HOW many train stories can we cop on TV? Plenty, it seems. Frankly, I have a low tolerance level for anything that suggests hectoring on the history of rail. At least I did.
Along comes ex-British politician Michael Portillo, slick and polished and in a different, bold-coloured jacket, popping-up each week for a series on train travel.
Many Brits must have felt the same yawn – a whole series on rail. I looked-up the reaction in the UK to Portillo’s first series on Great Railway Journeys.
One British reviewer said Portillo looked: “lacquered, dressed like an early 1990s game show contestant.”
But Portillo was carrying an undeniable weapon that works so well on television – passion. Along with his rail history book, Bradshaw’s, (George Bradshaw’s 1913 Continental Railway Guide) that he clutches like a treasured bible. Which, of course it is. A train lover’s bible.
“To watch Michael Portillo on a railway program – addressing the camera as if he’s trying to order dinner in the world’s noisiest restaurant, done up like Mr Blobby at a job interview – is to peer directly into the soul of the man,” says the reviewer.
I love it. So true. But what a lot of viewers clearly like are comfort-feeling, non-threatening, informative programs with lovely, changing scenery, beautifully filmed.
Great Railway Journeys slipped under our guard initially when there wasn’t much on offer on all the other channels.
But it was delightfully entertaining. It wasn’t just about trains. It was about towns, history, colourful facts and people connected to the towns or trains.
The test of the value of the series is probably this. Has it made you consider jumping on a train, looking out the window at the passing world and perhaps flicking through colourful background material, wining-and-dining as you ride the rails? You bet!
Portillo’s background is fascinating and, with his colourful history familiar to most Brits, no doubt helped draw early viewers.
Portillo, with a Cambridge first class degree in history, worked in the Conservative research department and at the 1979 general election and was responsible for briefing Margaret Thatcher before her press conferences.
A British MP from 1986 until 1997, he was a whip, Parliamentary Under Secretary for Social Security, Minister of State for Transport and Minister of State for Local Government and Inner Cities.
As a cabinet minister he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Secretary of State for Employment and Secretary of State for Defence.
The man was seen as the Conservative heir-apparent.
Happily married, Portillo sailed through controversy after revealing past gay flings and reinvented himself as a polished TV performer with appeal to international audiences.
“I get upset when people say: I don’t watch your program because I’m not interested in railways,” Portillo says.
“It’s not about railways, it’s about social, industrial and political history. The key to the program is the rollercoaster ride we take people on.”
The series has become an SBS staple and has spread from Britain to the US and Canada with China and Japan being considered and perhaps, says the host himself, Australia, although that would be at least a couple of years away.
Portillo has a few trains to catch first.
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