It was only halfway through Great Continental Railway Journeys that I managed to pin down the echo that had been niggling away, like a popcorn husk stuck to the roof of the mouth. I first felt it when Michael Portillo (here extending his British railway journeys franchise across the channel) told us about the Paris flood of 1910 and then solemnly added, "I wonder whether Paris is safe today."
I got another twinge when he explained that he was preparing for a motor tour of the city by eating a croissant, but the breakthrough came as he set off for the Côte d'Azur and added this helpful grace note to an account of his travel plans: "Overnight sleepers are very romantic, though I don't find them easy to sleep on." Suddenly I dislodged the husk. It's Mr Pooter, I realised. Mr Pootillo goes abroad!
He's nowhere near as pompous as Mr Pooter, to be fair, and amiably never stands on his dignity, but there's still something about his manner that recalls George and Weedon Grossmith's brilliant creation. Or at least there is about his manner here, where Portillo has been required to service an itinerary of almost pure cliché. In other programmes he's shown a capacity to detour from the ruts of received opinion. Here he's on rails, and I'm not sure he's got a great deal of choice. So, with a copy of Bradshaw's Guide from 1913 in his hands, he sets off for the south of France to pay homage to that popular fantasy of a Belle Époque that didn't "know that its world would be swept away".
In truth, 1913 was far more complex and anxious than popular history ever allows. Lots of people were convinced that war was inevitable and weren't a bit surprised when it came. But that doesn't fit the template, so it isn't mentioned. Similarly, I'm a bit dubious that Montmartre is still the centre of the Paris art scene, as Portillo implied here, rather than just a ruthless touristic exploiter of its artistic past. But explaining that is more complicated than whacking some accordion music on the soundtrack and interviewing an obliging pavement artist, so that's what we got instead.
The accordion music, incidentally, never seemed to go away – unless it was to briefly make room for Edith Piaf singing "Non, je ne regrette rien". It noodled away as Portillo muscled in on a pétanque game and as he strolled along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. And although there were moments when he himself seemed to be on the point of assaulting cliché rather than merely deploying it, they tended to fizzle out in an oddly Pooterish way: "The word 'scenic' is a cliché often used to describe towns along the Côte d'Azur," he said at one point, "and Antibes is among the most beguiling." It was also, we learned, "A magnet for art-lovers", at which point the battle against cliché appeared to have been given up entirely.
Richard E Grant makes a much livelier travelling companion. As a series, Richard E Grant's Hotel Secrets is pretty close to a television equivalent of one of those Hip Hotel coffee-table books – an opportunity for a bit of vicarious glamour. But Grant's presence, mischievous and vulgar in just the right way (he always asks how much things cost), makes it work.
"That's the nothing room where nothing happens," he said archly, nodding towards a private room after a transvestite bar hostess at the Chateau Marmont explained how bad behaviour had to be a little more discreet in the age of the mobile phone. I was a bit startled by Grant's conclusion, though: "In the big scheme of things," he said, "who cares who's doing what to whom?" Eh? You can adopt this lofty attitude to celebrity gossip, of course. But it's a lot easier if we haven't just heard you eagerly asking a Seventies bad-boy rocker, "So, was it a complete shagathon?"
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