How Portillo met the charismatic Lilly Peter

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The Independent Online
MIGHT I venture a word or two in defence of my old friend and quaffing partner, Mr Michael Portillo? He has made great strides since first I knew him, in the days when he played Carlo, the hair salon manager, in ATV's long-running drama series Crossroads, and frankly I think it is time someone sought to sing his praises as a loyal footsoldier in the court of Mr Major (dread name]).

Little is known of Michael's background, save that he was born Michael Portaloo in 1953, the heir to the mobile on-site convenience fortune. He first rocketed to public prominence as early as 1967 with his impersonation of the late Elvis Presley on a two-minute slot in the successful television variety show Junior Showtime. Years later, shortly after his appointment as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he was to look back on that glittering debut with unabashed nostalgia, changing his hairstyle accordingly.

It was at the Italia Conti Junior Stage School that he first met the charismatic Lilly Peter, later to change her name to Peter Lillie and find success as a social security minister. After leaving the Italia Conti, the two of them went on to star together in a variety of somewhat risque fringe entertainments, among which Lilly and Mike Pull It Off (King's Head Theatre, 1972) was perhaps the most appealing. It was around this time that Michael obtained his distinctive tattoo. Exhibited in later years only to his closest advisers, it is said to depict Michael as Prime Minister, perched in naked triumph on the tip of Big Ben.

In 1973, after the personal intervention of ATV Chairman Sir Lew Grade, Michael gained the role of Carlo in Crossroads. He was to play the part for six months, right up until Garcia's fatal accident with the blow-dryer in the famous shower sequence. Even at this early stage, he showed a remarkable aptitude for capturing the limelight; in episode 1,127, first broadcast on 11 February 1973, he drew the attention of press and public alike when, in an unscripted interchange in the Crossroads Motel reception area, he drew out a pair of curling tongs, stabbing and killing two background characters and wounding motel stalwart Sandy Richardson. It was later revealed that the producer's intention had been for the character of Carlo to be 'written out' of the series, but this swift action by the young Portaloo guaranteed that Carlo's arrest, trial and subsequent imprisonment would stand him in full employment for a further six months.

Michael caught the political bug in early 1974, impressing the Conservative Selection Committee of his Enfield Constituency with a declaration of total loyalty to the then Prime Minister, Mr Edward Heath. This quality of loyalty is perhaps his most endearing suit. 'I will serve no leader other than Ted,' he proclaimed in his adoption speech, later revealing that his fingers had been crossed at the time, paving the way for his subsequent loyalty to Mrs Margaret Thatcher, a loyalty supplanted only by the succession of Mr John Major, a loyalty itself supplanted only by a renewed loyalty to himself.

In the field of politics there will always, I regret to say, be the occasional sniper, the occasional fellow with chip firmly on shoulder who wishes to make mischief between a Prime Minister and his Cabinet. Inevitably, there have been those who now maintain that Michael is secretly gearing himself up to challenge Mr Major for the role of Prime Minister, but nothing could be further from the truth. At a private luncheon with myself last week, Michael once again declared his admiration for the Prime Minister. 'I have every confidence that John Major will lead his Party into the next election,' he said, discreetly pulling out his steel comb between courses for a swift tidy-up before adding jovially, 'though frankly I doubt whether it'll be the Conservative Party]'

Allowing time for my giggles to subside, he then moved on to a stringent diagnosis of the malaise currently affecting the British people. 'There are too many people running this country down,' he said, 'and that's why it's become such a piddling, whiney, conniving little country, full of cynics with an eye on the main chance.' As he said this, the vibrancy of destiny seemed to enter his body; and I was reminded of young Carlo from the hair salon, standing over those two corpses, the gleam of triumph in his eyes.