In the 1990s, when I was travelling through Transylvania, a local made a remark which has stayed with me. ‘It’s always good to meet people from abroad and find out what they think of Romania,’ she said. ‘But if anyone mentions Dracula, I just switch off. I feel there’s a sheet of glass between them and me. I know they’re an idiot, and that they’ll never understand.’ So oppressive was this association with Romania – where Dracula author Bram Stoker never set a foot incidentally – that when in 2009 Czech artist David Černý produced Entropa, his mischievous map of European stereotypes, the country was represented as a vast vampire theme park.
This is bad news for Michael Portillo’s Transylvania to the Black Sea, which aired on BBC television in November 2016, and had a special screening at the ICR on 12 December: the only time, Portillo noted appreciatively, that the cultural institute of a country he’s covered has bothered to do this. It begins with mentions of vampires and a visit to Bran castle, complete with puns about stakes and teeth, and feels like the kind of documentary which might have been made a good decade ago. While there are beautiful, cinematic shots of the Transylvanian landscape, and admirable attempts to reach back beyond Romania’s communist period to a more elegant monarchist past (sumptuous scenes in King Carol I’s Peleș castle, and the Cantecuzino Palace in Bucharest where the museum of composer George Enescu is now housed) the documentary – which sometimes looks like a tourist board promotion – mostly fails to catch fire.
Occasionally, we see snippets of genuine interest – the wooden boxes Transylvanian shepherds still sleep in for several months at a time, or the churches saved from Ceausescu’s wholesale destruction of central Bucharest by simply being sawn off at the base and wheeled away on railway bogies, but these moments are few and far between. As a documentary it feels, even weighing in at just under an hour, alarmingly lightweight, and a series of missed chances. Why are we allowed no glance inside Ceaușescu’s House of the People? Why, when random encounters and unexpected conversations are such a feature of Romanian train journeys, do we see Portillo sitting primly alone throughout? When he remarks on the contrast between the old centre of Brașov and the ugly tower blocks on its outer edges, doesn’t he realise this comment could apply to any historic city in Eastern Europe? Scenes of bitumen production in Ploiești and grain silos in Constanza seem like padding – there simply to allow Portillo to shinny up ladders or operate machinery and convince us he’s a jolly good sport.
Portillo, in a speech afterwards, was open about his lack of personal research-preparation for each episode, claiming this can be a strength and that it’s his job to react to what he sees. Sometimes this works out, at others you feel he’s winging it, trying simply to get by on charm – and indeed, for those of us who remember him in an earlier incarnation, there can be something altogether queasy about seeing him turn the said charm on and off for locals, rather as one might an audio-loop of lift muzak. A series of brightly-hued jackets and garish colour-coordinations do not a presenter make, even if they’re there to remind us he’s no longer one of those Tory men-in-grey-suits. Perhaps the final word, though, should go to a small, sagacious dog on one of the trains Portillo sails by on, and who bars our presenter’s path with a heat-seeking barrage of yaps and growls – rather as if scenting Count Dracula himself.
This screening of Michael Portillo’s Transylvania to the Black Sea (2016) was part of the ongoing cultural programme at the Romanian Cultural Institute, London.