John Yellowlees: filming with Michael Portillo


They say you shouldn't fall out with people on the way up in case you meet them again on your way down. In the civil service John worked for Michael Portillo in 1989-90 when he was Minister of State with special responsibility for Docklands transport. He was an unusual minister with a great eye for detail and was in private a much more personable figure than his public image might suggest. He had been the Ribena Kid and drove the disgraced Parkinson away from Blackpool before entering the Commons after the Brighton bomb. The rest of his political career is well known, the poll tax about which he had private doubts, his "who dares wins" speech, being found out booking phone lines for the 1995 leadership contest, the "did you stay up for Portillo" moment of the 1997 election, his return to the Commons but despite becoming shadow Chancellor his heart was no longer in politics and he retired to pursue a career in broadcasting. After a programme about Spanish railways along came Great British Railway Journeys based on George Bradshaw's guidebooks. The four series so far have featured three Scottish journeys : Gretna-Kirkcaldy, Ayr-Portree and Stirling-Wick. Each time it was my privilege to shadow him, keeping out of the shot while preventing any conflict whether with customers or staff.


The presenter is at all times under the control of the cameramen, for there is no second chance. John took part in some of the reccies beforehand but not in the off-track activities so they were usually a mystery to me until I saw the finished programme. At Gretna it was no surprise that he had gone off to a wedding. At Lockerbie he referred to the two greatest transport disasters and at Carluke encountered a railway jobsworth. As we neared Fife his excitement grew at returning to his roots and after quizzing us on the link between linen and linoleum he insisted on entering his grandfather's home at Wilby Hall before declaiming last lines on the nearby beach.


At Arrochar a woman sweeping the platform told me that everyone in the West Highlands knew that Portillo was visiting that day. At Dunkeld he  told Pete Wishart MP bound for the Highland Games that he and I had built the roads which made the Olympics possible, and at Invergowrie we met poor Charles McKean. At Montrose a customer drew to his attention an osprey fishing in the basin, and at Beauly he paced Britain's shortest platform before encountering a Great Railway Journey in flattering imitation of his own. On the last leg Ross County fans mooned his departure from Dingwall, and crows and midges helped make for a tense evening at Rogart, but the toilet that he was to open later at Dunrobin became known inevitably as the Portiloo. The programmes squeezed a lot into half-an-hour and thus could be said to be patronising but brought warmth to a dark January evening.