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

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