Ahh the return of Michael Portillo. A phrase that used to chill the blood back when he was a vocal proponent of the Poll Tax and hired Alexandra Palace to celebrate his first decade in politics. Now it just triggers a warm sense of cosy anticipation for the return of his rather delightful series, ‘Great Continental Railway Journeys’, on the best channel on earth, BBC4.
This is series three of the gentle travelogue and it carries on in exactly the same way as before: with Mr Portillo travelling the railways of Europe using George Bradshaw’s ‘Continental Railway Guide’ from 1913 as a template for his meanderings.
Following on from his trips to the great European cities in the first two series, it is now the turn of Moscow, Tula and St Petersburg, where our garishly jacketed host (lemon yellow is a tough look for anyone, Michael) mooches along the scopious railways networks of Russia.
First off is Tula, where the author of ‘War and Peace’, Leo Tolstoy, was birthed and buried. Britain’s former Defence Secretary visits the great writer’s house in the old town, where we are given some background into his life as the ‘aristocrat who turned’, becoming the pre-eminent voice of peasants against the cruelties of Russia’s ruling classes. Portillo then takes us into his home and shows us the very desk where he wrote great masterpieces of literature such as ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’. We also got to see Portillo pay homage to a large black sofa upon which Tolstoy was born.
From Tula we accompany our agreeable guide to Moscow and St Petersburg where he tours the Kremlin, takes on some menial work at the Bolshoi and most amusingly experiences a refreshing yet brutal Russian banya, Mother Russia’s version of a spa. Here, the erstwhile Tory MP for Kensington and Chelsea receives a good old fashioned birching, all in the name of getting “clean like a Russian”, entertainment and a touch of schadenfreude, of course.
‘Great Continental Railway Journeys’ is a tremendous little programme, and Michael Portillo is an amiable and likeable host. The show’s structure is such that it doesn’t overwhelm or under inform the viewer by smashing through as many locations and destinations as it can cram in. Instead it devotes a decent amount of time to each terminus, soaking up just enough of the ambience in each cultural hotspot.
Portillo is on a journey of discovery and is genuinely enthusiastic to chug along these historical railway tracks, meeting all manner of different characters and taking in sights of bona fide interest. Another little victory for the little engine that could. Well done BBC4.
Great Continental Railway Journeys is on BBC4 on Wednesdays at 9pm