I was so excited to see a new series of this – I didn’t realise that one had been recorded pre-lockdown – in the TV schedules, and found it particularly interesting that much of the first episode was spent talking about the Spanish Civil War … largely with reference to Michael Portillo’s dad, who came to Britain as a Republican exile. Scores of men from North West England fought in the International Brigades, and Spanish relief/aid committtees were set up all over the region; but no-one ever talks about it. I remember once getting quite excited during a mid-1990s episode of Neighbours in which Karl Kennedy’s dad gave Billy and Toadie a lecture on the International Brigades! It’s a subject that’s rarely discussed – except in connection with George Orwell, and we saw Michael visiting a Republican trench outside Huesca with Orwell’s son.
We also saw Michael visiting Salamanca, Avila and Madrid, all of which I’ve been fortunate enough to visit, and Zaragoza, which I haven’t … yet. And a border railway station in the Pyrenees, used as an escape route by Jews and Allied soldiers fleeing Occupied France during the war. No-one spells Zaragoza the old English way, “Saragossa”, since Real Zaragoza had that good run in the mid-1980s. And no-one spells Marseille with an s on the end since they got to the European Cup Final in 1991. This is an interesting linguistic phenomenon. It should be investigated.
Anyway. Michael, resplendent in a yellow jacket, purple shirt and vermilion trousers – I wonder if he dresses like that when he’s not filming – started off in Salamanca, with a Bradshaw’s guidebook (everyone knows that George Bradshaw was from Salford, yes?) from 1936. We did hear a bit about the general history of Salamanca, but this was a very personal episode and the focus was on Michael’s late dad and his time as a professor at the university there: we even saw the index cards which Franco’s government had kept on Luis Portillo Perez. Oh, and sliced ham. Then lovely Avila, famed for its association with St Teresa.
And then on to Madrid. We saw quite a lot of the architecture of Salamanca and Avila, but Madrid’s too big to cover in one segment of one programme, although we did see some of its highlights. And, again, we heard about Portillo snr. Michael stood in front of Picasso’s “Guernica” and talked about how his parents would never have met had it not been for the bombing of Guernica. To be fair, he did talk about the devastation it caused, as well, not just its role in his own family history! The lady at the Museum Reina Sofia said that “Guernica” was the most important painting of the twentieth century. There’s certainly a good case for saying that.
Then it was on to Zaragoza, capital of Aragon … and we got a mention of Ferdinand and Isabella. Things got a bit more light-hearted here, with the requisite making-an-idiot-of-himself segment, this one involving Michael trying to join in with the Aragonese Jota dance. But then we returned to the subject of the Civil War, with the visit to the trench at Huesca.
Finally, after a journey through some lovely countryside, Michael ended up at the Franco-Spanish border station of Canfranc, opened in 1928, at which time it was the second largest station in Europe. It’s not used much now. That’s rather sad. I do love those grand old railway stations!
And I love Spain. We’ll get back there. One day! I’m not sure when this was filmed, but who would have guessed that, by the time it was filmed, going to Spain and indeed travelling by train at all would have largely vanished off the menu? Let’s just hope that this doesn’t go on for too much longer. In the meantime, especially with so many repeats on TV due to the disruption to filming caused by the pandemic, it is wonderful to have a new series of this lovely programme! Thoroughly enjoyed this first episode, and looking forward to the episodes to come!