DEBORAH ROSS: Jolly Judi’s made me pine for trees

Judi Dench: My Passion For Trees

Wednesday, BBC1 


Joanna & Jennifer: Absolutely Champers

Thursday, BBC2


Judi Dench: My Passion For Trees was delightful, just as Judi Dench: My Passion For Door Knobs would likely be delightful, as would Judi Dench: My Passion For Pairing Socks. Hard to think how Judi Dench might fail as a guide – Judi Dench: My Passion For Athlete’s Foot? – as simply spending time with her is so terrific. Probably our most beloved actress – sorry, Dame Maggie, get over it – she may be an octogenarian but she still embraces the world with the most delicious enthusiasm and looks at it with the most delicious, childlike wonder. 

Dame Judi Dench may be an octogenarian but she still embraces the world with the most delicious enthusiasm and looks at it with the most delicious, childlike wonder

Dame Judi Dench may be an octogenarian but she still embraces the world with the most delicious enthusiasm and looks at it with the most delicious, childlike wonder

If every house had a Dame Judi no one would ever get depressed. It just wouldn’t be possible. She’d twinkle you out of it. And if, say, it had been door knobs – look, Dame Judi, look how you can twist a knob one way and then the other! – she would, I expect, have also exclaimed: ‘Goodness gracious! How wonderful. What a lovely thing to know.’ So if Judi loves trees, the logic goes, then we will love trees, and now I do love trees. How, even, have I not loved trees until now? 

As she told us in this documentary, she has adored them ‘ever since I was a little girl’ and they have become, she added, ‘part of the family’. In her garden, which appears to take up a good deal of Surrey and has its own woodland, she plants a tree every time someone she knows dies. She calls them her ‘chaps’ and gave us a tour. ‘This is Jeff, one of my brothers. This is Stephen Hanley, a lovely, lovely actor, and this is just like him, very tall and kind of pale… It’s about remembering and something living that goes on.’ 

So touching, poignant and strangely life-affirming. I’d like to be planted there one day. A wych elm, perhaps, given they’re ‘squat in shape’ and ‘covered in coarse hairs’. That would be me. Experts were at hand. The head of trees at Kew Gardens arrived to inspect her oak, which he said was probably 200 years old – ‘what a lovely thing to find out!’ – and another employed some kind of amplifier so Judi could hear the popping noises trees make beneath their bark as their xylem tubes suck up water. ‘Good heavens! Goodness gracious! It blows your mind!’ Trees, she was told, communicate with each other and fight off deer and aphids with some astonishingly clever techniques. Her trees! Doing all this work! ‘I’m very, very proud of my trees,’ she said at the end. 

Although some of the screen time felt a little like padding – what trees meant to Shakespeare; what trees meant to the Tudors – this was a lovely programme about something we rarely look at properly, but should. Dame Judi said she had learned so much that ‘I expect I’ll give up acting and lecture on trees’. I’d buy a ticket to that. Or, if it were a week-long lecture series, I’d buy seven tickets to that. 

You’d expect a show like Joanna & Jennifer: Absolutely Champers to fizz but instead it was so flat that if it had been a bottle of bubbly you’d have sent it back with an ‘Excuse me but this will not do.’ And, ‘Did you think you could pass this off without us noticing?’ Lumley and Saunders were dispatched on a tour of the champagne region of France, and although the conceit was neat, given that Patsy and Edina were so very fond of their ‘Bolly’ – another little drinkie, sweetie? – the result seemed like a total waste of two fascinating women who have had long and fascinating careers. 

We were promised ‘a Christmas treat’, during which we’d be ‘privy to their intimate and hilarious conversations’ but if there were any ‘intimate and hilarious conversations’ they passed me by. Their reflections on Absolutely Fabulous and their friendship were banal, and they were never asked to give anything of themselves. So, mostly, it was an hour of grapes being picked, cellars being visited, and the head of Bollinger reassuring them that Ab Fab had done nothing to damage the brand, while you wished the reverse were true and he’d chased them away with a stick. At least that would have added some life. 

The only moment I sat up and took notice was when, 36 minutes in, Joanna said to Jennifer: ‘Ours is the first generation of women that don’t know what to do with their hair as they get older. In the olden days you would go grey and have it permed and you’d look like an old person, a granny, a pensioner… Now, with all the new-fangled things you can do, people like me are struck trying to look like they did in the 1950s. I don’t know how to look old. I am old but I don’t know how to accomplish oldness.’ That was intimate, admittedly, and also affecting, but aside from that, zilch. However, Judi Dench: My Passion For Champers. That could have worked.