Sue Perkins Got Shot, Got Down, and Got High

Sue Perkins in Perfectly Legal. Photo: Netflix

Once upon a time, hosting travel specials was a job limited to scientists and historians with plum accents and fancy degrees, their craggy faces squinting in the hot tropical sun. The genre’s expansion in recent decades has led chefs, actors, and Top Gear presenters to offer their takes on various parts of the globe. Sue Perkins, comedian extraordinaire and English national treasure, has been contributing to the genre since 2017. Her latest journey, titled Perfectly Legal, began airing on Netflix on October 13.

Although it is technically a travel special, not every aspect of the series is easily classifiable. Perkins visits the world’s largest pyrotechnics festival (in Tultepec, Mexico), dodging terrifying, zooming bolts of fire in a crowd of thousands. On a trip to a premier bulletproof-clothing manufacturer’s warehouse in Bogotá, she dons a protective vest and is shot, at close range, by the factory owner. (Don’t worry, she’s — physically, at least — fine.) While visiting coastal Colombia, avowed animal lover and vegan Perkins polls dozens of men about whether they’ve ever fucked a donkey; the answers, largely affirmative, do shock her. But what saves all of these interactions from being condescending and/or racist is Perkins’s humility. She mocks no one and insists on being the butt of any joke. Her eagerness to learn is evident in every interaction.

While every episode is conducted off beaten paths, the series becomes something different, and more interesting, when Perkins trips, live on-camera, on San Pedro, a psychedelic cactus native to Colombia. She announces at the beginning of the series that she’s afraid of being stuck, of becoming staid. Nothing could rid you of that malaise like ten hours of hallucinations, during which you confront every anxiety and sorrow you’ve tucked away. Like the users of psychedelics in Michael Pollan’s Netflix documentary How to Change Your Mind, Perkins reports being able to let go of her father’s death and her inability to bear children. This is what sets Perfectly Legal apart from, say, Grand Tour or Down to Earth. It is unexpectedly moving to witness a comedian baring themselves at their most vulnerable: weeping, without any jokes, while sitting on a hillside in La Paz.

Perkins recently spoke about the new series; her 2017 BBC special, which was filmed six months after her father died of an inoperable brain tumor; and the changes in the Bake Off format that caused her and Mel Giedroyc to quit.

When you visited the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, you looked visibly moved when your tour guide explained how the city celebrates all stages of life, including death. Did that alter your perception of your father’s death?
I’ve always maintained that the western view of death is pretty screwed up. I was brought up a Catholic. You are immediately told that you’re this sinful, diseased, dreadful human that walks the earth, and your punishment is eternal hell and suffering. We’re supposed to just get on with our life. And then, as is the case with me and several people I’m close to, it’s years down the line where you’re suddenly doing something very innocuous, and you just break down, because your mind can’t hold it in anymore.

What I found extraordinary was that, during a piece I did to the camera, I stood not just by the funeral of the cremation ghats, but in it. I followed a woman, beautifully wrapped in this delicate silk sari, and I followed her funeral procession down to the ghats. She was set on fire. Her skull was split in two as her spirit was released, her relatives keened for her, and she was burned to nothing right by me as I was talking. Her central nervous system landed at my feet, whereupon some dogs got involved. Her ash was blowing in my face and in my mouth.

For most people, that’s hell. For me, it was interesting, but I thought, People are so snotty. This is real. This is really what happens. The mourners have left, discharging at least the first stage of grief — the shock and bewilderment. They’ve viscerally been involved in a passing. Whereas I just wasn’t like that when my father died. I was like, He’s here and then he’s not here. And I want to see him; I want to see all the horror, because after that I can move on.

It makes a lot of sense that your travel documentaries explore how different cultures view death, because confronting death is what comics do. You either die onstage or you kill.
That’s true! But the act of having that very direct contact, like in India at the ghats or in Mexico with the bone-cleaners, with the physical remnants of someone who’s passed that you loved, is extraordinary. But you’re right about dying onstage. I’ve died a million times and, for me, being naturally relatively fearless, there’s always a lesson to come out of these experiences. For me, a death onstage is simply a reminder that I’ve done something wrong and that I need to read rooms better. Travel, for me, is exactly that: You have to read the room immediately. If you don’t read it right, you’re immediately escorted out by security before something really very, very serious happens.

