TV blog: Great Indian Railway Journeys

Benjie Goodhart / 15 March 2018

Michael Portillo explores India by rail. Plus the best of the rest of the week's TV.

Great Indian Railway Journeys 1/4, Tuesday 20th March, 8pm, BBC Two

I watched this programme with a sense of keen anticipation. I’m a big fan of the Great Railway Journeys oeuvre, and a big fan of India. But more than that, having travelled across Northern India by rail 29 years ago, I was interested to discover if Michael Portillo’s experience would be similar to mine. In other words, were we about to see Portillo passing endless nights in a haze of heat and sweat, staggering occasionally to use a hole in the floor of a Dante-esque toilet? There’s a lot to like about Michael Portillo, and I wasn’t sure I could cope with witnessing his discomfort.

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It turns out a lot has changed in three decades. For the start, there is a lot to like about Michael Portillo. But the Indian Railways are unrecognisable from the ramshackle operation I experienced in those months I went to ‘find myself’ in India. (What I found out about myself, incidentally, was that I didn’t like having typhoid and amoebic dysentery). Today, the Indian trains are cool, modern, fast and clean, and happily, Portillo seems to be having the time of his life.

Armed with his trusty copy of Bradshaw’s 1913 Handbook of India, Foreign and Colonial Travel, he’s off on a series of trips around the subcontinent, starting tonight with a journey from Amritsar to Shimla. And here he is, resplendent in a blue shirt and pinky-red trousers. With his Panama hat, he looks like a cross between the Man from Del Monte and a Dulux colour swatch.

Things get off to an odd start. On arrival in Amritsar, Portillo disembarks the train and announces “My first experience of an Indian railway station!” How did he get on the train? Was he airlifted in? Anyway, unsurprisingly, he heads for the Golden Temple, a building of astonishing beauty and wonder. Here, he speaks to one Sikh pilgrim, who explains that the Temple is not higher than the other buildings nearby because “every feature of this building shows humility.” That’s quite the claim for a building on a man-made island in the middle of a lake, reached by a marble walkway. Made. Of. Gold.

Portillo helps out behind the scenes in the kitchens here – all visitors are given a free meal at the temple, which means 100,000 meals are served every day. It is the world’s largest free kitchen. Less cheerily, he also looks back at the massacre of 1919 here, when British troops slaughtered hundreds of innocent local men, women and children. He’s not afraid to tackle the issues of the past (there are some predictably grim stories of partition) or to recognise Britain’s culpability therein.

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Mostly, though, this is breezily cheerful fare, with our breezily cheerful host. He has a genuine warmth about him, and an interest in other people. If you’re the type of person who loathes conversing with strangers on a train, keep your eyes peeled for the man in the garish outfit, he’s got chat, and he intends to use it. Travelling on to Ludhiana, he visits a school that has been training women to become doctors for over a century, before he journeys on to Ambala, home to the cotton trade, where he has a traditional Indian outfit made for him, in muted grey. Don’t be daft, it’s a vibrant lime green.

On to Chandigarh, an extraordinary modernist town designed by Le Corbusier that feels more like Milton Keynes than India. Finally, he’s off to the old Indian hill station of Shimla. The Viceroy and the mechanics of government moved here for six months each year to escape the heat of the plains. It was a vast operation, with thousands of Brits swarming up the hill each year. Today, a similar pilgrimage occurs, with thousands of British film crews descending upon Shimla to tell its story. Barely a week seems to go by without another travelogue visiting this precipitous, beautiful, peculiar town. And I’ll happily watch each and every one of them. But top of my list will be the one presented by the chap in the vibrant lime green outfit.


Britain’s Favourite Food, Friday 23rd March, 8pm, Channel 4

Okay, first off, if you’re tuning in to watch a countdown of a poll to discover what Britain’s favourite food is, don’t bother. Yes, I know the programme is called Britain’s Favourite Food, but it’s really not about Britain’s Favourite Food at all. They might as well have called it How to Weave a Carpet Using Yoghurt for all the relevance the title has. Which is a shame, as this is a really interesting, informative two-part series. It’s basically a nostalgia-fuelled romp through the cuisine of yesteryear as chef Simon Rimmer looks back at the foods of the 1970s and assesses the gastronomic and social impact they had on this country.

It’s quite remarkable how much food has changed in the last 40 years. Try walking into a cafe in the 1970s and ordering a soya milk skinny latte and a quinoa and edamame bean salad. The 70s were all about convenience food; chemical-filled, mechanically-reclaimed, mass-produced, nutrition-free ready meals straight out of the freezer that could simply be popped in the oven and gobbled up, washed down with a glass or two of Babycham.

In other words, people in the 1970s were tasteless, lazy and irresponsible, serving up any old garbage in the name of speed, simplicity and convenience. Hahaha! The morons! What were they thinki… oh. The programme’s talking about Angel Delight. I gave that to my kids the other day. Ah, now it’s talking about M&S chicken Kievs, which is considered an inalienable human right in our household. Maybe the 1970s weren’t so bad after all.

Simon certainly doesn’t seem to think so. He’s off back to Wallasey, Liverpool, to the house where he grew up. He has an appointment with his mum, to make Angel Delight. Simon may be a Michelin-starred chef, but his mum knows best when it comes to Angel Delight, as she explains in no uncertain terms. Good to know that even chefs of huge renown don’t pass the mum test.

