Joanna Lumley isn’t exactly well known for her in-depth documentaries or long distant journeys, especially as the majority of us will have started to associate her a little too much with her Ab Fab precious Patsy persona. However, her Trans-Siberian Adventures for ITV are a joy to watch as they prod and poke the surface to capture all of the shimmering ripples and darker troughs that she finds along the way.
If Joanna Lumley in a documentary is a stretch for you, you’re probably also wondering why such a specific journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but the fact that she was a model and worked in Moscow in her youth for a period of the swinging sixties – in the thick of the Cold War – is an easy explanation. This forms the premise of her travel plan as she returns to her former home via the most interesting route possible, taking her from Hong Kong, where she hasn’t visited since she was a little girl, through China, into Siberia and on to the Russian capital, taking in some 5,777 miles and seven time zones in the process.
The first episode of the three-part documentary series aired on Sunday the 12th July 2015 and it was an impressive introduction to the great adventure Joanna Lumley has embarked on. She starts out by trying to find the street in Hong Kong that she grew up in with her family where her father was stationed leading a Ghurka regiment as a part of the former British colony’s army. It’s a past which had a big impact on her own political activism to press for the ability for British army Ghurka’s to be granted the opportunity to take residence in the UK, a mission she succeeded in.
From Hong Kong she travels on a recently built bullet train through China, taking her to Beijing, some 1400 miles away, in just ten and a half minutes, emphasising the massive economic and technological growth in the country in recent years. The trip takes her past cities that you will have never even heard of, despite the fact that they have populations as big as London. However, they pale in comparison the the 21 million people that make up the Chinese capital residency. Having immersed herself in the rags, riches, history, culture and eccentricities of the super-massive city, she then boards the Trans-Siberian railway and makes for the border, taking in the sights and high adventure along the way.
The second episode in the series aired on the 19th July, continuing Joanna’s Trans-Siberian odyssey as she embarks on the transition period of the journey where the East and eastern Russia overlap. Haggling with traders on the train, getting into trouble with Russian border guards and talking politics and Vladimir Putin with a nervously guarded ballroom dancer are just a few of the key moments of the first episode and it makes for fascinating viewing.
In addition to providing a brilliant insight into the people, culture and landscape of the places she visits, it’s other big triumph is in providing a fascinating view of the real life character of Joanna Lumley. She’s a genuine wonder to watch with an impressive mix of bravery, poignancy, humour and silliness, which helps her to give a startlingly rounded exposition of everything and everyone she comes into contact with.
This is complimented massively by a very talented film and production crew who have combined an investigative journalism style with the kind of high-definition camerawork that the BBC has become famous for. A grim Russian train station becomes transformed into a blazing beauty with some well crafted focal shifting and lense flaring to bathe it in the glow of the morning sun, while in an earlier scene a hidden camera in Joanna’s room captures some furtive shots of the Russian guards searching her cabin and confiscating the second of the two cameras that had been set up. It makes for incredibly compelling viewing.
The final, Moscow-bound episode will air on Sunday 26th July 2015, rounding off the cool new documentary on ITV. With similarities with some of Michael Palin’s globetrotting escapades for the BBC, it’s a whistle stop tour that will give you a fast moving glimpse of the Trans-Siberian Railway journey and a close-up look at the brilliant presenter.
Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventures review: 4.4/5