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'If I'm not in role I'm actually shy'

Michael Portillo feels 'humiliation' when his presenting gig demands dancing. But it's all in a day's work, the ex-MP tells Gemma Dunn

With his booming voice and clashing collection of colour-pop blazers, former politician-turned-TV presenter Michael Portillo hardly ticks the "shy and retiring type" boxes.

"I simply go into the tailors and say, 'Look, I need a new outrageous colour'. If I'm just socialising with friends, I wouldn't wear a yellow jacket and red trousers, but I like doing it on screen - it's become a bit of a standing joke," quips Portillo (63), who returns to screens with his documentary series, Great Continental Railway Journeys, this month.

"It has a couple of advantages as far as TV is concerned," he adds, chuckling. "One is you're bright and joyful at the beginning of a show and the other is that, in a long shot, I'll be the only person dressed in a shiny pink jacket on the bridge, so you can immediately see where I am."

Socially, however, standing out from the crowd isn't such a priority.

"I'm typical of a politician, which is that I'm not shy when I'm in role, but when I'm not in role, I am shy," he confides. "You get this with actors a lot. Put an actor on stage and you'd never guess that he was shy; take the actor off stage, stick him in a party and he may well stand on the side of the room hiding behind the aspidistra.

"I can be a little bit like that. Feeling awkward socially is probably a continuum."

When the Hertfordshire-born history buff isn't hiding behind house plants, however, he can be found chugging along on a wide range of railway adventures for the aforementioned BBC Two show.

Returning for a fifth series this autumn, Portillo is set to travel across Europe, discovering new regions, cities and cultures through the eyes of followers of Bradshaw's Continental Railway Guide, which, when originally published in 1913, opened up a whole new world of foreign travel to discerning British tourists.

From Transylvania to the Black Sea, flying over the Alps in a vintage biplane and breakfasting with the Berbers in the Atlas mountains, Portillo will venture north through the singing Baltic nations to the lakes of Finland, take in the Low Countries, navigate the flower auction of Haarlem and relive the 1913 Alpine Trial with a glamorous spin along the Italian Riviera in a convertible Rolls-Royce.

Much like previous seasons, he's set to meet some characters along the way, too - "We try to have some incidents, some sense of travel" - one being a shepherd.

"It was an extraordinary experience for me," he says. "I live in the centre of London, my life has been about offices and crowds and mass meeting, and here's this man whose life is about moving the flock. Here's a man who's sleeping in a makeshift tiny straw hut just big enough for his bed.

"It's so far from my experience of life and the more I think about it, really, the purposes of travel is to meet your opposite: your opposite person, your opposite experience, to understand how varied life is."

Do people take kindly to cameras turning up?

"They're delighted that British television has come to their little town and is interested in their bit of history," says Portillo, who's been married to wife Carolyn Eadie since 1982.

While he's thrilled to have the chance to explore, however, he admits he'd struggle to swap his routine and home comforts.

And he's less keen about having to participate in some of the local activities encountered en route.

"I go through horrors every time I have to dance," Portillo exclaims. "I suffer intense humiliation, but part of the show is being up for anything.

"I'm a very poor swimmer, so I get a bit worried when I have to do that as well. This year, we went out into the middle of the Mississippi, and I had to get out of a boat and climb up a ladder on the outside of a tower. I was thinking, 'If I'm lucky I'll fall back into the boat, and if I'm less lucky I'll fall into the Mississippi'.

"So there are a few exploits that put me to the test, but because you're filming, you don't really feel like you've got an option."

The series has clocked up some impressive miles, but Portillo insists there's still lots of ground to cover. "There's more to do in the US, in the continent of Europe, and I would very much like to go further afield, to Japan and China.

"The railway journeys have a lot of history, but it's served with a lot of nonsense as well, like dancing, or playing football, so I'm in the market for straight history as well."

*Great Continental Railway Journeys, BBC Two, Tuesday, 9pm

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