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    CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: How Mystic Michael unearthed a pandemic hotspot… one year ago

    CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: How Mystic Michael unearthed a pandemic hotspot… one year ago

    Great Continental Railway Journeys

    Rating:

    Council House Britain

    Rating:

    Scoff if you want to. Reject the evidence of your own eyes, but no amount of scepticism can explain away the paranormal superpowers of Mystic Wilf.

    Fans of Gone Fishing on BBC2 will know that Wilf is the alter ego of comic Bob Mortimer. Perched in a gipsy caravan, with a handful of soccer cards in place of the usual tarot pack, he reads the fortune of his mate Paul Whitehouse.

    ‘You’ll catch no fish today,’ predicts Mystic Wilf, and uncannily he is often proved right.

    Mystic Michael Portillo caught an eerie foretelling of the future at the end of his Great Continental Railway Journeys (BBC2), though he had no way of guessing how prescient it was.

    Michael Portillo caught an eerie foretelling of the future at the end of his Great Continental Railway Journeys

    Michael Portillo caught an eerie foretelling of the future at the end of his Great Continental Railway Journeys

    Sitting in a train compartment rather than a caravan, he was chatting to a Swedish historian as he trundled northwards.

    Next stop was Ostersund, one of the worst affected spots in the world during the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago.

    Two-thirds of the population were infected and about 10 per cent of the townsfolk died when a mutant strain of the virus ravaged the little community. With doctors unable to cope, volunteers rallied round and set up a hospital. It started a wave of social activism that changed Sweden permanently.

    Michael’s journey took place last summer, months before the world had heard of Covid-19. He had no inkling that, by the time this episode was broadcast, it would be so relevant.

    His unwitting innocence was emphasised when he hopped onto a rock placed on the edge of the Arctic Circle. In a year’s time, he said, the tilting of the planet would mean the borderline was in a slightly different place — and he hoped to come back and see that for himself.

    Some chance. This year, like three-quarters of Europe and most of the rest of the world, Sweden is all but off-limits to most British tourists. It’s a crying shame because, like all the programmes in the series, this was an irresistible invitation to travel.

    Success story of the year:

    Pointless star Richard Osman’s first novel, The Thursday Murder Club, topped the bestseller charts this month. Now his quiz House Of Games is to air on primetime BBC1. I’m glad someone’s having a good 2020!

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    The red wooden houses in Mora looked delightful, Stockholm’s underground railway stations were vibrant art galleries and the ice hotel in Lapland promised a snug night’s sleep under layers of reindeer skins.

    Heigh-ho. The flight restrictions can’t last for ever, and one Scandinavian railway engineer is working on a way to speed up tourism — rail cars that travel at 1,000 miles an hour inside vacuum tubes called a ‘hyperloop’.

    Maybe in the future we will be able to zip to Sweden in our lunch breaks. Ask Mystic Wilf — he’ll know.

    Psychic powers would be handy for the council staff in Southwark, South London. They need second sight to know what their tenants are really up to.

    As the cameras of Council House Britain (C4) followed pest controller Wayne on his rounds, he was called out to a flat whose elderly resident claimed she had trouble with mice.

    Wayne knew as soon as he arrived that there’d be no mice. The place was spotless. But the 88-year-old Cypriot grandmother who lived alone there did have a leak under the sink. And her alarm clock needed resetting.

    Smiling sweetly, she pretended not to be able to hear a word Wayne said — but she knew perfectly well the council would never get round to sending a plumber, never mind a clock-fixer. So she said she had mice.

    Well, you don’t get to 88 without learning a trick or two.

    This voyeuristic series has an unpleasant tendency to piggy-back on the misery of families facing poverty and eviction.

    But it has lighter moments with characters like Wayne, and these make it bearable.

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