How Michael Portillo went from the MP everyone loved to hate to TV travel favourite

Michael Portillo at Big Trees Railroad, Santa Cruz. PA Photo/BBC/Boundless.
Michael Portillo at Big Trees Railroad, Santa Cruz. PA Photo/BBC/Boundless.
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He was an unlikely face for travel documentaries, but as his latest series airs, former MP Michael Portillo talks to Georgia Humphreys about his career change.

Michael Portillo is finding it extremely difficult to pick his favourite railway journey. You can’t blame the man, really. Never mind the miles he’s clocked up filming across continental Europe, there have been nine series of Great British Railway Journeys and the third of Great American Railroad Journeys is about to start. In the end, he settles on California - one of the most recent places he chugged through.

Michael Portillo at Virginia and Truckee Railroad, Virginia City. PA Photo/BBC/Boundless.

Michael Portillo at Virginia and Truckee Railroad, Virginia City. PA Photo/BBC/Boundless.

“While I was there I was driven in an autonomous car on a 10-lane highway,” the former politician and journalist says excitedly. “If you want to know what the future is, don’t look in your crystal ball, look in California.”

From Boston to Toronto, and Reno to San Diego, once again he always has a copy of Appleton’s 19th century guidebook to the United States and Canada in his hands for reference. Combining the rail journey with some of the route’s most impressive sights - at one point the 64-year-old stands on top of the gigantic CN Tower - it’s this mix which Michael reckons has earned him such a loyal audience.

“There’s an enormous appetite for programmes about travel, but also people are really hungry for history.” he says. “So, we will give them seven minutes of heavy history, but then I’ll be dressing up and doing some Morris dancing.”

The real challenge for Portillo when filming the show is the speed at which they have to do it with production team deamnding half an hour of TV from two days of filming.

Michael Portillo on board a ship at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, MA.  PA Photo/BBC/Boundless.

Michael Portillo on board a ship at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, MA. PA Photo/BBC/Boundless.

“And we absolutely do have to take trains at the scheduled time,” he says. “So you’re normally rushing, rushing, rushing.”

This tight timetable means there’s not a lot of chance for the one-time Conservative cabinet minister, who retired from the House of Commons in 2005, to stop to discuss Donald Trump with the locals, even if he agrees it would be fascinating.

“When I get back from the United States, people say, ‘What is the atmosphere there?’ and I say, ‘Well, I didn’t get time to notice because I was too busy filming.’”

Michael, who has never cared much for social medial, does share one thing he has noticed from his time across the pond, however. Having travelled so much of Europe by rail, he claims American trains are “delightfully old-fashioned” in comparison.

“They have comfortable seating accommodation, they have observation bars, they have kitchens where your steak is cooked from fresh - we’re not talking about microwaves,” he says. “So, in many ways, they’re very, very attractive. You just wouldn’t want to set your watch by them.”

Whether they too are traversing the tracks, riding a motorbike or pedalling a bicycle, numerous celebrites have tried their hand at mastering the art of the travel show.

Asked what he thinks of the trend, Portillo says: “I’m not a professional historian, and I go on TV and I talk about history, so people can possibly object to that. However, the important thing in terms of the entertainment to the viewer is, is the presenter giving you a reaction that is provocative? And I hope that you don’t need to be an absolute expert in the subject in order to do that.

“But if you are not giving a reaction which is thought-provoking, then you’d have to ask why you are there.”

He certainly doesn’t see himself leaving the job any time soon.

“By going to new places, whether it’s another part of the US or another part of the world, whether it’s going to the same places but looking through a different lens of history, then I think the formula is almost infinitely applicable.”

Great American Railroad Journeys airs weekdays on BBC Two from Monday, January 22. Episodes of Great British Railway Journeys are available on BBC iPlayer now.