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St Mary's Interview Michael Portillo

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St Mary's Interview Michael Portillo

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St Mary's University, Twickenham, caught up with Michael Portillo; discussing Railway Journeys, his career, and his recent talk at The Exchange, “Life: A Game of Two Halves”.

Question One: “When did your interest for Rail Travel begin?”

Michael Portillo: “I was never a train spotter, I’m not one of those people who knows one locomotive type from another, but what I have is a passion for history, and the programmes are really mainly about history.”

“The railway serves two purposes for us. Firstly, it’s a way of getting around. Rail travel seems to be about the right pace, it’s more dynamic than travelling by canal, and less dreary than travelling by air.”

“The second thing is railways play a big part in history, they make huge changes to economic life, social life and even to some extent political life. So, it’s quite interesting to use the railway as a point of reference when you’re talking about some historical events. The railway is literally and metaphorically a vehicle. It is our vehicle to telling stories about our past and to some extent looking at the world today by contrast with or as a continuation of the history that we have been discussing.”

“So, if we are talking about the history of gold mining in California, we might look at a gold mine today, but we will get to the gold mine as much as we can by train, and we will discuss the fact that the railways may have played an extremely important part. Take a recent example, I’ve recently been up to Alaska, and the Klondike railway plays an extremely important part in opening up the Gold Fields in Yukon.”

Question Two: “You’ve obviously travelled extensively, which has been your favourite country and why?”

Michael Portillo: “That’s an impossible question to answer because I’ve enjoyed all of the travel I’ve done. I’d say broadly, I’m very pleased that we are, as time goes by, going to places which are edgier, by which I mean, more difficult to film, and from our perspective in the United Kingdom more exotic. Last year we did a series in India, in the same year we were in Georgia, and Azerbaijan, and as I just alluded to I’ve recently returned from Alaska, and all of those presented us with challenges in filming.”

Question Three: “Is the George Bradshaw railway guide from 1863 still the ‘go to guide’ for anyone wanting to take an interest in trains?”

Michael Portillo: We’ve moved on from using that incidentally. For the last three series, we have moved our focus from Victorian Britain to Edwardian Britain. Moving to Edwardian Britain obviously gives us a whole new kind of story. After seven years of doing Victorian history, I wouldn’t say we had exhausted, but we had certainly done a lot of Victorian history. Moving on to Edwardian history gives us a new source of stories and of course Edwardian history also gives you quite a lot more imagery than Victorian history, more still photographs and even moving images from the end of the 19th century to use as part of your archives.”

“As for the guide book, the guide book again has been a device, a bit like the railway, the guide book is a device. It’s interesting because it’s a historic document, it really illustrates very much the way in which the railway has transformed Britain, in the case of the British guide. It makes the same points in Australia or India or wherever we are using Bradshaw’s guide. It’s the way that railway has transformed Britain, and people know this; you wouldn’t literally use it as your guide book today, you use it as a guide to historic references.”

Question Four: “You’ve developed a very wide-ranging media career since you left politics; covering trains, mental health issues, and history whilst maintaining your political interests via ‘This Week’. Was this something you planned or has it evolved since leaving politics in 2005?”

Michael Portillo:Mainly it has evolved. It started to evolve long before I left politics. I was making my first programmes whilst I was still a Member of Parliament. Its evolved more or less by chance and haphazardly. The only thing I would say is when I was young, the two things interestingly alike were politics and broadcasting, so when I left politics I had a mind to develop a career in broadcasting but the particular way in which its developed is a matter of chance, particularly the extraordinary chance of doing the railway journeys. We’ve now done about 350 programmes, and that’s quite a lot. That all came about by one or two accidents really.”

Question Five: “Are there any areas of your media career that you haven’t explored yet that you would like to?”

Michael Portillo: “I hope to go on broadcasting for quite a long time, and I’m very much open to offers. The way the business seems to work is that the commissioners are in charge, I mean the people at Channel 5, BBC One, BBC Two, these are very much the people who are in charge, and they have to decide on ‘what Is the public taste?’ ‘What is the public looking for?’. I’m not terribly good at having bright ideas, but every now and again they bring a bright idea to me, and I lap it up. For example, beginning last year I have worked for Channel Five making a series which is called ‘Portillo’s hidden history of Britain’ and the second series of that is about to start, it starts just at the beginning of November.”

Question Six: “Do you miss the day to day involvement of Politics? Are you happy you made the right choice by leaving for a media career?”

Michael Portillo: “I’m very happy, and I don’t miss it. That doesn’t mean that I despise my old career, I had a wonderful time, I really enjoyed it, but I did do it for quite a long time, and it is quite tiring. It’s quite topical today to talk about collective responsibility, and collective responsibility means that if you’re in a cabinet you and your colleagues agree on common positions. In other words, you’re not free to say what you think, you’re only free to say what you’ve agreed with others to say, and there’s nothing immoral in that, it’s the only way government could work.”

“That process of constantly having to check yourself to say only what it is you’ve agreed with others to say, I found, is very wearing after many years. It was a relief for me to be able to speak my mind wherever I wanted to. I feel that I did the right period of time in politics, I suppose one way or another I was there for about 30 years and I was very happy to move on. I’ve just been so lucky and I’m so grateful that the second career has worked out well.”

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