Bear Grylls Meets President Zelensky, review: war-time reportage meets jaunty entertainment
The list of celebrities who have made the pilgrimage to Ukraine to shake hands with President Volodymyr Zelensky already includes Bono, Sean Penn and Angelina Jolie. In Bear Grylls Meets President Zelensky (Channel 4) that exclusive club welcomed eternal boy scout Grylls, to whom Zelensky had reportedly extended a personal invitation. You can only wonder about the calculus behind that decision. Was Zelensky a fan of The Island with Bear Grylls? Did he enjoy the interactive Netflix series where the viewer decides if Grylls should jump off a cliff or eat a poisonous mushroom (complete with “barfing Bear” sound effects?).
Whether Zelensky is a true Bear buff or merely a politician with an eye for a photo-op was not revealed during this solid hour of war-time reportage that doubled as a showcase for Grylls’s big-hearted presenting style. As he walked the slush-bound streets of Kyiv with the TV action-man, the President’s priority was to hammer home the message that Ukraine would never give up in its existential struggle with Russia. “You have to fight for peace,” he said. “You have to fight for victory”.
This one-off could have gone horribly wrong. From a certain light, Grylls resembles the bossy-boots headboy of an Enid Blyton novel (one of the ones they haven’t cancelled yet). He’s shouty, always on the front foot and enjoys getting stuck in – whether that involves crossing a rope bridge in the tropics or drinking his own wee on a trek across the desert.
While not without their risks, these exploits are essentially high-octane pratfalling. Bring that energy to an actual war zone and things could turn dreadfully awry. And it did all get a bit Alan Partridge at one point. Grylls is chief ambassador of World Scouting and, encountering a boy who was a member of the Ukrainian equivalent of the scouts, he couldn’t resist reminding us of this fact.
“It’s always an honour for me to meet a fellow scout,” he said, proffering a hand. The child, traumatised by war and until recently displaced from his homeland, smiled unsurely. Who was this bizarrely jaunty man?
That was as toe-curling as it got. Grylls’s recent TV adventures have included interviewing Jonny Wilkinson in a cave in Dartmoor and filtering filthy water through underpants with Natalie Portman (though he has previously interacted with politicians – taking Barack Obama hiking in Alaska for instance). Here, he revealed an impressively empathetic side when sitting down with a Ukrainian journalist whose father was missing in action and presumed killed by a landmine. “I lost my dad when I was younger,” he said. “His presence never leaves me. Your dad is never going to leave your shoulder.”
With an entire country to defend against a rapacious nuclear power, Zelensky was limited in his interactions with Grylls. They took a quick tour of Kyiv, visiting a mobile centre where citizens charge their phones when the power goes down.
Despite their truncated time together, Grylls got past the soundbites and gave us a glimpse of the President’s inner turmoil. Zelensky, eyes dark with strain, outlined the heavy price he and his family had paid throughout the war and the pain he felt at not being able to give enough time to his nine-year-old son. “For him it is tough. He needs his father. You see the wet eyes of your son and understand he’s a child.”
He spoke with emotion but with resolve, too. In Ukraine, Grylls found a country that understood the price it was paying by standing up to Russia – yet which knew it had no other choice. This was brought chillingly home when he interviewed that young journalist about her missing father.
“You have to cry,” he said. She straightened and wiped away the tears. “We will cry – after our victory,” she replied. “And they will be tears of happiness.”