You’re the new presenter of Escape to the Wild. For those who haven’t seen it, explain a bit about the show.
It’s basically travelling to the far-flung regions of the world where British couples have decided to up sticks and go and set up a new life. It might sound like an idyllic thing to do, and a lot of it is, but I think, for me, the interesting aspect of the series is seeing how difficult it is, and what people have to do to survive in these regions. Even more than that, I’m interested in why they wanted to move. It’s about the psychology behind wanting to move and set up a brand new life, and the challenges it takes to do that.
Did you find a common thread between the people you met, as to why they wanted to start a new life?
There was definitely an element of not wanting to live with regret. You go to every pub and there’s always a guy sitting at the end of the bar saying “I could have been this, I could have done that, I could have played for England.” I can understand the mentality of not wanting to live with regret, of preferring to fail, in trying to achieve something, than never do it at all. That’s the common thread in this series. And also not knowing about everything – maybe a slight naivety, and having the faith to leap into the unknown. If you knew all the whys and wherefores you probably wouldn’t do it! So not having the full picture is really helpful.
Where does the series take you?
I feel like my feet haven’t touched the ground! Uganda, on the banks of the Nile – that’s an impressive river, and it really dominates this story. The couple that live there really depend on it. Jenny is obsessed with the river, and a lot of her work and research is around the river. And you can see how the natural beauty of a place is quite hypnotic, and just draws you in.
There is the Yukon in Canada where I’d never been before, and then Indonesia. I suppose out of all of them the Yukon felt like the most remote. Not necessarily in terms of distance, but in pure isolation it felt really, really isolated. It took me three flights and then a two-hour boat journey to get there. It was in the middle of nowhere! If I’d gone in one direction for two days, I would have hit Alaska, and still there would have been nothing. There was no electricity, no running water. You fall into the illusion of thinking you’re in the woods at home, where you may not be able to see any signs of human life, but you know if you walk in one direction for an hour you’ll hit a road or a house, or hear an aeroplane. But there, you suddenly realise there is nothing; there are no people or footpaths, and just round the next corner there could be a bear or a wolf.
It’s a bit of a departure for you, presenting-wise. Why did you want to do it?
Well, my presenting career has been quite varied – I’ve done everything from science stuff all the way through to more populist programmes like Friday Night Feast. I think this is much less of a presenter-led documentary, and more me being followed on a journey. It’s always interesting to test yourself. When I made the leap of setting up my own farm and leaping in to the unknown; I felt like I was building my own destiny with my own two hands, putting in the fencing, putting in the water, getting the electricity and the sewage system going, building my farm from scratch. In a very similar way, what these people have done is along those lines – much more grandiose, but comparable. It was a bit like a busman’s holiday, but with mosquitos! I really wanted to understand why people wanted to do this. What is it about normal society that you aren’t being fulfilled by? What do you need to make yourself happy? I know if I hadn’t done my farm, I wouldn’t have been truly happy.
How long do you spend with each family?
Around the best part of a week. It doesn’t sound that long, but when you’re staying with them, you get to know people very fast. Like in Uganda, Charlie and Jenny were in their house and I was in a small tent next to them. In the evening, we all sat and ate together, and then the camera crew would go off to where they were staying, and I’d stay with Charlie and Jenny. You don’t want to be the unwanted guest, so you’ve got to make yourself useful, but you are living with strangers. You’ve only just met them, and you’re staying with them for a week and eating all your meals with them. It’s like staying in those B&Bs where you all end up sitting watching TV with the family!
One of the couples has a small baby, don’t they?
Yes, both the couple in Uganda and the couple in Indonesia have babies. It was an interesting one; it made the idea of the dangers suddenly more real – Malaria, schistosomiasis, diseases that come out of the River Nile. And things like crocodiles and leopards or, in Indonesia, there were loads of pythons. Actually, when we arrived on the boat, a ten-foot python had just been captured because it had swallowed a pig. You think about this tiny tot running around, easily smaller than a pig… There are stingrays in the water and there’s cobras and poisonous centipedes, where if you get bitten, the only way to get rid of the pain is to Taser yourself.
How does your presenting style differ from Kevin McCloud’s?
I’m not as posh, that’s for sure! I think there’s probably not a great deal of difference – it’s hard to comment on your own or other people’s styles. I suppose the only difference is he’s much more from the world of architecture, and sitting in offices looking at drawings, and I’m much more visceral in terms of being out and about in the wilderness and doing stuff. I quite enjoy the element of the wilderness – I’d probably forget what I’m meant to be doing there, in terms of asking the right questions, because I’m enjoying the experience too much!
Did you have a favourite place?
That’s difficult. I loved the Yukon, because it reminded me so much of so many films, like Last of the Mohicans. The landscape is epic, you feel like you are in a movie, on an amazing set. It’s a huge expanse of wilderness, it was tremendous. But Indonesia was fantastic too. I got to go diving, where they have some of the best diving in the world; seeing the array of different invertebrates and fish. So Indonesia will definitely stay in my mind. You’re really struck by the environment and the conflict between the local population’s need for subsistence fishing and the destruction of the coral reef, which is so important for tourism. The nets the local people use are so destructive to the coral, but they need to fish to survive. It’s two worlds colliding.
Is it something you could ever do, relocating to a remote outpost like that?
Well, we always discuss this. If we hadn’t done the farm in Suffolk, then we would have done what we’ve done somewhere else. We always talk about setting up a tea plantation in Sri Lanka. I think the element of adventure is always there – if I hadn’t started the farm, that aspect of my life wouldn’t have been fulfilled.
If you did do it, what would you miss most, apart from people?
I think I’d miss the seasons, the changes in the British countryside throughout the year. And my dogs as well!
Throughout the filming of these programmes, were you scared at any stage?
Yes, there were definitely moments of it. In Uganda my tent was on top of a safari ants’ nest, and they were slowly drilling through it. There were just big columns of black ants. They attacked us whilst we were eating dinner one night as well. I somehow had a bad chest whilst I was in Indonesia, coughed very violently and managed to partially dislocate my jaw. I was in agony trying to put it back, and I nearly fainted twice. I was quite scared then. Every time you went to the loo in the Yukon, you were not sure you’re going to come back because of the bears. I think sometimes in these environments you overplay the dangers, but sometimes you forget them as well, and I know which one is worse.
Escape To The Wild, Thursday 2nd February, 9pm on Channel 4