Isn’t there something inherently comedic about travel? Both involve reality brushing up against your expectations, not knowing the language, trying to pantomime.
I think so. In order to convey the madness of what you’re experiencing, you have to immediately provide a sketch of the situation. So you have to sum up all the ingredients that are creating this madness around you. I think part of being a comic is the same as being a tourist: They’re outsider experiences. But the key thing to do is to always make yourself the buffoon, because that way you’re a decent traveler, not a prick. Or rather, a xenophobe. So I will start with, in a very openhearted way, the sure and certain knowledge that I am the idiot in the room, always. And then things tend to turn out okay.

It’s one thing to go to ride around in a van with a mariachi band or to attend the world’s largest fireworks festival. But you also went to a favela in Rio de Janeiro, to rap explicit stream-of-consciousness songs about sex. That was something I don’t think I’ve ever seen on TV, in a travel special or anywhere else.
It was quite extreme, that, because you’ve got real-deal MC Carol, who in no way was impressed by anything I did. On the first meeting, she’s in the studios, and she’s saying, “You have to be filthy. You have to be really gross.” And I’m like, “But all the words I know are just silly comedy words, and I don’t have that sexual anger in me.” Being a gay woman, my rap isn’t really going to be going on about, “Can somebody just bung me their dong in an alleyway?” I’m sensitive and I pride myself on being a good feminist always. So it’s really challenging, being this very white, very nerdy, very polite woman in the middle of a favela, around a load of AR-15s and cool kids and quite federal atmosphere. It was an absolute tinderbox, and it could have gone quite badly wrong, but everyone was very sweet about it. I think they just thought I wasn’t well. [Laughs.] That’s how I see it. I think they just thought, Is she on some kind of special holiday where she’s lost her mind? And her carers thought it might be a nice idea to show her having a nice time?

“She’s dying of cancer, so let’s just let her have a good time.”
Yeah, exactly. It’s like a special foundation and they take people who are nuts or whatever. But they were just so lovely. And because I just do it with — I hope, anyway — a sort of innocence, like, I’m aware of what a massive dick I am, people aren’t threatened by it. Because they know I’ve not come to laugh, be culturally inappropriate, or culturally appropriate. MC Carol said, “Yep, she can be my special guest.” I turned up and it was awful. There’s a reason why people like me don’t naturally rap.

I want to ask about something I feel like not a lot of people know about you: your conducting. I’ve watched every single clip I can find. I watched the video of you conducting the Simpsons theme over and over again. It makes me so happy.
I love the simplicity of it. That’s just a master score. And what Danny Elfman does with percussion is just unbelievable.

Conducting is the most overwhelming, extraordinary experience of my life. And if I’d known it did that to your body and your mind, I would have done nothing else. You are in the middle of this semicircle of brilliance, with all these different textures and sounds coming at you. Scrapes, and the pierce of a piccolo, and that kind of deep rumbling of a tuba, trying to bring it together, and not controlling it — I’m not good enough for that, nor do I wish to be — but just sculpting it. You’re just aware of how sound can bend and move.

What’s it like to look back on the work you and Mel did on Bake Off to craft the atmosphere in the tent?
It’s a tent, but it’s also a workplace. It’s a functioning studio, and you’re inviting people in who have no idea about how television works, and who could really get bent out of shape by it, by fame, by expectation, by the vulnerabilities that are exposed in the minutiae of every camera shot. So the very least you can do is be calm and welcoming and decent. There was no script — it was just play.

