All aboard!
Ian Cuthbertson

8 Mar 2016 - 1:10 PM  UPDATED 26 Mar 2016 - 10:43 AM

1. There is no one quite like Michael Portillo

CLUTCHING a copy of Bradshaw’s 1913 Continental Railway Guide as if his life depended on it, Michael Portillo has now completed four seasons of his travel and history program Great Continental Railway Journeys.

Portillo is a middle aged, English gentleman whose rounded vowels and Oxbridge elocution would give some minor British royals and members of the Tory party a run for their money. As he charges around Europe’s now splendid rail system, it’s hard not to think of A Room with a View, in which old English maids Eleanor Lavish and Charlotte Bartlett faff about in Florence bearing travel guides by Baedeker.


2. Portillo’s deep love for really old travel guides

As they attempt to manipulate the romance of the young Miss Honeychurch with that wag George Emerson while taking in the must-see sights of Florence, Baedeker is never far from lap or satchel. Nothing exists if it’s not in Baedeker. Free-form exploration is frowned on as a threatening way to get lost, or worse. And of course it wouldn’t do at all to be seen in the wrong places.

While Portillo is hardly at risk of being roughed up, he sticks to his beat-up antique Bradshaw the way unimaginative teachers cling to textbooks. What he seeks to do is gleefully point out where the 103-year-old tome is still on the money, and where it gets it wrong, which of course is pretty much everywhere. In this way he is able to document the march of time, commenting wistfully on what used to be here or there while ignoring the technological splendour of, say, the sleek bullet train that propels him at space-age speeds to his next destination.


3. Portillo is the thinking person’s Michael Palin

Paradoxically, the romance Portillo seeks to manipulate in his dry, academic way, is the one we feel for European vistas. Though not unlike former Python Michael Palin in appearance and outlook, Portillo lacks the gallows humour that creeps into Palin’s travel commentary, in shows such as Full Circle and Pole to Pole, leavening stodgy fare, perhaps in spite of his best intentions.

Palin also has a greater willingness to make a monkey of himself by getting down and dirty. But for Portillo, knowledge is the thing. The many interviews with history experts along the way also tend to have the feel of curators at an exhibition who have stopped to chat on the museum floor. But life isn’t all flying circuses, is it?


4. The vistas… oh, the vistas…

And then there are those vistas. Nobody could ever say that the visuals are hard done by in this series. Whether or not our host, generally resplendent in parrot green jacket and sensible shoes, sticks to the facts, the crew is bursting at the seams with creativity. Trains thunder elegantly through some of the most impressive views in Europe as historically significant stations, towns, churches, landscapes and architecture are broken out for more casual, more detailed viewing.


5. Sure, it's stuffy - but gloriously so

Complaining about the stuffiness of the presenter in Great Continental Railway Journeys is like going to an excellent restaurant where the food is devastatingly good and whingeing that the waiter lacks personality. Nobody cares. In any case, these four seasons represent a banquet of almost all that is memorable and beautiful in Europe that can be seen from a train. I suspect if Portillo thought he had shared with you the beauty he has seen and experienced he wouldn’t be worried in the slightest that you couldn’t remember his name.


Watch series four of Great Continental Railway Journeys on Tuesdays at 7.30pm on SBS and on SBS On Demand.

Check out the latest episode right here: