The Great Train Documentary

In which The Author enjoys a BBC series

Since leaving politics, the former Conservative MP Michael Portillo has carved out a new career as a broadcaster. His Radio 4 series The Things We Forgot to Remember looks at major historical events from angles which don’t normally get covered in books. However, in my opinion, his real triumph started from a brilliantly simple idea: to use a Victorian guide to the British railways as a basis for exploring the history and culture of these islands.
Great British Railway Journeys does exactly what it says on the tin. Mr Portillo criss-crosses a section of the country by train, visiting places which were mentioned in George Bradshaw’s guides from the 1860s. At each stop he meets a local guide and gets a potted history of some of the events which shaped this country’s development in Victorian times.
I watched three of these programmes back-to-back last night, and only stopped because my medication had kicked in. To be perfectly honest, I could have watched them all night without getting bored.
Mr Portillo began his journey in Manchester. He veered through Warrington and Birkenhead, and went via Southport to Preston, then across to Hebden Bridge, taking in Bolton and Rochdale en route. He’s a charismatic, humorous and enthusiastic presenter, passionate about the history he explores, and he obviously loves the railways as well.
For only the second time in this blog I’m going to give a Conservative politician credit for a good idea: as Secretary of State for Transport, it was Mr Portillo who approved the plans to build the Manchester tram network.
For the first programme in this current run, he visited Chetham’s Library in Manchester, where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels worked on the Communist Manifesto. Although their political beliefs and his are diametrically opposed, Mr Portillo clearly admired the huge amount of theoretical and empirical research which led them to issue their call for a workers’ revolution.
From there, he visited Old Trafford, where he was able to run out onto the pitch wearing a mocked-up Manchester United shirt. I chuckled at his little quip as he boarded the train again, when he said that Man Utd had managed to outlive Marxism.
At every stop Mr Portillo manages to unearth some surprising history, meets fascinating people, and (more often than not) finds a tasty local delicacy to sample. Although the beginning and end of each programme suffer from the time-wasting repetition which I satirised in An Exciting New Documentary, it’s an entertaining and educational way to spend half an hour. If you like well-made and quirky television programmes, I can thoroughly recommend it. I’ll certainly be looking out for the DVDs of the earlier series.