Top positive review
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A miniature gem of documentary television: wonderful
on 17 November 2011
This series of 25 programmes delivers a delightfully whimsical package of social, cultural and industrial heritage, neatly packaged into easily digested half-hour episodes. The clever concept is exactly the same as for the first series: presenter Michael Portillo follows Bradshaw's Victorian Railway Guidebook of routes on rails across the UK, to see what remains the same and to highlight what has changed. He zigzags from town to country, from ports to cities, admiring architecture along the way, and stopping to talk to the people whose lives are still intertwined with Britain's railway system.
If you haven't seen any of the programmes before then it's a lot like Coast, except the theme is our railways instead of the sea. The second series is in many ways better than the first: Portillo is more relaxed and the breadth of subjects covered is rather greater. There is also more information about the trains themselves (even some steam trains: great!) and the railway network this time around.
The scope of the series should please most people, as it follows routes along the west coast of Scotland (Ayr to Skye) and in the south-east of England; from London Bridge to Hastings and from Brighton on the south coast to Cromer; then in Wales from Ledbury to Holyhead, and from Newcastle to Melton Mowbray.
Most of the journeys feature spectacular scenery. All involve a variety of encounters which serve to illustrate Britain's sometimes bizarre blend of historical happenstance. The segments typically last five or a few more minutes and jump from alpaca fleeces to early locomotives, from military history to Turkish baths, stopping to take in snippets of geology, haggis making, historic shipyards, fictional figures of literature and how cricket became a national sport, a trip to the royal observatory and the background to `shoddy' cloth - all this and more, woven together along the thread of the railways.
Perhaps the most moving moment of this series is when Portillo meets the great-great-granddaughter of George Bradshaw himself. He's obviously delighted by the archive papers she brings along.
I also adore the archive photos, which are artfully contrasted with the current landscape. Sometimes they show how little has changed... and sometimes they reveal how massive the changes have been over the course of a few generations.
Some people, perhaps the more serious-minded, don't approve of the generally upbeat tone of this series and it does tend to do little more than skim the surface of the subjects it covers. These are only snapshots, after all; the modern equivalent of postcards from Victorian resorts.
However, Portillo is a canny chap, and often sneaks in subtle comments which confound expectations. He doesn't pull many punches about the collapse of British industry or the problems of the 20th century, either. The series doesn't whitewash events... but it does tend to seek out the positive stories rather than dwell on negative aspects.
The result is both educational and entertaining: visually stimulating, charming, witty and informative. Anyone interested in our industrial and social heritage should definitely enjoy watching this series.