‘I spent a life working in survival,” says Bear Grylls, on his way to Ukraine to shoot War Zone: Bear Grylls Meets President Zelenskyy. “But now I will be learning from Ukrainians about what it takes to survive … in a war zone.” As the presenter travels to Kyiv, to meet civilians and to interview Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy, he keeps trying to bring up his military and survival credentials. He’s not always successful, but that does not mean his trip is in vain.
Grylls is in his element at the start of the programme, hurtling in a van with his crew through Poland towards the border. He receives a call from Bruce, a fixer inside Ukraine, who has intel that airstrikes on Kyiv are imminent. Once inside the capital, Grylls surveys the eerie street architecture created since the Russians invaded a year ago: steel girders, chopped up and welded together into 6ft-high asterisks to form “tank traps”, lie on pavements as if giants have been playing a game of jacks, and burnt-out Russian tanks lie by the roadside, totems of small victories past.
After a “security briefing” from a capable-looking man who basically tells everyone to wear a helmet and remain in a heightened state of awareness (how this will help if they’re hit by a missile isn’t clear, but it sounds legit), Grylls and his team roll out dramatically into the heart of the city to meet Kyiv’s residents, including its most famous.
Grylls is an interviewer of sorts by trade, but his celebrity subjects have usually been lured to a survival scenario of his own design before being hit with personal questions once trapped with him on a sleet-lashed precipice. In Ukraine, he’s away from home, and sometimes the programme feels as if it’s contriving ways to convince us of the relevance of his presence. His encounter with Oleksandr, an entrepreneur who was transformed into a soldier on day one of the war, is enlivened by the discovery that the Ukrainian was formerly a scout leader as well as a businessman. At this point Grylls, a global ambassador for scouting, starts offering Oleksandr and his young son left-handed handshakes and handing out badges.
He fares better when he focuses on simple human connections. That the loss of a close family member can feel like a life-defining grief, and that countless Ukrainians are now mourning parents, children or spouses, may not be a major revelation, but Grylls makes his encounter with local journalist Alina memorable by making it personal. Her 56-year-old father signed up to fight the Russians and did not come home. “You know, I lost my dad when I was younger,” Grylls tells her. “His presence never leaves me. Your dad’s never gonna leave your shoulder.”
Alina also helps us understand how it feels for Kyiv’s population – seen shovelling snow off the roads, as if to prepare for another ordinary day of safe urban bustle – to continue functioning week after week, month after month, with catastrophe perpetually on the wind. “If I should die today, then I will die today,” Alina says. “It’s hard to be scared every minute of your life.”
Grylls spends as much time with ordinary folk as he does with Zelenskiy, perhaps because nothing much comes from their meeting. Zelenskiy’s popularity stems in part from what an accomplished screen performer he is, but those clips are crafted to suit his political purpose – ferocious or inspiring exhortations, aimed directly at enemies or friends. An interview is not the same. On a walk around Kyiv that understandably doesn’t get very far, surrounded by security personnel and with Zelenskiy’s English in that awkward grey zone where he’s comprehensible but unable to conjure insightful specifics, the president and his visitor struggle to find a spark.
Zelenskiy talks about how his people were surprised at Russian troops’ capacity for cruelty, and how he is not surprised that many Ukrainians, like Oleksandr’s wife and child, fled the country only to return and resume the lives they love – however compromised. In general, he says what one would expect him to say about resilience and optimism. Grylls gets closest to showing us the man behind the persona when he prompts Zelenskiy to talk about his nine-year-old son: “[He says] ‘I am strong, I am OK, do your job,’ but at this moment, you see wet eyes.”
Before they part, there’s time for Grylls to offer a man who’s at war with a superpower some advice on surviving cold winters: “Stay together!” Zelenskiy nods politely, before heading off to do something more important than exchanging halting pleasantries with a British TV presenter. But Grylls has told us a little of what Ukrainians are facing. In unfamiliar territory, he has just about survived.
Bear Grylls Meets President Zelenskyy aired on Channel 4 and is now on All 4.