”

Michael Portillo

Michael Portillo Photo: FremantleMedia Ltd/ Supplied

Bradshaw expressed misgivings about the filth and degradations of industrial northern England in his guides.

“Being nostalgic is not to be confused with going back to the past, which I don’t want to do at all.”

Great British Railways Journeys season five premieres The Living Channel from June 30.