Image for Michael Portillo: Digging up the DeadNot currently available on BBC iPlayer

Duration: 1 hour

A personal journey for Michael Portillo into a story which may come as a shock to people whose knowledge of Spain comes from taking holidays on the beach.

Lying just beneath the surface of the ground, all over Spain, are the bodies of tens of thousands of people in unmarked and very often mass graves. For most of the last seventy years, since the end of the Spanish Civil War, these were known as the 'Graves of Forgetting'. The country was ruled by a dictatorship until the late 1970s and no-one dared speak out about the dead and the disappeared, of whom there could be as many as 200,000.

It is only now that Spain is getting to grips with its past - recognising the terrible crimes that were committed under General Franco's dictatorship and encouraging people to speak about their memories and the loved ones they lost. Many of the graves are being excavated and the bodies removed for reburial, while others will be turned into memorial parks. One excavation is taking place just moments from the beaches and bars of Malaga.

No Spanish family was untouched by the civil war and the repression that followed, and Michael Portillo's family is no exception. His father supported the democratic government and when Spain fell to Franco, Luis Portillo spent the rest of his life in exile.

As Michael discovers, while his uncles were fighting and dying for Franco, his father fought, unarmed in order to be certain that he could not kill a brother, for the republic. This is a journey into a place we thought we knew so well, but discover, through the stories told by a variety of characters, that we hardly knew at all.

Last on

Wed 11 Nov 2009 01:25 BBC Four

  • Clip: Michael Portillo investigates the unearthing of Spain's dark history

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    Michael Portillo, whose father was exiled for fighting for democracy after Spain fell to Franco 70 years ago, returns to examine the effect the exhumation of mass graves will have on a country which had chosen to forget the pain of its civil war.

  • Photo: Federico Garcia Lorca's grave

    Photo: Federico Garcia Lorca's grave

    In Michael Portillo: Digging Up the Dead, the former Conservative party minister visits the grave of Federico Garcia Lorca, near Grenada. The emblematic poet was killed at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

  • Photo: Portillo with Laura Lorca

    Photo: Portillo with Laura Lorca

    Michael Portillo meets with the niece of Federico Garcia Lorca, Laura Lorca, as he investigates the digging up of Spanish Civil War graves.

  • Photo: Portillo with Maribel Brenes

    Photo: Portillo with Maribel Brenes

    Spanish historian Maribel Brenes, who is also President of the Granada branch of The Association of the Recovery of Historical Memory, meets with Michael Portillo.


Michael Portillo
Judith Dawson
Judith Dawson
Executive Producer
Stuart Prebble


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