Plat­form for Por­tillo

From party line, through branch lines, to punch­lines, politi­cian turned rail­way racon­teur Michael Por­tillo is ar­riv­ing at plat­forms in Nor­wich and King’s Lynn, writes ROWAN MANTELL

EDP Norfolk - - Interview -

HE HAS moved on from his Por­tillo Mo­ment, putting thou­sands of miles of rail­way travel be­tween him­self and that lost Par­lia­men­tary seat, but Michael Por­tillo wants it to be known that he is not ready to hand over his ti­tle to any loser-come-lately usurper, even one with Gang­nam style.

“The Por­tillo Mo­ment is still the clas­sic of the genre and I’m keen to hang on to it, and I’ve told Ed Balls that!” said the for­mer Con­ser­va­tive politi­cian, turned broad­caster and racon­teur.

It’s a funny line; one of many from the man who honed his wit in the rau­cous and com­bat­ive at­mos­phere of the House of Com­mons.

“It’s al­ways been nec­es­sary in mak­ing speeches to have a few jokes up your sleeve. It’s part and par­cel of mak­ing a speech in Bri­tain,” said Michael. And so he has hoarded anec­dotes, wit­ti­cisms and one-lin­ers and now not only tours the coun­try by rail, mak­ing tele­vi­sion pro­grammes about the Vic­to­rian past of the places he is vis­it­ing, but also tours its arts cen­tres and the­atres, en­ter­tain­ing au­di­ences with au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal sto­ries.

It’s not all jokes. “There are mo­ments of con­tem­pla­tion, there are mo­ments of poignancy, I hope it’s a lit­tle bit of a roller­coaster,” says Michael.

This month he will be in Nor­wich and King’s Lynn with Life: A Game of Two Halves.

And the sec­ond part of each talk is a ques­tion and an­swer ses­sion. In­spired by the im­age of Por­tillo plung­ing down the sheer drop of a roller­coaster, I won­der whether this is a dan­ger­ous way to make a liv­ing. He finds this amus­ing. “If you are a politi­cian you spend your life an­swer­ing ques­tions,” he says. “They can ask what­ever they want, and on the whole they ask about the mak­ing of the pro­grammes or about pol­i­tics.”

We are speak­ing an hour later than sched­uled be­cause his train was de­layed. Yes, Michael Por­tillo does not just travel on trains to make sur­pris­ingly en­ter­tain­ing

Michael Por­tillo wants it to be known that he is not ready to hand over his ti­tle to any loser-come-lately usurper, even one with Gang­nam style

and gen­tly in­for­ma­tive doc­u­men­taries, based on a Vic­to­rian rail­way and travel guide. “It’s not just for the telly, I do a lot of trav­el­ling by train,” he says.

The Vic­to­rian Brad­shaw’s Guide ac­com­pa­nies him ev­ery mile of the way for the BBC’s Great Bri­tish Rail­way Jour­neys, de­spite him drop­ping the pre­cious an­tique in Padding­ton Sta­tion, just be­fore the first pro­gramme. “Since then I’m not trusted with the book. Gen­er­ally the youngest mem­ber of the team car­ries it, and be­cause it fits per­fectly in a child’s lunch box, it is car­ried in a Thomas the Tank En­gine lunch box,” he ex­plains. “For 15 years I had a civil ser­vant fol­low­ing me around with a case and now I have a young per­son with a Thomas the Tank En­gine lunch box!”

He was a fan of the hugely pop­u­lar train sto­ries as a child but, un­like many lit­tle boys, never longed to be­come an en­gine driver. “I wanted to be a politi­cian and I wanted to be a broad­caster,” he says. But he did not ex­pect to be­come a Con­ser­va­tive politi­cian. “Our house was cov­ered in Labour posters ev­ery time there was an elec­tion. I had a poster of Harold Wil­son on my bed­room wall!” he re­veals.

His fa­ther was a refugee, forced out of Spain af­ter its civil war, and the young Michael didn’t swap left-wing for right un­til univer­sity.

