Trainspotting with Michael Portillo

Owing to a set of unfortunate circumstances, my own television was recently reduced to a merely terrestrial portfolio of channels. Thankfully, they‘re back now but losing the +1 channels, in particular, was rather like being paralysed – man was not meant to live by the harsh restrictions of real time scheduling. This unexpected restriction was nonetheless the source of a rather depressing revelation. While one remained vaguely aware that the old Big Five have been in decline against the rise of niche programming, it’s truly shocking to realise that the best the BBC can muster for the early evening slots is Rip Off Britain, Anne Robinson scorning unambitious game-show contestants or, if you’ve really got a karmic bullet heading your way, the news. And so it happened that on a grim, cold Tuesday, two people in the millions tuned in to Michael Portillo’s _Great British Railway Journeys_.

Michael Portillo’s _Great British Railway Journeys_. Every syllable drips with narcoleptic potential. A show in which Michael Portillo rolls across the countryside, eulogising train travel, an experience that is for the average man tedious and rage-inducing in equal measure. So, in a sense, Michael Portillo is the perfect host. My housemate swiftly dubbed him ‘Squinty Man’, an epithet that is more devastatingly accurate than every barb levelled at Portillo over twenty years of satirical salvos. It sounds like either the name of a visually impaired reggae artist or a medieval folk monster. In fact, the latter is even more appropriate because of how creepy the show is.

Most of it is down to Portillo himself. Frankly, the very innocuousness of his hobby is slightly disturbing in itself – the idea that a Conservative politician would have a passion for rail travel rather than, say, Slovakian snuff films just seems suspicious. Although, as fans of Eli Roth will know, the two aren’t mutually prohibitive. The magnificently uncomfortable encounters with the general public hardly dispel the subtle tone of menace either, particularly when ‘Squinty Man’ edges conspiratorially towards unassuming pedestrians and asks, in a tone recalling an antiquated pimp, “Do you like trains?” If ever there was a question designed to provoke nervous laughter – a crumb-encrusted loiterer outside Tesco’s could do no better. This unease is inevitably exacerbated whenever he refers to his ‘Bradshaw’: supposedly a guide to the towns of Northern England but clearly, in reality, an obscure Victorian euphemism for penis.

Even more ludicrously, the vast majority of the show is entirely unconnected to the (admittedly uninviting) premise, as the producers realised halfway through that there’s only so much mileage in watching a middle-aged man sweating over gears and brakes. Instead, the programme devotes about 80% of its airtime to spectacularly unimpressive adventures, such as visiting abbeys and interviewing dairy farmers. Look it up on iPlayer right now and the first synopsis you’ll see is, “Michael goes bird-watching and learns to decipher traditional knitting patterns in Filey” – it’s like embarking on a hiking tour organised for the most shaky inhabitants of a cardiac ward. Desperately attempting to inject some excitement, he embarks upon a hunt for Dracula in the village, in which Stoker wrote the novel. It’s never quite clear whether he understands that the character is fictional, but it does involve him hanging out underneath dank bridges a great deal, which seems about right.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the show is that researching its host has unearthed the fact that Portillo was actually considered the most charismatic Tory of his generation. No. On second thoughts, it’s still the “Do you like trains?” question.


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