Belfast Telegraph

'If you want to know what the future looks like, go to California'

Michael Portillo is heading across the pond for a third series of his Great American Railroad Journeys. Georgia Humphreys hops on board

Michael Portillo is finding it extremely difficult to pick his favourite railway journey. You can't blame the man, really. Never mind the miles he's clocked up filming across continental Europe, there have been nine series of Great British Railway Journeys and the third of Great American Railroad Journeys is about to start.

In the end, he settles on the state of California - one of the most recent places he chugged through. "While I was there, I was driven in an autonomous car on a 10-lane highway," the former politician and journalist says excitedly. "If you want to know what the future is, don't look in your crystal ball, look in California."

From Boston to Toronto and Reno to San Diego, the TV presenter's latest American adventures will span 20 episodes on BBC Two.

Once again, he always has a copy of Appleton's guidebook to the United States and Canada - that's a 19th-century travel guide, by the way - in his hands for reference.

But don't just expect trains, history and hard facts. One clip shows the 64-year-old standing on top of the gigantic CN Tower in Toronto (admittedly, while attached to a piece of wire). Is Michael secretly a bit of a daredevil at heart?

"It's certainly absolutely against your instincts to walk to the edge of a 1,400ft-high ledge and lean off it," he says.

"I can't say I look forward to them [the daredevil activities], but I usually enjoy them once I've done them."

It's this steady mix of farce and serious which Michael reckons has earned him such a loyal audience.

"There's an enormous appetite for programmes about travel, but also people are really hungry for history - they really want facts and I hope we present these in a fairly digestible form.

"We will give them seven minutes of heavy history, but then I'll be dressing up in funny clothes and doing something crazy like Morris dancing."

The TV personality doesn't use social media - "I've always joked that I don't think you should drink and tweet and I'm not going to give up drinking", he quips - and so only hears reactions from viewers when he meets them face-to-face.

And when it comes to keeping his long-running travel shows fresh, Michael insists he doesn't feel any pressure.

"I feel it more as a freedom, really, because the more we've gone on, the more we've been able to experiment.

"In some ways, our programmes are quite challenging, we deal with some very grim history - the Salem witch-hunt of the 17th century. About 18 or 19 women were eventually executed and charged with being witches.

"And, of course, the hysteria that took over the town of Salem in Massachusetts has given this expression - 'witch-hunt' - which is when people go crazy looking for scapegoats and culprits."

Another challenge for Michael when filming the show is the speed at which they have to do it.

"We are working very fast by comparison with a lot of television, producing about half-an-hour of TV in two days of my time," he explains.

"And we absolutely do have to take trains at the scheduled time, so you're normally rushing, rushing, rushing."

This tight timetable means there's not a lot of chance for the one-time Conservative Cabinet minister, who retired from the House of Commons in 2005, to stop to discuss Donald Trump with the locals, even if he agrees it would be fascinating.

"When I get back from the United States, people say, 'What is the atmosphere there?' and I say, 'Well, I didn't get time to notice because I was too busy filming.'"

Michael does share one thing he has noticed from his time across the pond, however. Having travelled so much of Europe by rail, he claims American trains are "delightfully old-fashioned" in comparison.

"They have comfortable seating accommodation, they have observation bars, they have kitchens where your steak is cooked from fresh - we're not talking about microwaves.

"In many ways, they're very, very attractive. You just wouldn't want to set your watch by them."

Whether they are traversing the tracks, riding a motorbike, or pedalling a bicycle, there's no denying that it's become common for celebrities to add travel shows to their resume.

Asked what he thinks of this trend, Michael reasons: "I'm not a professional historian and I go on TV and I talk about history, so people can possibly object to that.

"The important thing in terms of the entertainment to the viewer is, is the presenter giving you a reaction that is provocative? And I hope that you don't need to be an absolute expert in the subject in order to do that.

"But if you are not giving a reaction which is thought-provoking, then you'd have to ask why you're there."

He certainly doesn't see himself leaving the job any time soon.

"By going to new places, whether it's another part of the US, or another part of the world, or whether it's going to the same places but looking through a different lens of history, I think the formula is almost infinitely applicable."

Great American Railroad Journeys, BBC Two, Monday, 6.30pm. Episodes of Great British Railway Journeys are available on BBC iPlayer now

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