Great Continental Railway Journeys, TV review: Michael Portillo goes for an immersive - occasionally farcical - experience


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The Independent Culture

Michael Portillo was back last night with another series of Great Continental Railway Journeys (BBC2), following George Bradshaw's 1913 guide as he travels across Russia.

This instalment saw the former MP visiting the early-20th-century tourist hot spots: Tula (Tolstoy's birthplace), Moscow and St Petersburg.

Part modern-day travelogue, part history documentary, part theatrical performance, those familiar with the format will know it makes for an absorbing package.

Portillo goes for an immersive – occasionally farcical – experience. We saw him bee-keeping; cooking dumplings on board; being pummelled with birch sticks in a bath house; making a cameo in a folk dance; and lots of speaking ropey Russian.

Alongside the silliness, he speaks to historians, seemingly learning with them. "Fantastic!" he exclaimed wide-eyed on seeing Tolstoy's writing desk. "It's so exciting," he cried, walking through a tourist-filled Kremlin, transformed from the Cold War days of his youth.

By the end of the hour, he neatly got to the 1917 Revolution and execution of the Imperial family at Yekaterinburg, keeping the railway's role at the centre. Whether he's really learning or not, Portillo's journey and Russian education felt authentic. "I've had fun," he said. As we did, too.