These tiny little things would happen, and they would break me. I remember there was one contestant I won’t name. She was sweet, but she was quite punchy up front. She was like, “I’ve got the best chocolate! My recipes are the best! I’m going to be great!” And she was making this chocolate cake with her special chocolate, and everyone else’s chocolate was rubbish. The camera went right in, and she just lifted the collar [of the springform pan]. This thing just leaked — it collapsed. And she just went “Oh!” and there was a double-click catch in her throat. I just felt so teary. I just thought, I know, you’re just one of them. Just one of a billion women who just have to put on the front, because you’re tired, and you don’t know who you are anymore, because you’ve had kids, and because you’ve yet to reestablish a new identity or pick up your old identity and all those things.

People forget Bake Off was made by the BBC documentary department. It essentially started life as a weird small show that we did for seven series. Of four of those series, nobody watched it. It just was really about people sitting by ovens and chatting. And yes, you get amazing cakes, but really what you get is a sense of No one’s gonna get hurt here. This is an hour of TV where you don’t have to really engage with shit that’s going on in your life. You can just have a good time. Occasionally one of the old birds presenting it might make you laugh.

It felt consistently organic. It never felt like either you or Mel even knew there were cameras there. You were just hanging out, and you provided psychological support. Like, “It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be fine. Just breathe.”
Very early on, they were putting cameras in people’s faces and they were saying, “Does this collapsed marmalade loaf remind you of your dead father?” And everyone was just crying around. It had that template of those reality shows which were very front-foot and very punchy. And Mel and I were like, “Oh, no, we can’t do this. I’m really sorry.” They were like, “What do you mean?” I said, “No, we’re resigning now.” And of course, you’d say it’s just a cake — and that’s true and not true at the same time. Technically it’s a cake, but also for them it’s about achieving, and it’s about pushing themselves.

I’m a baker myself. It’s not just a cake. It’s a search for perfection. It is possible to make a perfect cake. I think it’s an internal search for as long as you live and you bake. You’re seeking that security.
Yeah. And it’s the connection with family. I remember my grandma making cakes. I remember all the cakes my mum ever made for me. I salivate. It’s Pavlovian.

Licking the bowl is the best.
These are Proustian things, you know. It’s so elemental.

I wept a little, watching you during your trip on San Pedro, the psychedelic cactus. I’ve been researching psychedelics for myself, and it looked as though your life changed as a result of the trip.
Shit, man, okay. So I just went into it. I didn’t read about it. I just thought, Open yourself up to it. I’d mentally put some stuff away. The thing about San Pedro is, it’s not like you have this moment where you take it all out and look through it. It’s like a wall of horror and sensation and pain and difficulty comes at you, presses on you to an unbearable degree, and then goes through you. And then after that, you think, What on earth was that about? Genuinely, I’ve had, I would say, not a moment of anxiety since. That’s my experience, and I don’t advocate for it. I’m not saying to people, “Rush out and do it.” That’s just my experience of it. Will I do it again? Never.

It sounds like you don’t need to do it again.
For me, in a scientific sense, what San Pedro does is that it says, Your brain is a network of unnavigable roads now. Every road that you take is congested. The view is terrible. You’re frightened to go anywhere. So San Pedro just drives a brand-new boulevard through your brain. And the view is beautiful, and it’s untainted. For me, the great thing is I now have a choice whether to make it polluted. I have a choice whether to get into bad situations, into unpleasant environments. If I choose not to, I get to keep this clean thoroughfare in my mind and to dance around in it, and play in it, free of crippling panic attacks, PTSD, and all those things.

I take that as a gift, but also, as a lesson to not fall back, to not to make those mistakes, because if it gets polluted, I’m certainly not going back and taking San Pedro in Bolivia again. So there’s a wonderment to that. I think that’s really key. It cures everything up to now, and from now on, that’s on you. I was covered in sick, by the way, at the end of that. It was all in my hair. Then I went to the buffet in my hotel and brought back this enormous flan and ate the whole thing.

Oh, that sounds absolutely delightful!
That was the end of my trip. It was wonderful.

What a way to end it. A giant bowl of fun, no anxiety.
It’s like the edition of Bake Off they could never show. That was my showstopper. [Laughs.] “Well, Paul, what I’ve made is a massive psychedelic peak experience, followed by a creme caramel.”

Sue Perkins Got Shot, Got Down, and Got High