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Review: Great American Railroad Journeys, BBC2

PUBLISHED: 09:39 26 January 2018

Great American Railroad Journeys  - Michael Portillo takes his fashion to the next level by not only coordinating his outfit with his guidebook, but also with the train at Ottawa station (C) Boundless

Great American Railroad Journeys - Michael Portillo takes his fashion to the next level by not only coordinating his outfit with his guidebook, but also with the train at Ottawa station (C) Boundless

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It’s a railroad journey which is strangely bereft of trains (in the first episode, at any rate). Michael Portillo gives us a guided tour of Boston and goes searching for an absolutely massive organ. Ooer.

Great American Railroad Journeys  - Michael Portillo with a heritage locomotive at Lowell (C) Boundless Great American Railroad Journeys - Michael Portillo with a heritage locomotive at Lowell (C) Boundless

He’s probably one of the best examples of how a politician can reinvent themselves after what seemed like a disastrous end to their career.

The ‘Portillo result’ was the defining moment of the Conservative Party’s 1997 defeat as half the country stayed up to see his defeat in Enfield Southgate (me included, full wine glass in hand) and the political demise of the one time would-be Tory leader who symbolised the end of two decades of Tory power.

Fast forward 20 years and Portillo is now – if not a national treasure, on the way to becoming one.

He has painstakingly rebuilt his reputation and is now a respected documentary maker and genial presenter whose programmes genuinely enchant viewers, whether he’s investigating the life of Richard Wagner, meeting Spanish wildlife in The Natural World or presenting Queen Elizabeth I as a Great Briton.

He’s presented Dinner with Portillo, is a long-serving member of the panel in the BBC Radio 4 series The Moral Maze, was the jury foreman in the BBC TV project The Verdict, carried out research into capital punishment for How to Kill a Human Being and has researched subjects as diverse as suicide, medieval cuisine, capitalism, classified documents and the Magna Carta. You might almost forget he supported the death penalty and poll tax back in the day. Almost.

The British television schedulers know that this is the time of year when we’re all yearning for sunshine, poring over holiday deals and dreaming of blue skies – that’s why this week has been packed with travel programmes. It’s like showing a dedicated dieter a bag of chips.

There was Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby with Monica Galetti and that tawdry fat-shaming bloke who writes food reviews, Costa Del Celebrity with Nick Owen, Anne Diamond, Ainsley Harriot, Vicki Michelle and Christine Hamilton, The Cruise: Return to the Mediterranean, Bargain Loving Brits in the Sun, The Hairy Bikers’ Mediterranean Adventure, Miriam’s Big American Adventure, Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart and Michael Portillo was back on the trains.

I imagine Portillo hears train announcements in his sleep – he’s barely been off rolling stock since he left Westminster and here he is back with the third series of his American journeys, this time taking a 20-episode trip around the East Coast.

Former MP MP is on a 1,100 journey from Boston to Toronto while simultaneously taking a trip through the colour spectrum. I love Portillo’s sartorial style: the red trousers, the lemon jacket, the lilac suits, the preppy blazers in clashing tones, the duck egg sweaters, the lime shirts, the fluorescent orange tank top – if I wasn’t in love with the format anyway, I’d watch the show on mute for the bold fashion choices.

Clutching a copy of the 19th century Appleton’s guidebook to America and Canada, Portillo set off on his journey which the publicity blurb promised me would involve him encountering “revolutionaries and feminists, pilgrims and witches” – sounds like Christmas Day at my house.

Like a benevolent citrus fruit, MP took us on a leisurely tour around Boston where we learned about its Puritanical history, how it was named after its founders’ hometown back in Lincolnshire and how it became the cradle of the American Revolution (Boston in Lincolnshire, meanwhile, is famous for its Stump).

Aboard ship in Boston, there was a slightly cringeworthy recreation of the protest against George III and taxation which saw our hero back in the eye of the Boston Tea Party storm of the 1830s, a criminal act which led to something quite revolting – a revolution, not a wharf of over-brewed tea.

There was a ride on America’s first subway, oyster supping in Boston’s oldest restaurant (“has anyone ever told you, sir, that you are a great shucker?” said Portillo to the man serving him, in what I don’t think was a piece of rhyming slang) before a rail journey to Lowell, the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution where MP travelled by streetcar to the Boott Cotton Mills built by Francis Cabot Lowell after he travelled to Britain, memorised the plans for power looms and brought them back to Massachusetts to copy. I bet he was good at exams.

Best of all was Portillo’s search for a massive organ, insert Carry On titter, close to Haverhill near Boston. It was, as well – massive.

The one thing that Great American Railroad Journeys didn’t have much of ws trains. I’m sure we’ll see a few in the next 19 episodes.

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