I really want Michael Portillo’s job. He gets paid for reading historical books and going on exciting railway journeys all over the world! And he seems to have become rather a cult figure: there were people in Australia holding a Michael Portillo lookalike competition. Seriously.
Whereas most British TV programmes about Australia focus on Sydney and Melbourne, this showed us the “Ghan” railway journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs to Darwin, featuring cute baby kangaroos, camels, and some thought-provoking discussions about the effect that the building of telegraph wires had on 19th century Australia. The most interesting bit, though, was about Aboriginal storytelling. As with the griots mentioned in the foreword to Alex Haley’s “Roots”, the idea of a trained human memory and just how much information people can recall and recount, and pass down the generations, is absolutely fascinating. The days of the epics and the bards are long gone here: we write everything down, or put it in our mobile phones. But the Aboriginal storytelling culture lives on. No other culture in the world can match that.
The paintings were brilliant too, but it was the storytelling that particularly interested me. We heard a lot about Aboriginal traditions and lifestyles in this first episode, and we also heard “Stolen Generation” stories about the horrific removal of mixed-race children from their families, and the effect that that’s still having now. Michael Portillo’s programmes are about a lot more than railways. But, in terms of the history of the railways, we were told about the competition between Queensland and South Australia to build railways across the Northern Territory, and also about how important the coming of telegraph wires to Australia was: before then, it was taking three to four months to get information between Australia and Britain, when information could be passed between Britain and the US in a few hours, at a time when most white Australians had family and friends in Britain, as well as the political ties.
Wildlife featured as well. Kangaroos! Camels. Apparently there are 200,000 feral camels in Australia. They were introduced there as beasts of burden … and went forth and multiplied. Less excitingly but more importantly, cattle. And there was so much room, so much space … miles and miles of space.
Then, at the end, Michael attended an Anzac Day commemoration in Darwin. As I said, this is about much more than railways.
All in all, a very watchable hour’s TV. But, however interesting the subject matter, it’s the presenter who makes or breaks programmes like these, and Michael definitely makes them. He’s an important reminder, amid all the abuse and nastiness that we’re doubtless going to have to put up with on our television screens and on our social media over the next six weeks, that politicians, whether or not we agree with their views, are just human beings like the rest of us. And he comes across as being a very nice one. These railway programmes have been going since 2010, and may there be many more of them!