Am I alone in meeting news of a solo project by Sue Perkins with delight tempered by anxiety? Delight because I find her a very companionable companion on whatever televisual journey we are about to undertake together – warm, witty, and perceptive without ever veering into condescension or cynicism. And anxiety in case this means that she and Mel Giedroyc have fallen out. As a pair they were closing in on national treasure status during the Bake Off years and the sight of such enduring friendship – the powerful suggestion that once off camera, these two women now in their early 50s, could still enjoy being absolute idiots together – was, and remains important to me.
So this is the new outing for what I shall – unless otherwise informed by eight independent sources – cleave to thinking of as the latter half of emotionally inviolate duo Mel and Sue. This time Sue is travelling across California and Colorado as the presenter of Sue Perkins’ Big American Road Trip (Channel 4), setting off from just outside San Francisco in a fairly basic one-person caravan to experience the great outdoors (the girl from Croydon is rightly awed by the sheer size and spectacle on offer along the Pacific Coast Highway) and to talk to people along the way who have, through choice or necessity, taken up #vanlife.
It is mainly those who have taken up the nomadic life by choice who are responsible for the hashtag. Instagram is full of curated grids of (mostly) twentysomethings who have opted out of the rat race and headed out on to the open road and all the opportunities for personal growth and filtered sunset shots it offers.
Perkins, fortunately/carefully/generously (delete according to taste and your own weary cynicism levels), finds representatives of the least performative strand of the movement to interview. First come sweet young couple Blix and Bess, who are such wholesome Americans that it is charming to watch them try to work out what to do in the face of a riff by Sue about pubic hair in communal showers. “We’ve gone down a conversational cul-de-sac of my own making,” says Sue, when she realises.
The pair are disarmingly honest about their desire to see all the touristy places that they would never have been able to afford to visit in a traditional manner, but also insightful about the more intangible benefits itinerant life has brought. Blix noticed how long it took to relax into the fact that people were just being friendly, often trying to share knowledge and experiences with newcomers – “and I was the jerk rejecting their energy”.
Near Yosemite, Sue meets Alexandria, who has garnered 300,000 online followers during her seven years of van living. She shows Sue how best to dig a poo hole. “It’s so small,” says Sue. “Which means I have supplementary questions.”
The last third of the programme is dedicated to older campers, who tend to be those who began living a version of #vanlife because circumstances required it. The mood among the community that has cohered around Bob Wells, made famous by his appearance in the Frances McDormand film Nomadland, is quiet, careful and tinged with sadness. Sue doesn’t press them on their individual reasons for coming to this life but it is evident – particularly among the women – that the past casts long shadows and that to live without trappings is not always to be wholly free.
The programme is a standard gentle travelogue format done well. A presenter who manages to be irreverent without being disrespectful, who can engage at the right level with any interviewee and ad-lib jokes whenever things might otherwise flag, is always a joy. A willingness to improvise a burlesque routine (alongside Bess, who is a dancer) as “Perry Menopause” is also to be commended. As a fellow south-east Londoner also with “a pelvic floor like wet plasterboard” I can only salute La Perkins and wish her well on her way through Colorado next week, which is – in all but the strictly geographical sense – just about the furthest place from Catford or Croydon there is.