Joanna Lumley and the Human Swan, review: a courageous climate change message tainted by tragedy

Joanna Lumley with ‘the human swan’ – AKA paramotorist and conservationist Sacha Dench - ITV
Joanna Lumley with ‘the human swan’ – AKA paramotorist and conservationist Sacha Dench - ITV

On September 18, adventure filmmaker and climate campaigner Dan Burton was killed in a mid-air collision while flying an engine-powered paraglider in Scotland.

A second paraglider, Sacha Dench, sustained critical injuries in the accident. This was the announcement with which Joanna Lumley began Joanna Lumley and the Human Swan (ITV) – a documentary that, in happier circumstances, might have been a breezy serving of eco-telly yet which now arrived suffused in tragedy. Dench, an Australian whose gravity- defying environmental activism had earned her the title “Human Swan”, was flying, along with Burton, around the British coast to raise awareness of climate change ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow. Accompanying the duo for part of the journey were Lumley and a camera crew.

“Dan’s family, Sacha herself, and all involved are keen that we continue to tell that story and spread its urgent message,” said Lumley in a brief preamble. She added that the film was dedicated to Burton.

But it was impossible to put aside that tragedy through the 50 minutes that followed. That was unfortunate. The documentary that Lumley and Dench made together – with Burton occasionally busy in the background as the head of Dench’s support team – was climate change TV done well. The tone was playful. It didn’t wag its finger. There were no stern warnings that failing to correctly sort your recycling would bring humanity one step closer to the apocalypse.

Lumley, presenter of jet-setting travelogues through India, Egypt and East Asia, is a late convert to climate activism. However, at 75 she has keenly embraced environmentalism. That enthusiasm shone through as she accompanied Dench to Wales, where an expert warned that increasingly stormy oceans were making it difficult for certain species of seagulls to feed. Later, in a London boutique, they modelled trendy clothes fashioned from recycled plastics.

In a different context the film would have been pleasant if inessential – an Attenborough climate change lecture with a bit of fizz in its veins. Alas, the devastating conclusion to Dench’s journey – which happened off camera – gave the film a very different feel. Its heart was in the right place. But due to circumstances beyond its control, it made for unsettling viewing.