Review: Michael Portillo – Life: A Game of Two Halves

THE title of this evening with Michael Portillo perfectly summed up what the capacity audience at the King's Hall in Ilkley were treated to on Monday evening. Here is a man with two careers during his working life. Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo has been a journalist, broadcaster, and former Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister of the Conservative Party.

Michael started off by talking about how his parents met – his father coming to the UK after fighting in the Spanish Civil War and his mother from Kirkcaldy in Scotland. His mother Cora was working with a group of Spanish refugee children in Oxford when Luis arrived from Spain to work in the refugee camp and they subsequently married with Michael being born in 1953.

He then spoke about his political career working as an assistant to Margaret Thatcher before becoming an MP in 1984 for the Enfield Southgate constituency. He rose up the ranks to become firstly Chief Secretary to the Treasury, then Secretary of State for Employment and Transport Secretary and finally Secretary of State for Defence before being unexpectedly defeated in the 1997 General Election. He said he is now classed as a “Former future Prime Minister” and a number with this accolade regularly meet each other. He said they are hoping to welcome a new member shortly in the form of a certain Mr B Johnson. His defeat in the 1997 General Election led to the coining of the expression "Portillo moment" and has been rated as the third greatest moment of the 20th century in a poll by Channel 4 viewers.

He returned to Parliament in 1999 in a by-election and remained on the opposition benches until the 2005 General Election when he retired from politics and then moved on to his broadcasting career. He jokingly said he had left just in time before the expenses scandal erupted! His first broadcasting experience was in a reality TV show where he swapped places with a single Mum from Liverpool for a week and had to live on £80 per week and deal with four children – what he described as “quite an eye opener”.

Shortly after this he went to Spain to make a documentary about the Civil War that his father had fought in and it was from this programme that a BBC producer remembered him and this led onto him becoming the presenter of the Great British Railway Journeys series in 2009. At this point Michael talked about George Bradshaw and the famous guide he uses in the railway programmes. He recounted an amusing incident about the first time he used the book whilst filming and dropped it splitting the spine. He has not been allowed to carry it since and it is always shown as open on a table in the programmes. He told the audience that it is now kept in a metal tin lunchbox – appropriately with Thomas the Tank Engine on the lid.

The railway programmes in Britain then spawned Great Continental Railway Journeys in 2012 and Great American Railroad Journeys in 2016. Very recently he has been filming in India for a new series and next month travels to Australia where a series on Australian Railways will be filmed. Throughout the first hour of his talk, Michael punctuated the dialogue with a lot of humour which kept the audience highly amused.

It was then time for a half hour Q&A session with topics from the audience including both political and railway questions. When asked about his favourite railway journey he said that the Settle to Carlisle line (which incidentally he helped to save as Transport Minister in 1989) and the West Highland Line were his two favourite journeys.

A great round of applause greeted Michael as he left the stage after a fascinating 90 minutes by this excellent orator which was thoroughly enjoyed by the audience.

by John Burland