The Oliver Observations

Promoting Portillo and his painful puns

with one comment

I’m always been vaguely intrigued by the political journey of politician, turned ubiquitous TV talking head, Michael Portillo.

Back in the distant mid-90s past he was an uber-Thatcherite Cabinet Minister, in which capacity he appears in Gyles Brandreth’s entertaining and gossip-drenched political diaries as the coiffured-haired crown prince of the Tory Right.

Following his shock loss of his seat, which defined the 1997 election as entered the political election as the original ‘Portillo moment’, he re-emerged as a Conservative moderniser, before seeming to lose his appetite for politics, after the further humiliation of being denied the Conservative leadership by Iain Duncan-Smith (which has gotta hurt).
Apparently Portillo had become so disillusioned by the final round of the 2001 leadership election he didn’t even vote for himself. He was knocked out by a single vote.

I think, for devotees of political counterfactuals, it’s arguable that had he taken a role on the front-bench, and been willing to do some of the donkey work of opposition he could have made yet another come back. He would have been a good position to take over the leadership when Iain Duncan-Smith imploded in 2003, or indeed to have been the modernisers’ candidate rather than David Cameron in 2005. Instead he withdrew from front-line politics, becoming one more of those former future Prime Ministers, who somehow missed the political train.


I also enjoy his more prosaic journeys around Britain for the TV series Great British Railway Journeys which is a winning mix of genuinely fascinating information, and wonderfully awkward moments as Portillo attempts to engage fellow commuters in conversation.

There’s something very British and Betjemanesque about his ambling about provincial towns, usually sporting some shade of burgundy or lilac, cheerfully repeating his opening gambit ‘I’m travelling around using a nineteenth century guidebook!’ to politely baffled locals.

But the show wouldn’t be what it is without Portillo’s biting wit and dazzling way with words. I was reminded of all this, apropos of nothing, on seeing that Youtube oddities connoisseur, Jon Harvey, has compiled a tribute to his best (worst) puns, which fellow fans of the show might enjoy:


I particularly like how he carefully emphasises each joke, perhaps to signal he hasn’t lost his train of thought or become side-tracked.

It’s good to see he hasn’t run out of steam.


One Response

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  1. You make some very good points. I thought you might have gone off the rails, but I soon saw your loco-motive and it was just the ticket.

    By the way, puns about monorails always make for decent one-liners.

    Andy Hartley

    March 20, 2013 at 1:18 am

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