My search for Bri­tain’s dark­est SE­CRETS

From a 400-year-old jail to a Cold War H-bomb plant, Michael Por­tillo vis­its four build­ings with chill­ing hid­den his­to­ries in his new se­ries

Daily Mail Weekend Magazine - - NEWS - Por­tillo’s Hid­den His­tory Of Bri­tain starts next month on Chan­nel 5. Tim Oglethorpe

Michael Por­tillo has a re­cur­ring night­mare. It in­volves a prison cell, a bolted door and the ab­so­lute cer­tainty he won’t be re­leased for a very long time. So imag­ine how he felt while film­ing his new Chan­nel 5 doc­u­men­tary Crime And Pun­ish­ment, the first in a fas­ci­nat­ing new four-part se­ries called Por­tillo’s Hid­den His­tory Of Bri­tain.

To gain an in­sight into what life would have been like hundreds of years ago for pris­on­ers at Shep­ton Mal­let Prison in Som­er­set, the for­mer Con­ser­va­tive cabi­net min­is­ter steps inside a dark, damp cell and lets the door slam be­hind him. Vis­i­bly dis­turbed, he shud­ders, ut­ters the words ‘nasty’ and ‘claus­tro­pho­bia’ and makes a bee­line for the door. ‘It’s my worst night­mare,’ says Michael, ‘to be in­car­cer­ated in jail and not know why I’m there or how long I’m go­ing to be there for, so it was a very un­pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence. Some pris­on­ers would have spent years in that tiny cell. Imag­ine how night­mar­ish that would have been.’

In the se­ries Michael vis­its four ex­traor­di­nary aban­doned build­ings to lift the lid on some of Bri­tain’s big­gest se­crets. In the first show at Shep­ton Mal­let jail, which closed its doors in 2013 af­ter more than 400 years, Michael in­ves­ti­gates bar­baric 17th-cen­tury cells deep in the bow­els of the build­ing that would have af­forded in­mates no light what­so­ever. ‘It does make you won­der what prisons are for,’ he says, ‘Are they there to re­ha­bil­i­tate, or just to pun­ish? Can they ac­tu­ally set peo­ple on the road to a life of crime? The Kray Twins went to Shep­ton Mal­let as 20-year- olds for as­sault, and came out nine months later as gang­sters. Prison clearly didn’t work in the way it should have done for them.’

The Krays weren’t the only fa­mous in­mates of Shep­ton. ‘Some of our great na­tional trea­sures, such as the Magna Carta, the Domes­day Book and Nel­son’s log­book from HMS Vic­tory, were in dan­ger of be­ing de­stroyed by Nazi air raids so they were moved to the rel­a­tive safety of Shep­ton Mal­let. They trans­ferred so much ma­te­rial the lor­ries kept break­ing down be­cause their car­goes were so heavy. It’s ex­traor­di­nary to think a doc­u­ment like the Magna Carta may have been stored in a cell like the one I was in. Never was a more im­por­tant in­mate kept there un­der lock and key.’

Shep­ton Mal­let also be­came the US Trea­sures in­clud­ing the Domes­day Book ar­riv­ing at Shep­ton Mal­let dur­ing WWII

mil­i­tary’s death row dur­ing the war, and in three years 18 Amer­i­can troops were ex­e­cuted there, for rape and/or mur­der.

Another pro­gramme in­ves­ti­gates the case of Im­ber, the once-bustling vil­lage on Sal­is­bury Plain in Wilt­shire that be­came a ghost town overnight when its res­i­dents were turfed out in 1943 by the mil­i­tary, which re­tains con­trol of the area to this day as a train­ing ground. Then there’s the London Hos­pi­tal in the city’s East End, whose most fa­mous res­i­dent was the hor­ri­bly de­formed Joseph Mer­rick, aka the Ele­phant Man. Michael re­counts his tragic story, per­form­ing as a freak show act be­fore be­ing saved from a life­time of pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion by sur­geon Fred­er­ick Treves, who gave him a place of sanc­tu­ary at the hos­pi­tal. Michael is left deeply moved by the sight of Mer­rick’s hat and mask, de­signed to hide his de­formed body from pub­lic ridicule. Michael also dis­cov­ers that the hos­pi­tal was where some of Jack The Rip­per’s vic­tims were ex­am­ined and where, be­fore the Anatomy Act of 1832, corpses that had been dug up il­le­gally and sold to the hos­pi­tal’s med­i­cal school were used for dis­sec­tion.

But per­haps the big­gest night­mare of all lurks in the episode where Michael vis­its Or­ford Ness in Suf­folk, the eeri­est and dead­li­est of all the lo­ca­tions with its de­serted Cold War con­crete bunkers and rust­ing radar tow­ers. ‘Peo­ple talk for the first time about work­ing there and we dis­cover it’s where ex­per­i­ments were done on hy­dro­gen bombs to en­sure they wouldn’t ex­plode in mid-air,’ re­veals Michael. ‘Many lives were in the hands of the tech­ni­cians in con­trol of those weapons. We speak to a man called Roger Har­ri­son who worked on Co­bra Mist, an An­glo-Amer­i­can project thought to have cost nearly £ 800 mil­lion in to­day’s money, that was se­cretly set up to spy on Rus­sian mil­i­tary ma­noeu­vres be­fore be­ing abruptly shut down. Did the Rus­sians com­pro­mise the op­er­a­tion, or was the tech­nol­ogy faulty? ‘What’s ex­traor­di­nary about Co­bra Mist is that the pub­lic were obliv­i­ous to it,’ says Michael. ‘That’s one of the in­ter­est­ing points raised by our pro­gramme: how much should we know about what our gov­ern­ment is do­ing to keep us safe?’

Michael hopes his own brief spell be­hind bars at Shep­ton Mal­let will put an end to his re­cur­ring night­mare about be­ing locked up, for which he of­fers no ex­pla­na­tion. ‘It’s not as if I’ve ever been to prison,’ he says. ‘The clos­est I’ve got is go­ing there to visit peo­ple I knew who were in­car­cer­ated.’

Among those he vis­ited was Tory MP turned nov­el­ist Jef­frey Archer, who got four years for per­jury and per­vert­ing the course of jus­tice in 2001. ‘I used to have lunch with him at Le Caprice res­tau­rant in London and he al­ways had the best ta­ble,’ says Michael. ‘Af­ter he was jailed I went to visit him at North Sea Camp prison in Lin­colnshire and I was shown into a can­teen where you were in­vited to sit down be­fore the pris­oner came in and joined you. When Jef­frey fi­nally came in, I looked con­cerned and said, “Jef­frey, I do hope this is the best ta­ble.” For­tu­nately he saw the funny side.’

Michael Por­tillo at Shep­ton Mal­let and (in­set) the prison in Ed­war­dian times

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