Bear Grylls bounces into Ukraine eager to set the world to rights. The TV action man is travelling across an active war theatre to meet the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy and has cultivated a novelty moustache for the occasion.
But under the facial fuzz, it’s still the same Grylls Irish viewers will recognise from Running Wild with Bear Grylls, Bear Grylls Survival Story and other dollops of small-screen derring-do. He remains, in other words, the light entertainment equivalent of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, bounding into the danger zones relying on nothing beyond a stiff upper lip and a nose for trouble.
That nose starts to twitch pretty early in Bear Grylls Meets President Zelenskyy (Channel 4, Tuesday, 8pm), when his advance party in Kyiv reveals the capital is expecting a barrage of Russian bombing. Grylls is undaunted. He does, moreover, and to his credit, appreciate that travelling to Ukraine with a missile strike imminent isn’t quite the same as climbing a mountain in nasty weather. “I’ve served with the military and spent a life working in survival, but now I’ll be learning from Ukrainians what it takes to survive in a war zone,” he says.
His delivery here and elsewhere is slightly cheesy: you are never not aware that you are watching a sort of rugged cousin once removed to Jeremy Clarkson. Yet Grylls is self-aware enough to dial down his human penknife routine as he meets the Ukrainian president. It has since been reported that his attempt to gift Zelenskiy a box of chocolates was foiled by bodyguards understandably wary of an outsider handing a sealed box to a man the Kremlin has tried to assassinate more than once.
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This mishap doesn’t make it on to camera. Instead, Grylls and Zelenskiy strike up an impromptu bromance strolling through Kyiv. Grylls is very good at being earnest and is genuinely moved by the fortitude of Ukraine and its leaders as they hold back the biggest invasion in Europe since the second World War.
Zelenskiy, meanwhile, comes across as quietly resolute. He doesn’t have the sort of sunny-side-up charisma you might expect of, say, an American politician in his position – soundbites aren’t his thing. Instead, he speaks the truth calmly and without sensation. “Ukrainians,” he says, “have adapted to a new wave of living.”
Grylls already knows this. Touring Kyiv, he takes in the burnt-out Russian tanks that stand in the centre of the city – a symbol of defiance and also a warning to Moscow of what lies in store if it presses on with its barbarism.
But if the president and survivalist seem to click, they really don’t have much time to bond. They embark on a brief tour of Kyiv and then Zelenskiy must return to the day job of holding Russia at bay.
Grylls, for his part, goes set out to meet ordinary Ukrainians. Journalist Alina recalls how her father joined the armed forces at the age of 56 to serve his country. He is missing in action and presumed dead.
She, for her part, goes about daily life knowing a missile strike could hit at any moment. Alina shrugs. “If I should die today, then I will die today. It’s hard to be scared every minute of your life.”