Portillo in America


Michael Portillo, the former Conservative MP, has re-invented himself as a media personality. He presents a series of “Great Railway Journeys” in half-hour programmes.

Last year, he went into Europe, having previously done the whole of Britain; and this year he has ventured to North America. A feature of the films is that Portillo uses a historic guide to provide a then-and-now counterpoint to what can be seen from the passing train. In the USA, he’s using a copy of Appleton’s Guide from 1879.

Quite apart from the intrinsic interest of each programme; the films are structural exemplars of how to present…

Each film begins with a general introduction to the series…I’m in America…and proceeds to a bit more detail about the journey and the contents of the film..,today I’m travelling to so-and-so, and will meet and see the following…then the meat of the programme is presented in about three sections. Typically, these include a bit of railway history, a food interval, and something of wider significance…a link to the big story of, say, slavery and abolition in the south.

Portillo usually meets a local expert who fills in the detail.

At the end of the programme there is a recapitulation of what has been seen and what it may mean.

In the main, Portillo is a charming travelling companion. Nothing reveals the brutalising effect of adversarial politics more than his post-Westminster transformation into (approaching) national treasure status. Remember, he is following the train of John Betjeman who made these kinds of films in the 1960s…

The best part of the series, so far, was when Michael picked up an old pottery cup…and it fell apart in his hands. Brilliant!


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