Michael Portillo to visit Suffolk bomb base in new TV series
PUBLISHED: 11:12 10 April 2018 | UPDATED: 11:13 10 April 2018
A new four-part series sees former politician Michael Portillo searching for the country's darkest secrets - including Suffolk's Orford Ness where experiments were carried out with the atomic bomb
It’s an eerie Suffolk location with a deadly secret which will be explored in Michael Portillo’s new television series.
Orford Ness, with its deserted Cold War concrete bunkers and rusting radar towers will feature in Portillo’s Hidden History of Britain, a new four-part series which begins on Channel 5 on April 20 and will feature the Suffolk Atomic Weapons Research Establishment on April 28.
The 1950s saw the construction of specialised facilities to exploit new post-war technologies such as nuclear power.
AWRE Orford Ness was one of only a few sites in the UK – and the world - where purpose-built facilities were created for testing the components of nuclear weapons. At the height of the Cold War AWRE and the Royal Aircraft Establishment used Orford Ness to develop the atomic bomb.
Initial work concentrated on recording the flight of the weapon and monitoring the electronics within it during flight, but much of the work involved environmental testing, which in itself was being developed and advanced – the six large test cells and other buildings which can still be seen on the shingle were built to carry out such testing.
Within these stone walls, bombs would be put through their paces to test how they would deal with extreme temperatures, G force and vibrations.
It was said that no nuclear material was ever involved in the testing but it was present at the site and a failure might have resulted in a terrible explosion – for this reason, tests were done using remote controls and the labs were designed to absorb an explosion. The AWRE ceased work on the site in 1971.
Portillo is probably one of the best examples of how a politician can reinvent themselves after what seemed like a disastrous end to their career.
The ‘Portillo result’ was the defining moment of the Conservative Party’s 1997 defeat as half the country stayed up to see his defeat in Enfield Southgate and the political demise of the one time would-be Tory leader who symbolised the end of two decades of Tory power.
Fast forward 20 years and Portillo is now – if not a national treasure, on the way to becoming one.
He has painstakingly rebuilt his reputation and is now a respected documentary maker and presenter whose programmes have enchanted viewers, whether he is investigating the life of Richard Wagner, taking a Great Railway Journey, meeting Spanish wildlife in The Natural World or presenting Queen Elizabeth I as a Great Briton.
He’s presented Dinner with Portillo, is a long-serving member of the panel in the BBC Radio 4 series The Moral Maze, was the jury foreman in the BBC TV project The Verdict, carried out research into capital punishment for How to Kill a Human Being and has researched subjects as diverse as suicide, medieval cuisine, capitalism, classified documents and the Magna Carta. Now he’s returning to screens in a new Channel 5 documentary series, Portillo’s Hidden History of Britain.
The new four-part series, which begins next week, sees the former politician searching for the country’s darkest secrets, from a 400-year-old prison in Somerset to Orford Ness, a lost village in Wiltshire and a London hospital in the East End which hides many secrets.
In the first episode, Crime and Punishment, Portillo visits Shepton Mallet prison which was built in 1610 and is the country’s oldest gaol - it housed French prisoners of war during the Napoleonic Wars and during the Second World War it was used to house some of Britain’s greatest treasurs, such as the Doomsday Book, a log from Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory and a copy of the Magna Carta.
The prison was where executions took place up until 1926, when Tom Pierrepoint hanged John Lincoln for the murder of Edward Richards. The prison was also the US military’s death row during the WW2 and became a place of execution for American servicemen convicted of serious crimes: a new brick-built extension was added to the stone prison which had gallows on the first floor - in three years, 18 American soldiers Portillo steps inside one of Shepton’s dank cells and lets the door slam behind him, despite a fear of confined spaces - obviously disturbed, he makes a swift exit as his claustrophobia gets the better of his desire to experience what it was like for prisoners to be incarcerated in rooms so deep in the bowels of the earth that no natural light reached them.
Shepton Mallet, where the Krays were imprisoned for assault at the age of 20, is just one of four incredible abandoned buildings which the presenter visits during the series. He also investigates Imber, a village in Wiltshire which became a ghost towm when the military took over in 1943 for training purposes.
At the Royal London Hospital, Michael recounts the tragic story of Joseph Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man, whose skeletal deformities saw him eking a living in freakshows until he was saved by philanthropic surgeon Frederick Treves, who offered him sanctuary and compassion at the hospital. We see Joseph’s hat and mask which he wore in public to prevent people staring at him.
Portillo also discovers the role the hospital played in the Jack the Ripper case and finds out how corpses that had been dug up illegally were used for dissection before the Anatomy Act of 1832.
In Suffolk, he visits Orford Ness where work was carried out on hydrogen bombs to ensure they wouldn’t explode in mid-air and find out about Cobra Mist, a short-lived collaboration between the British and Americans which was set up to spy on Russian military manoeuvres
The surveillance radar stations were initially due to be placed in Turkey, but when the country objected, the project was moved to Suffolk and sited to offer a view of most of Eastern Europe - it was eventually shut down in 1973, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the site and building were reused for the Orford Ness transmitting station.
“People talk for the first time about working there. Many lives were in the hands of the technicians in control of those weapons,” he said.
* Portillo’s Hidden History of Britain is on Channel 5 on Fridays at 9pm.