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People we love: Michael Portillo

Stephen Armstrong / 25 January 2017

The former politician and Great British Railway Journeys presenter spoke to Saga Magazine ahead of his new series of Great American Railroad Journeys.

Michael Portillo's Great Americal Railroad Journeys
Michael Portillo on the Grand Canyon Railway in Great American Railroad Journeys © Boundless

When did your love of railways begin?

I was young enough to know steam trains on the main line – we used to go to Scotland to see my grandparents who lived in Fife. But my motivation in the programme is really the history aspect. It’s partly a history in which the railroads play a part and it’s partly a modern doomsday book - finding out what happened in the past and what places are like today.

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Did you enjoy America?

I get terribly drawn into American history because I think it is an extraordinary clash of idealism and tragedy – the vision of equality and the fact of African-American slavery and the wiping out of Native Americans. But the idealism, in my view, hasn’t died; it’s still an extraordinary template, which somehow guides the US forward.

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How do you think post-Trump America will change?

I think Trump is fundamentally an American phenomenon. His father was extraordinarily rich so he’s not the American dream in a single lifespan, but he’s that idea translated into the age of celebrity. It’s extraordinary to Europeans that a billionaire can be an anti-establishment figure, but going all the way back to the American revolution – and indeed before that – there is this deep suspicion of dynasties and royal families and establishments. It wasn’t just the Clintons who got wiped out this time, it was the Bushes as well. If Americans sense a dynasty they brush it aside.

Which British train journeys do you think are underrated?

The journeys I’ve enjoyed in Britain I think are the ones that people know about. Glasgow to Fort William and Mallaig, the Devon coastal route and Settle to Carlisle. That last one is the most emotional for me – when I was a minister it fell to me to refuse the closure of the Settle to Carlisle line. In the first series [of Great British Railway Journeys], we went across the Ribblehead viaduct pulled by a steam locomotive and the valley was filled with people photographing and filming the train. I did become emotional thinking that – had we got that one wrong – it wouldn’t have existed.

What’s been your favourite train journey?

Normally, we’re too busy to do anything except work – but we had about six hours on a train travelling through Colorado and, after work, we settled down in the dining car. We were crossing the desert – one of those landscapes you see in Westerns, with red, jagged rocks and sunset-pink shadows. American trains move very slowly, the food is cooked in a proper kitchen and the steak came with a bottle of red wine – or, let me be honest, two bottles – and I just thought, ‘This is marvellous’.

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Hows your copy of [legendary railway travel guide] Bradshaws holding up?

Well, my Bradshaw for Britain is from approximately 1864, and eight years ago we got on the train at Paddington to film the pilot – and I was handed the book in two pieces. I had dropped it onto the floor at Paddington and it broke into two. For the rest of the pilot, I had to hold the book together. We got it rebound in time for the next bit of shooting but since then I’ve never been trusted to hold it except when I’m in front of the camera. As soon as I’ve finished, it’s grabbed by a 20-something and put into a child’s lunchbox with Thomas the Tank Engine on the lid. For 11 years of my life, I was followed by a young soul carrying a red box – now I’m followed by a young TV hopeful carrying a Thomas the Tank Engine box. There are facsimiles of these books available – they’re selling terribly well, but I’m very amused when people buy for £20 or £25 the continental version because the first 500 pages are simply lists of timetables for trains in 1913, which are of fairly limited use today.

Did you ever imagine your railway journey series would be such a hit?

I was astonished to begin with that we were asked to make 15 or 20 half-hour programmes for the first series. Then we were on tenterhooks as to whether we would be re-commissioned but I think we’ve now made about 250 programmes. Eight years of British, five years of continental, two years of American and this year we have produced 41 new programmes. In many ways, we’re very frivolous but we’re fundamentally setting out to make a good programme. We’re not going to slag anybody off; we’re not there to be cynical. And probably I get more relaxed each year  – less and less of the old stiff shirt.

As you get older [Portillo is 63], should you tone down the colours you wear on the show?

What do you mean? Is this a question about my stage of life? I could pretend to be offended, but no – the colours won’t dull down. I began with colourful shirts, moved on to colourful jackets, then colourful trousers. Some viewers may have noticed that the handkerchiefs have become rather outrageous. Colourful socks are now very much on the agenda and the other day I was introduced to the world of colourful shoelaces. Also, until now, I have on the whole worn solid colours – but why stop at that? 

Do you look back to that night in 1997, when you famously lost your seat, with fondness?

Yes – it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It’s allowed me to have a new lease of life, do different things and become more relaxed. I have three professional personas – on the railway journeys I have to be very warm and listen very carefully to people, on [Radio 4 discussion programme] the Moral Maze we savage our witnesses, and This Week is somewhere in between. It’s very jolly but it’s very cynical as well.

Which train journey would you go on with [fellow This Week presenter] Diane Abbott?

Any. The longer the better. Handcuffed together if possible.

Will you ever return to politics?

Absolutely not. Firstly because I’m far too old, but mainly because I’m having such a good time these days. I played out my part in policies. There’s nothing left that I want to do. I don’t in anyway think like an active politician any more. And the stress that I was prepared to take in my 40s and 50s is not the stress that I am prepared to take now that I have a senior railcard.

Great American Railroad Journeys is on BBC Two now

A version of this article was published in the February 2017 issue of Saga Magazine.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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