thu 01/10/2020

Vinnie Jones: Russia's Toughest, National Geographic | reviews, news & interviews

Vinnie Jones: Russia's Toughest, National Geographic

Vinnie Jones: Russia's Toughest, National Geographic

Reaching the parts of Russia other presenters can’t reach? Give Vinnie a go

Hard country, hard man: Vinnie Jones, looking uncharacteristically sartorial for what he gets up to in 'Russia's Toughest', on Red Square

Once you’d got over an initial sense of absurdity at Vinnie Jones as travel guide, to Russia and for National Geographic to boot, a certain logic kicked in: hard country, hard man. Some time after we'd lost count in Vinnie Jones: Russia’s Toughest of how often our guide had described himself as "football hard man and Hollywood tough guy”, something unfamiliar crept into view, namely an element of humility in the face of challenges that boggled the Jones imagination.

Once you’d got over an initial sense of absurdity at Vinnie Jones as travel guide, to Russia and for National Geographic to boot, a certain logic kicked in: hard country, hard man. Some time after we'd lost count in Vinnie Jones: Russia’s Toughest of how often our guide had described himself as "football hard man and Hollywood tough guy”, something unfamiliar crept into view, namely an element of humility in the face of challenges that boggled the Jones imagination. Thankfully for all concerned, they were later left to those who knew how to cope with them better.

Could Jones take us to parts of this contradictory country other presenters can’t access? This week’s second episode, in which he learnt bodyguard skills, brought us into the world of Moscow’s super rich and powerful, one that’s pretty familiar from past television tropes. The training camp (pictured below right) where he was instructed by veterans of Russia’s special forces to dodge would-be assassins and cope with jamming pistols brought more insight. A snatched excursion – a new favourite among Russia’s rich, apparently – dressing up as beggars and panhandling on the streets to discover how the other 99.99 percent lives, was a revelation. Who knew things had got that strange over there? It may just have been made up. Even Vinnie found it kinky.

But the series opener in this run of six that took viewers up to Russia’s Far North looked more authentic, and actually got a bit under the skin of the place, with its picture of the men who repaired massive locomotives at the local train depot. Some of them were massive too, like Eduard, the train driver who doubled as regional weightlifting champ, who took the crew up line to Vorkuta. There it was time for a moment’s silent reflection on the fact that this railway was built literally on the bones of the gulag convicts who constructed it: if you felt Vinnie was the wrong person to express those kind of thoughts, well, actually, he wasn’t. Plenty with more portentous agendas have found themselves no less speechless in such locations.

That episode ended with some precarious moments of sidecar participation in the marvellous annual reindeer race (below left) that gathers the Nenets people (of whom we’ve seen a fair bit recently, in Bruce Parry’s Tribe on BBC Two) in Vorkuta. The “most dangerous, seriously dangerous, thing I’ve ever done,” Vinnie acknowledged: superlatives have already cropped up a lot in the course of this journey. Let's just hope he really did realise how lucky he was to be there.

If you could cope with fast-cut graphics and delivery to accomodate expected short attention spans, and Vinnie’s tendency to mash up the names of everyone he met – thankfully no one let him near a patronymic – this could be winning. Next week, vertigo in Vladivostok. Bear in mind there that whenever a presenter looks like he’s in a perilous position, his cameraman is probably somewhere much worse.  

We can only guess how the locals reacted to this foreign television crew with its mouthy presenter. Laugh and pay no attention, seemed the best approach. Lydia the train conductress on the Arctic route seemed to have worked it out best, when she answered Vinnie’s complaint that he, at six foot two, didn’t fit a sleeping car bunk that was rather shorter. “Curl up,” she curtly retorted. Priceless – and matched only by our man’s resulting realization of the real meaning of the letters VIP: “Very inconsiderate person.” That unlikely aperçu alone has made this journey worth it.

Plenty with more portentous agendas have found themselves no less speechless in such locations

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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