Television: Portillo on the right track

Written By: Les Hull
Published: February 4, 2018 Last modified: February 5, 2018

Great American Railroad Journeys



Six Wives With Lucy Worsley



The rehabilitation of Michael Portillo seems to be just about complete.  Whereas once his name was synonymous with the hard right in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, it now conjures up the image of an easy-going railway enthusiast – another celebrity train man of the same ilk as Pete Waterman and Michael Palin.

One can perhaps forget the now documentary presenter Portillo’s past as he takes the audience around the United States by rail, having previously the UK and Europe. He uses the rail networks of the various places he visits to give us a most engaging geography and history lesson. But when he passes through a town or city with some political connection to his previous career it is possible to think: “While you’re in this mining area, would you care to apologise for the Thatcher years?” There has been nothing yet. Portillo doesn’t exactly ignore his time as a politician, but he does tend to skate lightly over it on some occasions. Abruptly it’s: “Let’s get aboard and go somewhere else, shall we?”

In the third season of the North American strand of the programme, Great American Railroad Journeys, Portillo began his travels in Boston and among other things, joined in with a re-enactment group who recreate the famous Boston Tea Party.  Dressed in 18th century costume along with his fellow performers, we saw him listening and cheering as a rousing speech was made by a “rebel leader” – that leader at one point telling people to beware as “there may be Tory spies among us”.

At which point Portillo played up by giving the camera a guilty look. That may be the closest we’ll get to his erstwhile occupation in this particular transatlantic set of programmes.

On previous American trips, Portillo has taken viewers south – close to the border with Mexico. This time he has gone to the other border, and indeed crossed it, taking us up into Canada. Pretty much wherever he has gone in the world since he started making these programmes he has shown that train stations are the most interesting point of disembarkation. They have a charm of their own that bus stations, motorway service stations and airport lounges do not.

Historian Lucy Worsley and her team have gone for another new angle on the history documentary in Six Wives With Lucy Worsley.  Not only do members of the acting profession dramatise key moments from Tudor England during Henry VIII’s reign but Lucy Worsley herself dresses up as a female servant and joins in the dramatisation. The camera cuts away and there she is standing to one side, done up in the clothes of the time, watching a furious row between Henry and one of his queens.

Worsley talks about “observing history as it unfolds” as if she wants us to pretend she has gone back in time like a travelling companion in The Doctor’s Tardis to witness historical events as unfold.

While she has some interesting insights into the nation’s past, some may find all this approach a bit too gimmicky.