As he clocks up his 100th Great Railway Journey, Michael Portillo says…it Beats facing Paxo!
22:30 GMT, 9 November 2012
You would never have seen Michael Portillo waltzing with another man in his arms in the old days.
Yet here’s the former Defence Secretary and one-time contender for the Conservative Party leadership dressed in white tie and tails while he leads – as any good politician should – his partner around the dance floor of an ornate Viennese ballroom.
He dressed the part to evoke the Edwardian era he’s revisiting in his new BBC2 series Great Continental Railway Journeys. ‘I was dreading I might be asked to dance properly, to join other couples swirling around the floor,’ he says.
Michael is coy about admitting it but the 100 railway programmes he's filmed have allowed him to make a personal voyage of discovery too
‘When we turned up there were two guys teaching at the school and I said, “Before anyone comes in, could you give me a few pointers” They said, “But of course!” and then the camera started rolling. Personally I find it hilarious,’ he says.
You have to applaud him for allowing the footage to be seen – in his Westminster days he might not have been so relaxed about such a potentially embarrassing situation. ‘I did enjoy dressing up, I’ll admit it. When I put on the white tie and tails in Vienna, I liked that.’ So will it be Strictly next ‘Absolutely no chance,’ he snorts.
The series is based around the celebrated Bradshaw’s railway guides, which began as published timetables in 1839 but grew to incorporate a guidebook and hotel directory.
In Great British Railway Journeys Michael used the 1863 guide, but for the Great Continental Railway Journeys series he’s transported himself to 1913, the end of the Belle Epoque in Europe and a superficially more playful Edwardian age.
‘We’re trading a little bit in romance and a little bit in nostalgia,’ he explains. ‘The combination of travel and history is at the heart of all the programmes. The guides are a device that allow the world to open up for us.’
Michael wishes he had some of the skills he's learnt on TV back in his days as a politician
He’s coy about admitting it but the 100 railway programmes he’s filmed have allowed him to make a personal voyage of discovery too, from straitjacketed politician to someone a bit more rounded. ‘When I started making TV shows I was still in politician mode, so quite careful about what I said – I think I’ve moved on a long way from there.’
So, instead of making uncompromising speeches to conference as the darling of the Conservative Party, we see Michael, 59, join a couple of Sound Of Music impersonators on an Austrian lake as they sing Do-Re-Mi. I tell him I was impressed with his baritone.
‘Millions won’t be,’ he cringes. He tries his hand pulling the strings of puppets in Salzburg, making chocolate in Belgium and eating a large German sausage by the Rhine. ‘I don’t mind trying funny foods, but if it’s dancing or playing petanque I have to steel myself, because I’m not good at anything sporty.’
He wishes he had some of the skills he’s learnt on TV back in his days as a politician, particularly when he was Defence Secretary. ‘It’s so different presenting a travelling history show from being on the receiving end of Jeremy Paxman as a government minister.
'Famously Jeremy’s attitude is, “Why is this b****** lying to me” And that doesn’t produce the most relaxed interview. It’s much easier to look relaxed when you’re hopping on and off trains across the continent. Looking back on my political career it was comic how buttoned-up I was.’
Now we see him meander through an elegant, largely bygone world, without being too sentimental. In Britain pre-First World War, he points out, there was a lot of political and industrial strife.
Yet surprisingly over two million people managed to escape by train to the continent in 1913 alone.
‘People must have thought, “Why is it that we live with all our restrictions and our Victorian morality when across the Channel they’re literally casting off their bloomers” I’m sure these things had a huge impact on us.’
For Michael Portillo there’s been a big impact too, and no going back to his former life. ‘This is my world now and I enjoy it enormously. I hope it’ll keep producing opportunities,’ he says.
Great Continental Railway Journeys is on BBC2 on Thursdays at 9pm.