Friday, 29 January 2016

Great American Railway Journeys

and riding the rails in the rest of the United States

Written by Ben Felsenburg
Ben-Felsenburg-colour-176Cast your mind back to when Michael Portillo was defence secretary in the 1990s and the highlight of his ministerial career as he drove a tank across Salisbury Plain. Was he even then secretly hankering to indulge his lifelong passion for the railways? Since leaving politics, he has revealed himself to be a far more companionable personality than he ever seemed before, but then the demands of presenting shows on your favourite hobby pale against the stresses of Westminster.

In Great American Railway Journeys (BBC Two, Monday, 6.30pm), Portillo crosses the Atlantic for a grand tour steered by Appleton’s 1879 Guide To The United States And Canada. The starting point is New York, and staring up at the cathedral-like hall of Manhattan’s Grand Central Station – the world’s largest terminus – our man is overcome with near-religious ecstasy.

For America, trains are far more than a way to get around: the nation was forged by building a network that spanned the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and Portillo regales us with the compelling, if salutary, tale of the robber barons who built the railways. He also has an eye for the Big Apple’s history, and celebrates the pioneering skyscraper that is the Flatiron Building as a prime example of ‘all-American chutzpah’. The same might be said of the flame-red trousers he chooses to sport, were they not being worn by an Englishman.



Vera ITV, Sun, 8pm

The body of a grandmother is found on the moors – and it’s a case for Vera Stanhope (above left), as Brenda Blethyn’s detective is back in action for a new series.

Annabel’s: A String Of Naked Lightbulbs BBC4, Tues, 10pm
From royalty to rock stars, it was the place where anyone who was anyone was to be found: the story of the elite nightclub.

Cats Vs Dogs BBC2, Thurs, 8pm
Liz Bonnin and Chris Packham (above right) attempt to answer the hardy perennial: do dogs or cats make better pets? See our feature on page 24.

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