Joanna Lumley pursues a lifelong dream to track down the Northern Lights
Joanna Lumley In The Land Of The Northern Lights
Day and time to be confirmed BBC ONE
On board Norway's real-life version of the Polar Express heading north out of Trondheim towards the Arctic Circle, Joanna Lumley takes out a favourite childhood book. Turning the pages of Ponny The Penguin, she points to the simple black and white illustration that inspired in her a lifelong ambition to see the Northern Lights, writes Tony Matthews.
Born in India and raised in the steamy heat of Malaysia, Joanna's childhood experience of snow was limited to fairy stories and pictures such as that of the little penguin gazing into the night sky. "We never even needed to wear cardigans, so the idea of cold, snow and ice was alien," she says. "I couldn't think what it would be like. I suppose you always want what you've never had and the Northern Lights hung in my mind as something I thought I would never see and yet, as I got older, longed to see with all my heart."
In a new film for BBC One, Joanna Lumley In The Land Of The Northern Lights, the actress at last realises her ambition, having been approached by film-makers Takeaway Media who'd heard her mention it during her appearance on Desert Island Discs. The result is an Arctic odyssey by train, light aircraft, ferry, dog sled and snowmobile across Norway's spectacularly rugged winter landscape. As the film's director Archie Baron says: "It's hard to find a more enjoyable travelling companion than the clever, charming, indefatigable Ms Lumley."
Joanna in turn is charmed by the Norwegian people and their tales of life in the far north, its myths and legends, and their experiences of the Aurora Borealis. She visits the remote fishing town of Å, spends a night inside an igloo hotel and meets the reindeer herdsmen of the Sami, Europe's last indigenous people, where she receives a snowmobile riding lesson from a four-year-old boy.
"I loved meeting the Norwegian people," says Joanna. "They were so courteous, such good fun and so kind, and they had a Viking way of staring right into your eyes. There was a wonderful artist who darned his clothes in bright colours so he looked like a little raggedy patchwork pixie and I found the Sami people very gracious. To be treated to a yoik, a traditional Sami song, by one of the community's elders was extraordinary. I think there's a real pioneer spirit running through the country – they have to be able to ski and skate from a very early age just to get about; they're tough little children. From the age of six they start learning English and by the time they're 11 they speak three languages."
Although Norway is a country well equipped for Arctic conditions, Joanna says parts of the journey proved tough going. "There were only five of us – camera, sound, director, producer and me – in masses of clothing, lumping 35 pieces of equipment everywhere, which was very good for your waistline. When we were outside, filming in minus-26 degrees, the cold was so intense it took your breath away."
Joanna describes the majestic snowfields, mountains and fjords as a "fairytale vision, savage, sublime and quite overpowering", but its greatest glory comes not from Earth but from space where particles, carried on solar winds, are attracted by the magnetic poles. As these particles hit the top of the atmosphere, their energy is converted into the most astonishing light show – the Aurora Borealis.
But, living up to their nickname The Tricky Lady, the Northern Lights remained elusive almost to the last. Hope of an early sighting was thwarted by cloud cover. "There was a very real possibility that we might not see the Aurora at all," Joanna explains. "That would have been a huge disappointment, but it shows that there's something wonderful about nature, that you can't always guarantee it. I did see a glimmer early on, two green-ish vapour trails, but cloud came over, the crew never saw it and it was gone.
"We saw a bit of a showing on another night, but not enough to film and, because we were on a tight schedule and all had other jobs lined up, we were stuck. It was almost our last night and we were getting a little bit tense when this extraordinary man, Kjetil Skogli – an Aurora expert – came to assist us. He told us that conditions where we were would be bad again, but he had a feeling that if we went to a particular fjord we might have a good chance. So we drove like mad to set up the equipment and get into our survival kit.
"We stood on the foreshore shivering, it was so cold. The moon was bright, the wind was quite hard and the stars were very bright, the water was glittering. We stood there thinking what are we looking for, what is it? Then just above one of the hills was this extraordinary bloom, like a kind of algae, just growing, like a weird fence or curtains or snakes. It began to throb and pulsate into a very vivid green and then it began to split up and change. For about the next hour and a half it was just mind-blowing, we were all shouting to each other, sometimes lying on our backs like babies, it was like nothing I'd ever seen.
"It's not earthly light, these are solar atoms hurtling past and getting sucked in by the magnetic force of the world, you have to slow the camera apertures right down to get enough of this extraordinary light in. I had to stand as still as a rock, with the wind blowing and buffeting, so that they could film and then later show it in real time; it's a weird way of filming, but there's no other way of doing it. I think it may well be the best film the world has ever got of the Lights, they are phenomenally hard to capture."
The fulfilment of a lifetime's yearning; it was an emotional moment for Joanna. "It was beyond any dream you could have," she says. "This particular showing was so spectacular that it was reported on Danish television news. It has all come from the sun and our little tiny planet that we're trying to save... you see how majestic it is, and that it's part of the massive universe, you begin to feel very humble. To be soppy about it, we had stars in our eyes. I'd been waiting all my life to see the Northern Lights and then I saw them on a scale beyond description."
So does Joanna now have other ambitions? "I'd love to see an active volcano, to travel more in the Middle East, to see some of the great ruined statues in Turkey, Angkor Wat in Cambodia – the great temples tangled up in the jungle – the Great Wall of China, Ayers Rock. I've been in the Sahara, but I'd like to go with the Tuareg people on a camel ride. If you take a camera crew along, lots of people, who will never get the chance to do this, can see something and perhaps be inspired. I think the world is such an interesting place, I love geography and how the earth works and who lives where and why."
And Antarctica perhaps? "I think I've had enough of the cold just for the moment, but maybe I'd see penguins there..."
Apart from her joy at seeing the Northern Lights at last, is there one abiding memory that Joanna will treasure from her adventure? "It's rather babyish but the most thrilling thing was to get out of the dog sled, holding a SatNav and to walk forward to see the exact moment that I crossed into the Arctic Circle. It was just snow and dogs and absolute silence. You know how quiet the snow makes everything, except for the squeaking of your boots, leaving blue footprints. Realising you are in the Arctic is almost like a fairy story, quite astonishing."