Michael Portillo visits buildings with hidden histories 

Michael Portillo has a recurring nightmare. It involves a prison cell, a bolted door and the absolute certainty he won’t be released for a very long time. 

So imagine how he felt while filming his new Channel 5 documentary Crime And Punishment, the first in a fascinating new four-part series called Portillo’s Hidden History Of Britain.

To gain an insight into what life would have been like hundreds of years ago for prisoners at Shepton Mallet Prison in Somerset, the former Conservative cabinet minister steps inside a dark, damp cell and lets the door slam behind him. 

To gain an insight into what life would have been like hundreds of years ago for prisoners at Shepton Mallet Prison in Somerset Michael Portillo steps inside the cells 

Visibly disturbed, he shudders, utters the words ‘nasty’ and ‘claustrophobia’ and makes a beeline for the door. 

‘It’s my worst nightmare,’ says Michael, ‘to be incarcerated in jail and not know why I’m there or how long I’m going to be there for, so it was a very unpleasant experience. Some prisoners would have spent years in that tiny cell. Imagine how nightmarish that would have been.’

In the series Michael visits four extraordinary abandoned buildings to lift the lid on some of Britain’s biggest secrets. In the first show at Shepton Mallet jail, which closed its doors in 2013 after more than 400 years, Michael investigates barbaric 17th-century cells deep in the bowels of the building that would have afforded inmates no light whatsoever. 

Shepton Mallet prison in Edwardian times

Shepton Mallet prison in Edwardian times

‘It does make you wonder what prisons are for,’ he says, ‘Are they there to rehabilitate, or just to punish? Can they actually set people on the road to a life of crime? The Kray Twins went to Shepton Mallet as 20-year-olds for assault, and came out nine months later as gangsters. Prison clearly didn’t work in the way it should have done for them.’

The Krays weren’t the only famous inmates of Shepton. ‘Some of our great national treasures, such as the Magna Carta, the Domesday Book and Nelson’s logbook from HMS Victory, were in danger of being destroyed by Nazi air raids so they were moved to the relative safety of Shepton Mallet. 

They transferred so much material the lorries kept breaking down because their cargoes were so heavy. It’s extraordinary to think a document like the Magna Carta may have been stored in a cell like the one I was in. Never was a more important inmate kept there under lock and key.’

Shepton Mallet also became the US military’s death row during the war, and in three years 18 American troops were executed there, for rape and/or murder.

Another programme investigates the case of Imber, the once-bustling village on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire that became a ghost town overnight when its residents were turfed out in 1943 by the military, which retains control of the area to this day as a training ground.

Then there’s the London Hospital in the city’s East End, whose most famous resident was the horribly deformed Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man. Michael recounts his tragic story, performing as a freak show act before being saved from a lifetime of public humiliation by surgeon Frederick Treves, who gave him a place of sanctuary at the hospital. 

Treasures including the Domesday Book arriving at Shepton Mallet during WWII

Treasures including the Domesday Book arriving at Shepton Mallet during WWII

Michael is left deeply moved by the sight of Merrick’s hat and mask, designed to hide his deformed body from public ridicule. 

Michael also discovers that the hospital was where some of Jack The Ripper’s victims were examined and where, before the Anatomy Act of 1832, corpses that had been dug up illegally and sold to the hospital’s medical school were used for dissection.

But perhaps the biggest nightmare of all lurks in the episode where Michael visits Orford Ness in Suffolk, the eeriest and deadliest of all the locations with its deserted Cold War concrete bunkers and rusting radar towers. 

‘People talk for the first time about working there and we discover it’s where experiments were done on hydrogen bombs to ensure they wouldn’t explode in mid-air,’ reveals Michael. 

‘Many lives were in the hands of the technicians in control of those weapons. We speak to a man called Roger Harrison who worked on Cobra Mist, an Anglo-American project thought to have cost nearly £800 million in today’s money, that was secretly set up to spy on Russian military manoeuvres before being abruptly shut down. Did the Russians compromise the operation, or was the technology faulty?

‘What’s extraordinary about Cobra Mist is that the public were oblivious to it,’ says Michael. ‘That’s one of the interesting points raised by our programme: how much should we know about what our government is doing to keep us safe?’

Michael hopes his own brief spell behind bars at Shepton Mallet will put an end to his recurring nightmare about being locked up, for which he offers no explanation. ‘It’s not as if I’ve ever been to prison,’ he says. ‘The closest I’ve got is going there to visit people I knew who were incarcerated.’

Among those he visited was Tory MP turned novelist Jeffrey Archer, who got four years for perjury and perverting the course of justice in 2001. 

‘I used to have lunch with him at Le Caprice restaurant in London and he always had the best table,’ says Michael. 

‘After he was jailed I went to visit him at North Sea Camp prison in Lincolnshire and I was shown into a canteen where you were invited to sit down before the prisoner came in and joined you. When Jeffrey finally came in, I looked concerned and said, “Jeffrey, I do hope this is the best table.” Fortunately he saw the funny side.’  

Portillo’s Hidden History Of Britain starts next month on Channel 5.


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