Interview with Michael Portillo

Michael Portillo opens the refurbished King's Lynn Station

Michael Portillo opens the refurbished King's Lynn Station - Credit: Matthew Usher

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

Michael Portillo during filming for one of his television programmes at the Norwich Liveustock Marke

Michael Portillo during filming for one of his television programmes at the Norwich Liveustock Market in 2013 - Credit: Archant 2013

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.

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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 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!”

Micheal Portillo at Thuxton Station Norfolk filming for the BBC in 2010

Micheal Portillo at Thuxton Station Norfolk filming for the BBC in 2010 - Credit: ©Archant Photographic 2010

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 life-swap 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.

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