Next, it’s off to meet the former Senior Flavourist at Taste Tech which, remarkably, isn’t a job title from Willy Wonka, but an actual real profession. It soon becomes clear that this is a man of science, not of cookery. He doesn’t work with pots and pans, but with computers and digital readouts. This isn’t gastronomy, it’s chemistry.

The 1970s also witnessed the advent of frozen food. John Apthorp, who founded Bejam (remember them!) recalls opening a store a week for five years. Being able to buy food frozen, and prepare meals quickly, was revolutionary – particularly for women, who were able to come home from work and rustle up a quick dinner. Yes, cooking was definitely seen as women’s work in 70s Britain. And the gender stereotyping didn’t end there. In the competitive ice lolly market, Zooms were launched for boys, Fabs for girls. Which is distressing and emasculating news for this Fab-munching critic.

Not all change was gratefully embraced. When M&S were about to launch the chicken Kiev, there was panic that the British would be suspicious of something so avowedly continental as garlic! The famous dish was almost launched in this country with just plain butter.

As if such a prospect wasn’t agonising enough, it would all have been washed down with a bottle of Blue Nun,  or the other big seller - Piat d’Or, which the adverts claimed was adored by the French. In truth, the only place it was sold in France was at Calais, for the British holidaymakers en route home.

This is a fascinating, informative and deeply nostalgic wander through the cuisine and advertising of yesteryear. It might not make you long for the days of Vesta Chow Mien’s with crispy noodles, but it’ll take your hand and lead you cheerily down memory lane, to a place untouched by quinoa, and with barely a goats’ milk macchiato in sight.


The best… and the rest

Saturday 17th March

Live Six Nations Rugby Union, 12pm, 2:25pm, ITV, 4:30pm, BBC One: Final day of this year’s Six Nations, and the big match comes from Twickenham at 2:45pm. Ireland will be chasing a remarkable Grand Slam, while a disappointed (and disappointing) England will be determined to stop them.

Sunday 18th March

Britain’s Polar Bear Cub, 7pm, Channel 4: Cameras get an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek at the nation’s first polar bear cub for 25 years, at the Highland Wildlife Park in Inverness-shire. Be prepared for maximum cuteness!!

Escape to the Chateau, 8pm, Channel 4: Affable, hirsute human-walrus hybrid Dick Strawbridge and his other half, Angel Adoree, return for another enchanting series from their bewitching Chateau in France. They’re open for business, with seven weddings and 14 food lovers’ weekends to prepare for, as well as extensive works in the garden and stables. Just have a rest and watch a DVD for heavens’ sakes!

The Durrells 1/8, 8pm, ITV: Keeley Hawes returns as Louise Durrell for the third series of this endearing adaptation of Laurence Durrell’s books, set amidst the olive groves and coastal villages of Corfu. Perfect Sunday escapism.

The Good Karma Hospital 1/6, 9pm, ITV: A second series for Amanda Redman’s medical drama, set in Southern India. Tonight, a blistering heatwave hits Kerala. And when the Keralans think it’s hot, safe to say, it’s not chilly…

Monday 19th March

The Funeral Murders, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary examining the deadly events of March 1988, when a Loyalist paramilitary killed three mourners at an IRA funeral. Three days later, at another IRA funeral, two army corporals drove into the cortege, where they were beaten and killed.  A timely reminder of what we might be about to lose if the region’s fragile peace collapses.

Tuesday 20th March

The World’s Ugliest Pets, 8pm, ITV: Caroline Quentin goes from presenting the world’s most beautiful houses to the world’s ugliest pets, including hairless guinea pigs, featherless chicks and dogs without fur. As a bald man myself, I object to the unconscionable angle this programme is taking, and shall not be tuning in on principle.

Wednesday 21st March

The Secret Helpers, 1/5, 8pm, BBC Two: Interesting new idea that sees ten Brits, who are at key stages in their lives, turning to worldly-wise strangers from around the globe to help them via a secret in-ear device. The helpers include an Irish nun, a South African healer, a couple of retired New York cops, two Italian mamas and a Swedish yogi. The helpers can watch their subjects go about their week, before stepping in to offer key advice.

Thursday 22nd March

Big Cats About the House, 8pm, BBC Two: This three-part documentary series follows big cat expert Giles Clark as he runs the Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent. In episode one, he brings a weak five-day-old black Jaguar cub into the house. We’d all like one of them, but they have a habit of growing into enormous, potentially lethal beasts.

Martin Luther King by Trevor McDonald, 9pm, ITV: Next month sees the 50th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King. In this moving and personal one-hour documentary, McDonald crosses the Southern States of the USA to explore the story of a truly great and iconic man.

Friday 23rd March

Sport Relief, from 7pm, BBC One: Gary Lineker, Davina McCall, Ore Oduba, Claudia Winkleman, Paddy McGuinness and Freddie Flintoff present an evening of star-studded entertainment, with music, sketches, a sporty Strictly, a Celebrity Boat race and some intriguing Celebrity Boxing bouts. As ever, there are the achingly sad fundraising films to remind us all of the point of the cheerful idiocy unfolding in front of us.

International Football Friendly, 7:30pm, ITV: England resume their World Cup preparations with a game against once-mighty Holland, who now find themselves languishing in football’s doldrums.

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