TV & RADIO
Portillo’s Hidden History Of Britain Scheduled for late September/October
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Having reinvented himself as a train-jumping, bright-shirted traveller happy to have fun poked at him for the sake of the cameras in the Great Railway Journey series, former cabinet minister Michael Portillo has utterly transformed his public image. Yet that’s never obscured a genuine interest in studying the past that constantly comes through in his shows.
It’s certainly present here, in a four-part series that finds him visiting locations that, while now abandoned, have much to tell us about British history. He begins at HM Prison Shepton Mallet, which closed its doors in 2013. Here, as well as hearing stories of when the Krays, Ronnie and Reggie, were residents, Portillo also learns how the gaol played a crucial role during the Second World War.
In 1939, amid fears that just a single bomb could wipe out the entire National Records Office on London’s Chancery Lane, many of Britain’s most precious historical records, including Magna Carta, were moved to the gaol. The archivist in charge also moved to the prison, along with his young family.
In the second episode, Portillo visits the village of Imber on Salisbury plain. It’s an eerie place, which had to be abandoned by its residents in December 1943 when taken over by the military to conduct combat-training. The villagers were promised they would return; this never happened.
In the series, Michael Portillo also traces how the Royal London Hospital, which was once a safe haven for John ‘Elephant Man’ Merrick, was so often at the centre of key events in British medical history.
The final show in the series sees him in Orford Ness, a spit of land on the Suffolk coast scattered with mysterious ruins. At a spot sometimes called Britain’s ‘Area 51’, Portillo tells the story of Cobra Mist, a radar installation that was designed to eavesdrop on Russian military manoeuvres. Jonathan Wright
Portillo visits unusual places in the UK including Shepton Mallet gaol