Portillo goes through the keyhole for BBC series

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The Independent Online
Michael Portillo, whose last major television appearance gladdened the hearts of many, has landed a new, sadly temporary, job as a TV presenter and architecture pundit.

The former secretary of state for defence is to present, presumably without a trace of irony, an episode of BBC 2's architecture programme, One Foot in the Past.

Sources at the BBC yesterday described Mr Portillo, the former MP for Enfield and Southgate, as a "natural presenter, very charming and knowledgeable", as he waxes lyrical about his favourite building, Wotton House in Buckinghamshire.

The stately home, which is not open to the public but is owned by a friend of Mr Portillo, is an 18th- Century house rebuilt in the early 19th Century by the currently fashionable architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837).

Mr Portillo is seen walking in gardens around the house, dressed casually in a jacket and open-necked shirt.

The BBC's press office first described the gardens, designed by Capability Brown, as a "perfect wilderness" before getting cold feet and insisting that the word "wilderness" would not be appearing in the programme's title.

During the programme Mr Portillo confesses that it is the "ruthlessness" of Sir John Soane's replacement of the old main part of the building that he admires most.

Showing TV audiences a hitherto hidden sensitive side, the former darling of the Tory right apparently wishes Wotton House were his because it would be "the kind of place to write poetry, fall in love or even hatch political plots". In fact ,Wotton House belongs to a friend of Mr Portillo's, a Mrs Brunner.

Mr Portillo shows a "well-formed" knowledge of architecture, according to the BBC, and Sir John Soane makes a curiously appropriate architectural hero for a politician.

Soane is described by the Penguin Dictionary of Architecture as a "master of illusion", who used mirrors, natural light and firelight to transform his buildings.

And Soane is even more appropriate for Mr Portillo, who was asked to present the programme after he lost both his seat and his hopes of leading the Conservative Party. Penguin says of Soane: "Despite his genius, he never achieved complete confidence and authority, even in his own style."

But there the parallels end. Soane, a neo-classicist who used touches of romantic and picturesque style, was trained in Italy and was "profoundly" influenced by French architects. Michael Portillo remains profoundly Euro- sceptical.

The programme, to be broadcast on 9 July, is the first in a series that will also include celebrity presenters such as One Foot in the Grave star and life-long socialist Richard Wilson.

Princess Diana's stepmother, Raine Spencer, who is as noted for her taste in bouffant hairdos as Michael Portillo, will present an edition of the programme from Cheltenham. Paul McCann