So, af­ter his Por­tillo Mo­ment, when he un­ex­pect­edly lost his seat, and his job, in the Tony Blair land­slide of 1997, it was per­haps not so sur­pris­ing that he came across as sym­pa­thetic and car­ing in a lifeswap doc­u­men­tary in­volv­ing him tak­ing on the role of a sin­gle mum with four chil­dren and two jobs. “I didn’t change, peo­ple’s per­cep­tions of me changed,” says Michael. “It was a very in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but not trans­for­ma­tive. Her in­come was sup­ported by the State and she was in­cen­tivised to work. She went to work and the chil­dren went to school. In­ter­est­ingly, af­ter­wards she said she had seen her life from the other side and liked it very much.” And did Cambridge-ed­u­cated, Par­lia­men­tar­ian Michael Por­tillo like it very much too? “It was an enor­mous way out­side my com­fort zone! I was liv­ing with four chil­dren and I don’t have chil­dren. I was liv­ing on £80 a week and I don’t nor­mally live on £80 a week.”

To­day Michael is nei­ther a Con­ser­va­tive MP nor even a mem­ber of the Con­ser­va­tive Party. His broad­cast­ing ca­reer rolled from pol­i­tics to doc­u­men­taries to rail­ways around the world – but will not be call­ing at re­al­ity shows. “I knew there would be mo­ments of hi­lar­ity and ridicule, but they were mo­ments of hi­lar­ity and ridicule I had some con­trol over,” he says. So there are no plans to ap­pear on Strictly or sim­i­lar, but he has spo­ken to Ed Balls, not just about the de­fin­i­tive phrase for shock elec­tion de­feats, but to ad­vise mov­ing on, rather than re­turn­ing to pol­i­tics. “I lost my seat in 1997 and went back in 1999. It was a mis­take to go back.”

With the rail­ways it is dif­fer­ent and this month he has a re­turn ticket for Nor­folk – which he has vis­ited sev­eral times to film episodes for Great Bri­tish Rail­way Jour­neys. He par­tic­u­larly loves the North Nor­folk Rail­way and as he trav­els the county he has re­told Vic­to­rian sto­ries rang­ing from ex­e­cu­tions at Nor­wich Cas­tle to rab­bit war­rens in Thet­ford for­est, and the Reed­ham swing bridge to Cromer crabs, Fen­land eels and Nor­folk black tur­keys.

The pro­gramme has branched out to Europe and Amer­ica and could well come back to Nor­folk, but in a dif­fer­ent era. “I think we have prob­a­bly squeezed out the 1864 Brad­shaw,” says Michael.

Be­fore that he will be in Nor­wich and Lynn, mi­nus the Thomas the Tank En­gine lunch box but al­most cer­tainly sport­ing one of his many flam­boy­antly coloured jack­ets. His party af­fil­i­a­tions might have rolled from red to blue to nei­ther, but his cloth­ing has gone from sober to star­tling. It be­gan with be­ing asked to wear coloured shirts for the po­lit­i­cal tele­vi­sion show This Week. “The coloured shirts evolved into coloured jack­ets and then it spread south to trousers and north to pocket hand­ker­chiefs!” ex­plains Michael.

And he will be as ready to an­swer ques­tions on his wardrobe as pol­i­tics, his­tory, trains, tele­vi­sion, and the pos­si­bil­ity of patent­ing the Por­tillo mo­ment. Michael Por­tillo brings Life: A Game of Two Halves, to Open, 20 Bank Plain, Nor­wich, on Sun­day, March 19 at 3pm. Tick­ets £17.50 (con­ces­sions £15.50,) and St Ge­orge’s Guild­hall, King’s Lynn, on Tues­day, March 21. Tick­ets £19.

Be­low: Michael Por­tillo dur­ing film­ing for one of his tele­vi­sion pro­grammes at the Nor­wich Live­stock Mar­ket in 2013

Above: A ven­er­a­ble copy of Brad­shaw’s Guide

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