Amber Howorth on Going with the Flow in Alaska with Sue Perkins

British comedian Sue Perkins, known for co-presenting The Great British Bake Off for seven seasons and heading up various travel docuseries for Netflix, the BBC, Channel 4 and more, ventures into Alaska and discovers all the U.S. state has to offer in her latest show, Sue Perkins: Lost in Alaska, from Chalkboard TV in co-production with GroupM Motion Entertainment for Channel 5.

Across three episodes, Perkins travels deeper and deeper into the Alaskan wilderness, learning how to survive a bear attack and a plane crash, encountering beautiful but dangerous wildlife and meeting a wide array of characters, from survivalists to conservationists.

A trip to Alaska takes a lot of careful planning for anyone, but especially for a film crew—and a British one, at that. The task “is just monumentally enormous,” director Amber Howorth, who executive produced the series alongside Tom Popay for Chalkboard TV, tells TV Real Weekly. “In prep, [Alaska] looked like nothing on a map. But, I mean, we went to a national park that was the size of Switzerland. Just one park! It’s mind-blowing. You can’t comprehend the size when you’re there, let alone when you’re trying to prepare for it.”

This meant lots of time in cars and traveling between locations. What looks close by on a map—especially one that has been scaled down—might actually be separated by miles and miles of winding roads carving through the forest. And that doesn’t account for any other complications that might arise, such as road or river blockages from mud or fallen trees (which the crew dealt with when trying to get to the extremely isolated location of a family of doomsday preppers).

But despite the planning the trip took—and the adjustments needed on the fly—it was necessary, as “we wanted to show every corner of Alaska,” Howorth explains. “Alaska is a big place, and it’s built on lots of things, like oil, gold. It’s been built on for generations, and we wanted to show it.”

In order to give an accurate picture of the state, the creative team needed to not only find locations for Perkins to visit, but people for her to meet, as well. So, Howorth and fellow members of the team searched for interesting characters in any way they could—social media, phone books, word of mouth. Then, they began making phone calls. “Over a period of time, you start vetting people, building relationships, seeing if they would be happy to be on camera and meet Sue,” Howorth says. “Eventually, we built that trust, and then we handed it over to Sue” on camera.

Throughout the series, Perkins meets a wide variety of people from different walks of life, including an old woman in a hidden Russian village, conservationists rescuing animals that have been abandoned by their mothers or hit by cars, hunters, doomsday preppers and many more. Meeting such a broad range of people was imperative to show Sue—and viewers—what life in Alaska is really like for those living in it. “It’s about finding those people and letting Sue report back without judgment,” Howorth explains.

And Perkins handles it with grace, even when she is visibly shaken. There is one moment in particular when Perkins visits a gun range and sees young, preteen boys practice shooting rifles, something they learn how to do in order to protect themselves from bears and to hunt. She appears emotional and overwhelmed by the image of children shooting guns but acknowledges it is something that is just part of their survival in the vast Alaskan landscape.

“We’re visitors,” Howorth states. “We don’t live that way of life. When we see kids with guns in America, we automatically think awful things. It’s about challenging those feelings and preconceptions and showing how people actually live. And trying to do that on a level where it’s without prejudice and judgment, to understand on a human level how people survive in such a difficult environment.”

Though the crew and Perkins didn’t necessarily need to know how to shoot a gun to protect themselves during their stay in Alaska, safety was still a number-one priority and was another factor in the planning process.

“As a producer, my priority is everyone,” Howorth stresses. “I, a couple of other people on the crew and our fixer were all first-aid trained. Our cars each had first-aid kits and provisions. We had [ready-to-eat] food in case we got stranded. We took being isolated very seriously.”

Those supplies were with them at all times, even when the rain was pouring and they added to the weight of the equipment being lugged around, Howorth says. It also helped that “our local fixer was a fountain of knowledge,” she adds. “If he said, You can’t go in those woods, or whatever, we would listen to him” and change tactics.

While Howorth has plenty of experience working in documentary—and drama—one thing she has taken away from working on Sue Perkins: Lost in Alaska is just how important it is to be ready to improvise and have a plan B. “Always be flexible to things changing, and be ready to change tactics at the last moment if you have to.”

Going with the flow can pay off, and even moments of delay in this production provided her and the crew with some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. At one point, “We were driving down the street, and a bear just came out and stood in front of our car,” she says. “It’s so rare that they will just sit there for that long because it must have been about three minutes of just staring. It was amazing.”

Viewers in the U.K. can experience this wonder in Sue Perkins: Lost in Alaska on My5 now. Cineflix Rights is bringing the series global under the title Sue Perkins into Alaska.