Interview with Sandi Toksvig ahead of Extaordinary Escapes

Extraordinary Escapes is back on our screen and this time we have six episodes to devour. What can viewers expect?

The main thing for me, apart from the glorious landscapes and the astonishing architecture, is that in each one, it’s two women, I’m going to say – of a certain age – having a good time and just enjoying ourselves. There’s something infectious about watching people genuinely having a good time. Even though the scene you see on television might only be a couple of minutes long, you know the truth of it is that the laughter carried on for a long time before and a long time after. 

You didn’t seem to stop laughing with Sarah Millican!

I’ve known Sarah for a very long time and she always makes me laugh. She keeps me up to speed with things and teaches me about social media. She can’t quite believe how disengaged I am as I still write people handwritten letters. She and I just had the most astonishing time and of course, we do get to stay in the places we visit so the joy for me is that after filming, I then got to cook her dinner in a 16th century mill, sit and have a long chat over and above the work we’re doing.

You talk to Sarah about the benefits of liking your job despite working very long hours. Is Extraordinary Escapes the ultimate in job satisfaction?

Yes! The glorious thing with it is that this is the second series so we’re with the same film crew who are also like family so honestly we just all kind of muck about together. The real danger of that of course is that I sometimes forget we’re filming and might say mildly inappropriate things that are probably not suitable for broadcast! But maybe that’s one of the reasons why I think the show works as it also gives an insight into these six wonderful women having the sorts of conversations a lot of television wouldn’t normally make time for. These are not the type of shows in which someone has got a book to plug or show to sell, we want to genuinely get to know somebody in a relaxed environment where you sort of slightly forget that we’re filming. I think you will learn something about each one of them that might both surprise and delight. 

Your little black book of travel companions is packed to the rafters. Who are you gallivanting around the country with this time?

The person I knew least well was Sunetra Sarker but we have now become firm friends. I’m ashamed that I didn’t know as much about her as I should have done! I just bonded with her instantly and that was wonderful. Sue Johnston – I think the whole world is in love with her and will be more so after this. Again, there’s a surprising conversation she and I have over a cup of tea in the kitchen. I can’t remember how we got into it, but she started talking so honestly about her life. It’s one of those rare moments in television where I actually thought after we’d finished the recording, there’s no way they’ll broadcast this because I was literally just sitting there with tears running down my face but it’s in the show and I’m really proud of it. I’m really proud that it’s not just laughter and that there are more serious moments where we really talk together. Sara Pascoe of course I’ve known for years and years. She and I had the great privilege of being allowed to cuddle brand new baby lambs which was astonishing. Philippa Perry’s a good friend – you’ll struggle to keep up with her as she’s so energetic! Some of the stuff we got up to in the Scottish Highlands and Island is unforgettable. And Jenny Éclair, what can I say? I’ve probably known her for several decades now. I would happily go away again with all six of them and you don’t always say that when you come back from holiday with people!

Are you an avid viewer of travel shows? Any personal favourites? Might we see you cruising with Jane McDonald one day?

I’m ashamed to say I don’t watch very much television as I’m usually working through a massive stack of books, but I LOVE Jane McDonald, I think she’s marvellous! I was sitting behind her when she won the BAFTA and I’ve never been more delighted for anybody. It was the first time Channel 5 had won a BAFTA and I thought she thoroughly deserved it. She does that thing, which is so brilliant, that she doesn’t seem to be any different when making a travel programme than she is when you’re with her in person. She’s a really good example of a person who is just themselves and clearly having a good time – because of that, you want to watch the programme. I would love to do an Extraordinary Escapes with her as she’s fabulous and also a lovely singer.

Has presenting the show made you plan holidays differently?

Possibly. I’ve always been very interested in architecture so I’ve always like the idea of trying to find somewhere unusual to stay. I long for privacy – that’s my biggest thing on holidays. I don’t want to go somewhere where there are nightclubs or somewhere where the beach is so crowded that you have to book a place to sit. I really love privacy and try and escape the world a little bit so what’s actually happened is that Extraordinary Escapes has tapped in entirely to the way in which I holiday anyway. We have a small log cabin in the woods by a lake in Denmark – it’s very isolated, there is nothing to do and I’m entirely happy when I’m there. So I think rather than changing the way I holiday, I think it has confirmed the way in which I holiday!

Are you capable of completely switching off?

Yes but I must have something to do. I must be building something like a shed, embroidering something or reading a book that is unputdownable. I cannot just sit – the poor family, they love to just sit but then I say listen it’s fine, I’m just going to rebuild the garage! And then I’m happy. I like to achieve something every day.

You never seem to be without a book and several fascinating facts to hand. Do you have a book and a fact for every occasion?

Well I don’t mean to; I’m just interested in the world. Did you know the only mammal other than humans to go through the menopause is a whale? I find that really interesting and wonder if there are whales talking to each other in the Arctic Circle saying it’s a bit hot in here today! I love that thought. I find the world interesting and I’m interested by facts although there are many moments where my children say mum, nobody’s listening – many moments.

How long did you and Sarah spend on the Japanese loo? Tempted to get one yourself?

No, I mean it’s just dangerous! I think the lavatory needs a minimal number of things, so it wasn’t for me although it did make us laugh.

You’re off on a new – and excellently titled – tour, Next Slide Please, in April. Do you get any time for a little wander in each location?

Whenever I’ve travelled on tour, which I don’t do very often, my tour manager always calls it the brown sign tour because if there’s a brown sign, which indicates a place of interesting heritage, then we have to stop. We have to make time for the fact I can’t just go from one place to another as I wish to stop at all the brown signs. We do try! I’m doing 42 dates across the country and in each of the 42, I’ve done some research about the local area and who the great local women are so every show will have a unique component to it that’s specifically tailored to that place. Part of the reason that I’m going on tour is that in the last two years, I think we have all missed having a big conversation, being able to be in a room with a lot of people. I engage with the audience, ask them lots of question and there are prizes to be won. You can win a pencil with Next Slide Please on it which is very exciting, there’s some Swedish chocolate and in each town, I’ve purchased a used postcard from the turn of the 20th Century that we will read out and see what the person thought was worth writing about in that town. Each show is very much tailored to concentrating on what’s in the area and what can I learn as much as what I might have to say to them.

What else can you tell us about your next projects? We hear you have a new More4 series all about miniatures.

Yes, The Great Big Tiny Design Challenge. The most exciting thing about it is that it’s a doll’s house mansion that’s being renovated – it’s fabulous – but they then CGI me! They made me very small and put me in the doll’s house. Finally I felt I arrived where I belong. I’m really, really pleased with it.

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