Sunday, 10 January 2010

Michael Portillo's Great British Railway Journeys

Having read finally read the DJ Stuart Maconie's portrait of the north of England, Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North (a Christmas present I gave my dad, both parents being avid listeners to his Radio 2 show, a year or two ago) whilst visiting my parents in Kent for Christmas, it was a delight to find another guide to the north was being broadcast on my return to Manchester.

Great British Railway Journeys, which was shown this week, is a daily, half-hour documentary in which Michael Portillo takes the train from Liverpool to Scarborough in sections, exploring the country's first passenger railway line, which was opened in 1830, accompanied by the writing of 19th century train fanatic George Bradshaw. At 6.30pm, it's a welcome and educational alternative to Hollyoaks.

On the surface, the two projects couldn't be more different — Maconie's a northerner, from Wigan, with a background in music journalism who presents radio shows on fairly obscure music, and Cambridge educated Portillo was once a controversial Thatcherite MP, but both offer affectionate portraits of the north that made me feel that, if I was the type of person who made new year's resolutions, I would resolve to get to know the north better and spend my weekends daytripping and taking more excursions by train.

Interestingly, although Maconie grew up in the north, both broadly approach as outsiders. An exile to the home counties, the north Maconie returns to is in many ways greatly different to the one in which he grew up (especially the regeneration of the big cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and, most of all, Leeds). As the title suggests, Pies and Prejudice aims to in some way demystify the north and its rich heritage for southerners, many of whom have rarely ventured far north of London.

Maconie's book also considers what it is to be northern — he seems to suggest there's a north west-north east divide almost as great as the north-south divide, with those from the north east considering themselves the 'true northerners' (as he points out, 'it's a long way away — not on the way to anywhere except Berwick or Oslo in a slow boat'). He touches on rivalries such as historical Yorkshire-Lancashire friction more than Portillo, who moves seamlessly from Cheshire to Lancashire to Yorkshire.

Witty and opinionated, and written in an almost hyperactively detailed, dense style, Maconie's book isn't afraid to challenge and offer controversial opinions. In contrast, Portillo's a far more laid back host, offering an inoffensive presenting style and generally content to let the people of the north tell their own stories.

He approaches a great range of interviewees, who exude a passion for the place they're from and what they do. These include workers at an Eccles cake factory, milliners at a hatmakers in Denton and Manchester historian Jonathan Schofield. A chicken keeper in Todmorden spreads the word of the town's grow your own food movement, knitters of fishing sweaters in Filey demonstrate how their craft has been handed down the generations and a jolly, smiley train spotter in York admits he's generally in his 'own little world' . Portillo gamely joins in various activities, having a go at folding his own Eccles cake, creating a trilby and even learning Scouse.

One way in which both Maconie and Portillo present the north is through their culinary traditions, from Wigan's renowned pies and Uncle Joe's Mint Balls to the black pudding and flat bottom muffins Maconie samples in Bury, and the Indian food he eats in Bradford and Oldham. Fish and chips crops up over and over again in Portillo's programme as encapsulating the difference the railways made to people's lives - as he says, they entered 'every corner of people's lives'. Landlocked cities such as Manchester became inland ports, and people who would have previously only been able to eat locally caught freshwater fish were introduced to 'cheap and fast' meals such as cod and chips.

Both Pies and Prejudice and Great British Railway Journeys are immensely educational, and obviously meticulously researched, covering historical events in a city's life and how they relate to today, in Manchester's case from the Peterloo Massacre - detailed by Maconie - to the IRA bomb.

They also made me want to spend more time going on holiday in my own country, and realise how much there is to explore so close.

Michael Portillo's Great British Railway Journeys can be watched on the BBC iPlayer here.

The series continues at 6.30pm on BBC2 next week, with Michael Portillo heading north to Scotland via Cumbria.


Unknown said...

We've been glued to the TV at 6.30pm since Michael Portillo's Great British Railways Journeys started and will be sorry when it ends. It's certainly whetted our appetites for travelling in the UK by train. But we don't want a guided holiday, preferring to 'do it ourselves', but not quite sure where to start.

johnfused said...

The video purportedly showing Portillo going from Liverpool west toward Eccles is wrong. The shot over the Stephenson's Viaduct or the Nine Arches, is in fact going east -- towards Liverpool. How do I know? 'Cos my house is opposite the Nine Arches! Check it out on

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

When Michael Portillo was describing the reflection of the iconic Royal Liver Building in the new glass buildings opposite, the reflection is actually the Port of Liverpool buiding and you cannot see any part of the Royal Liver.