This boxset combines the two TV series of Michael Portillo's travel through Continental Europe, exploring the past of a hundred years ago. It's a total treat, let down only by the lack of a high-definition Blu-ray and any special features.
From the first season, the journey through Switzerland alone contains more 'wow' moments in one hour of television than most documentaries pack into an entire series. The scenery is outright stunning; the towns ludicrously picturesque, and the ambition of the final railway lines - halfway up the Eiger and genuinely to the top of an alp - is staggering.
You may be familiar with the standard series of half-hour programmes which play almost non-stop on the BCC, detailing journeys around the UK. These programmes are slightly different in that they venture onto the Continent and each episode runs to a full 60 minutes. The longer format really suits the programmes much better; there's less repetition and more space for Michael Portillo to explore his continuing themes of railway, industrial and social history.
These episodes also differ in that instead of uncovering our own heritage, they investigate the European situation at a very specific time. Portillo is guided as usual by his faithful Bradshaw's guide of 1913, when the bright lights of the belle epoch were about to be extinguished by the war to end all wars.
Inevitably the programmes touch on some of the causes of WW1, the intertwined royal families of Europe, etc, but this content is carefully balanced with plenty of entertaining travelogue, spectacular photography (some of the German and alpine footage is unbelievably beautiful), archive film (especially of the lines being made; tunnels blasted through solid mountains and such) and glorious architecture.
It's all woven together by unassuming Michael, the train traveller who could almost be anyman -- except he has excellent access to all the best hotels! On our behalf, multilingual Portillo chats with historians and local guides to get a sense of each area, and chats with bemused locals about the regional delicacy or quirk of history. Sometimes the interactions verge on the cringe worthy, but Portillo is a polished performer who knows how to quit while ahead. He makes for a charming travelling companion - albeit one with a startling choice in bright-coloured shirts. And he does look a bit uncomfortable with some of the antics involved, like baking pastries and handing them out in the street. We winced on his behalf.
The best moments? Too many to mention, but the giant disused factory in Zurich, now a park, is one, as was the trip to the top of Jungfraujoch. And finishing where the Armistice was signed was a lovely touch. The Rheine journey was visually gorgeous. Who knew that Paris flooded in 1910? That the Swiss rolled out electric trains in the 1800s? Or that Wagner wrote a birthday tune for his sweetheart and had it performed on the stairs as she woke?
Onto the second Continental series, which maintains the high standard of presentation, informal education and relaxed atmosphere to provide a superb showcase for scenic photography as well as an insight into European social and industrial history before the First World War. MP’s polished presentation is informative and engaging, and generously provides space for local experts and other travellers to contribute to the mix. It’s also smashing to see him relax somewhat in the familiarity of his home-from-home in Spain.
Series 2 reveals the sights of 1913 France, Spain, Italy, Scandinavia and Germany contrasted with the current situation in some unusual regions of our European neighbours. Some of the destinations are obvious (Venice or Prague) but many others are off the beaten track – places you may never visit yourself but can experience secondhand.
Each programme is an hour long and follows one particular railway journey or theme. The German journeys typically include more historic railways while the episodes through France and Spain are mainly undertaken on modern trains. Instead these programmes follow an historic theme, like Edward VII’s holidays of the early 1900s at fashionable resorts along the Bay of Biscay. The emphasis is more on social than industrial history (bathing in Edwardian costume, tasting the wine, seafood and delicacies of the region, the background to Basque nationalism), although the inclusion of a funicular railway, Bilbao’s remarkable transporter bridge and a traditional ‘scenic railway’ – a roller-coaster by any other name made all the more invigorating by its age and potential decrepitude!
Throughout, MP refers to his 1913 Bradshaw’s railway guide, seeking out stunning buildings which still survive today, using archive footage and photos where they exist. Other forms of transportation get a look-in, too, including a vintage Volvo in Sweden (of course) and a titchy Fiat in Italy. The programmes also include many unusual historical footnotes, like a reassessment of the true character of Casanova. No one subject sticks around for long enough to become boring – each segment runs to 6 or 8 minutes or so – and instead we see a snapshot of historical, industrial and architectural highlights along each route.
As with earlier series, although it was broadcast in high definition, there doesn’t seem to be a Blu-ray release so we lose the impact of the stunning scenery which is a shame (especially on the mountain sections).
Overall, these films are extremely satisfying in their hour-long format - even though they are necessarily less detailed than the homeland series and tend to skip over some of the stops without so much as a look-see. There's plenty of interesting locomotives and lines for train enthusiasts, and much more for fans of industrial heritage. I adore the trivia of this type of time-travelling. It's perfect proof that factual TV does not have to be dumbed down to be both popular and intellectually involving. Don't expect to be shocked in any way: do put on your comfy slippers and relax. Ideally with a martini.
These programmes have particular relevance in 2014, the centenary of the outbreak of WW1, as MP discusses much of the social situation in 2013. Without labouring the point, this series demonstrates just how much our societies all lost in that conflict.
After watching, you might end up with a better understanding of how the EU functions, for example, or how the royal families interacted before the Great War. But while magpies like me can swoop upon bright shiny facts and store them, many other viewer will just appreciate the views!
Oh, and if this series inspires you to try Continental rail travel for yourself -- go do it. It's a fab way to travel.