The Idiot’s Lantern – 2 . . .

By | February 23

Michael PortilloMichael Portillo has just finished another of his railway journeyings – this time around the eastern USA using a new old guide – Appletons. These programmes – there have been several series so far – always leave me puzzled and dissatisfied. But why ?

The conceit upon which the series is based is that Michael Portillo is excessively interested in railways. So he travels about by train. We see endless shots of him on a station platform as a train arrives, or as it departs. He gets on and off, but any suggestion that he does so with luggage has long since disappeared – and the clothes he wears do not seem to allow for much in the way of wallets or pocket handkerchiefs, so we must suppose that the minions of the film crew act as his personal valets. His apparent journeys are interspersed with brief clips of trains of similar appearance photographed from ground level or from the air which make you realise that we are looking at a constructed sequence and any notion of a journey such as you or I might make is far from the reality of this programme. He frequently alights luggage-less at some country halt, makes his way on foot or by vehicle, to a place of interest, and then shacks up nearby for the night – usually in a good, not to say posh, hotel. No toothbrush, no pyjamas, no nothing. But he turns out in the morning (still no luggage), apparently well brushed, so his valets obviously got there by a roundabout route first.

However, that is about it. We get told who built the railway and why. He worships at the altar of “Victorian Engineering” but I think his approach to that is admiration of their entrepreneurial success rather than iron foundries or stress analysis. And like many BBC people he seldom appears to differentiate between the Victorian era of the years following that Queen’s accession and the late Victorian of the 1890s and the turn of the century. Of details about the locomotives, the track, the rolling stock and all the other things a railway enthusiast might expect we hear or see very little. Whilst in America of course we have not heard so much of the Victorians, so he has latched on to the millionaires and businessmen of the 19th C. Yes, we managed to get 4 feet 8½ inches in this week, but of wheel arrangements or boiler pressures we hear nothing at all. One often senses that an interesting chat with some knowledgeable person has been savagely cut in order to bring the programme down to the 25 minutes allocated – 5 minutes at least are lost by the endless repetition of the opening sentences we we can chant in unison as the programme begins.

So, what is there instead. Well, as the late lamented Brian Sewell said this programme, like so many others produced by the BBC is really a travelogue. Or more correctly, potentially a travelogue. We no sooner arrive at some interesting spot and are looking forward to learn more, when the remainder of that film drops to the cutting room floor (or goes into electronic oblivion) and we are off to the next place. On occasion this had led to odd hiatuses in the continuity. One evening recently he got off the train and wandered into a sylvan glade so that we quite expected he would make a carefully crafted “stumble” across some interesting artefact, but the film just left him there and found him again somewhere else miles away

The places and countries that he visits would provide enough interesting material for an hour apiece, but this is dumbed down material for people snoozing after their evening meal I guess, before we get to “Casualty” or some other “Drama” of which the Radio Times is inordinately proud, but we seldom watch.

So, is it a programme about Michael Portillo ? Here we close close to the nub of the matter. He wears his pink, yellow, green, and blue jackets and trousers in fearful and wonderful combinations, poses in front of the camera to deliver his philosophical observations, and casually drops in his previous existence as a politician and in the Department of Transport. Just a hint you know ? Still here ! Still available should you need any assistance Mr. Cameron. Nod. Nod. Wink. Wink.

But he lets himself down from time to time with his remarks such as “I never knew before . . .” said confidentially to camera as though he assumes that we didn’t either and that no normal person would. Meanwhile we are curled up with embarrassment that such a person, once a Cabinet Minister, should be so ill informed despite (or because of) public school and Cambridge University. And since we watch with sub-titles for the deaf we are constantly reminded of the astonishing and shameful illiteracy of the sub-titlers (this is an edited programme, not live TV) who drop clangers enough to drown out Big Ben. A particular example, of some importance in a programme about the USA was an inability to distinguish between “capital” and “capitol”.

Come back Lord Reith, all is forgiven.