Joanna Lumley and the Human Swan review – heartening optimism in the face of climate despair

Joanna Lumley and the Human Swan is a title that could only fly (sorry) in Inghilterra. At a time when we are all looking for gentle, non-toxic ways to define ourselves, let us seize upon ITV’s eco-minded documentary. E, ovviamente, on Joanna Lumley herself. (Not that way, Purdey-people. Behave yourselves.)

Everything about Lumley is old-fashioned in the best way. The charm, the elegance, the grace. The wit and the bone-deep confidence. It is all redolent of a slower, calmer era. She glides serenely through her presenting duties in the likes of Joanna Lumley’s Postcards and Silk Road Adventure, reminding us all – even those of us too young to have any recollection of them – of the days when the world seemed full of wonder, instead of the absolute shambles of today.

It is this charm that makes her the ideal choice of travel companion for biologist and conservationist Sacha Dench’s (AKA “the Human Swan”) 3,000 mile trip around Britain by eco-conscious paramotor. The pair travel the nation, meeting people tackling the climate emergency, with Dench due to continue on to the poliziotto26 summit to call attention not just to the current crisis but to the solutions that are possible.

Dench got her nickname when she took to her paramotor (a kind of hang-glider with a rechargeable battery) and accompanied a flock of critically endangered Bewick’s swans along their entire three-month-long migration path from freezing Arctic Russia to France. Her mission? To show how and why their numbers have fallen so sharply, and call for conservation action along the flyway to protect the remaining birds.

Lumley joins Dench as she and her flight partner Dan Burton prepare to take off from North Ayrshire and begin the battery-powered circumnavigation of our septic isle. Lumley follows Dench’s instructions on how to hoist the parachute that will help give her lift-off. “Be near me forever, Sacha,” says Lumley as she yanks on the strangely fearsome-looking equipment. Then Dench is, letteralmente, off and running. o, absolutely literally, running and then off, riding the thermals and making her way down the west coast and next meeting Lumley at Swansea Bay.

There they are shown the suffering of the kittiwake, a small gull whose population has declined by 40% since the 1970s, thanks to climate change that causes storms that disturb the surface water and leaves them unable to see and catch fish. Warming oceans also affect the breeding of the sand eels upon which chicks depend for food, causing further problems. And so on and so on, each little change rolling into another until – to use entirely the wrong metaphor in a paragraph about global heating – we snowball into catastrophe.

But then we meet Natasha Jenkins, also of Swansea, who got so sick of seeing so much of the waste humanity’s insanity creates every year washing up on their local shore that she set up the anti-litter campaign Don’t Be a Tosser on social media. There are now hundreds of litter-picking volunteers who go out in groups and make – literally again, as they stuff other people’s crap into sacks – bags of difference to their environment.

On we go, round the coastline, having bad news broken to us gently and then good ideas proffered with ever-charming, seemingly genuine enthusiasm by the ever-charming and seemingly genuine Lumley. “Listen!” she confides urgently yet ebulliently to the camera, “we can ALL do this!” A visit to Bristol, winner of this year’s Gold Sustainable Food City award, for a locally grown feast and tour of a hydroponic vertical-farm-within-a-shipping-crate delights her. “I think it’s crackers that we fly so much produce from thousands of miles away!” The pair also travel to the UK’s first zero-carbon community, nel sud di Londra, and observe the erosion on the White Cliffs of Dover.

sì, the level of analysis sometimes feels slightly basic, but this is a programme that aims to avoid preaching, while still engaging the unconverted. sì, you could argue that the time for individual action diverting us from the path of destruction is long past, but what good does the counsel of despair ever do? Will more politicians be moved to more action by pressure from engaged citizens or from those sitting silently frozen in fear?

The programme is bookended by the awful news that Burton and Dench suffered an air collision towards the end of their trip in which Burton was killed and Dench seriously injured. She and Burton’s family wanted the programme to be finished and broadcast. Its wholesome, accessible optimism is – hopefully – exactly what they wanted.

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