The British comedy icon is the new host of TVNZ’s trans-Tasman panel show Patriot Brains. She tells Stewart Sowman-Lund what it’s taught her about Australia and New Zealand – and why she feels right at home in this part of the world.
Sue Perkins is happy to oblige when I ask the requisite “how are you finding New Zealand” question early in our interview. I’m chatting to the British comedy legend, perhaps best known on our shores for co-hosting the first iteration of the Great British Bake Off, over Zoom in late 2022. It’s the morning after what she describes as a “chaotic” live recording for the panel show Patriot Brains, of which she is the new host for season two. It’s a sort of trans-Tasman 7 Days, pitting Australian and New Zealand comics against each other in a battle to prove which country is superior.
It’s the first time Perkins has been to New Zealand – and she’s having a great time. “I’m just blown away by it. In terms of, like, bucket list destinations, this was always the one for me. And it really hasn’t disappointed,” she says. “It was a no-brainer to say yes, to be honest. Plus the company – everyone’s so nice. New Zealanders are just really nice.”
It could just be that Perkins is a professional and would tell any journalist how great their country is – but I honestly do get the impression she loves New Zealand. She jokes that British people only know New Zealand in terms of All Blacks, sheep, landscapes and hobbits – “the usual”. So, she wanted to learn more. On her off-days between shooting, she would rent a car and explore as much of the country as possible – places like Piha, the Coromandel, the Bay of Islands and Rotorua. She pronounces Rotorua with more precision than many New Zealanders, each syllable distinct and rounded. I compliment her, to which Perkins says it’s simply about being a respectful visitor.
“Pretty much everything that we know in England of Māori culture is ‘mow-ry’,” she says. “That’s how we say it. You know, it doesn’t take much to learn how to say things in a respectful way. I’m learning slowly. I’m happy to cap jokes at my expense and England’s expense, but I don’t want to come here and just mispronounce things, because it’s just crappy. And it’s just lazy, isn’t it?”
The role of “respectful visitor” also extends to Patriot Brains. Perkins describes her role as being like an “alien” – someone who is totally unfamiliar with their surroundings. “Because I come from a different country, [I] have this sort of curious observational role as if I’ve landed from another planet,” she explains. “Normally the host knows all the comics… [but] I didn’t have any baggage coming in and so I was able to take the piss out of myself and my country because we’re in such a state and we’re just these huge horror colonial bastards.”
Being host also means Perkins has to try and keep the show on track, something she thinks her British-ness comes in useful for. “I was playing it that England is dreadful, but at the same time really enjoying the fact that in a sort of ‘cut glass crystalline English way’, they still responded to me as an authority figure. It’s like, I’m a buffoon and a figure of fun but you will pay attention now because I’ve got a posh English voice on. Everyone stands to attention.”
Playing host to a rotating crowd of New Zealand and Australian comedians has also given Perkins the opportunity to learn more about our two countries. While she was familiar with the friendly rivalry, she was surprised by how quickly the “national archetypes” were exposed during the filming of Patriot Brains. “The fact that the Australians – and I’m happy to say this – just don’t listen. Every single show there’s an Australian talking for 20 minutes about bogans and boozing and getting stoned and being in a car park and doing donuts. And then they go ‘sorry, what was the question?’”
The New Zealanders, on the flipside, were a bit more… chill. “They’re like ‘I’m gonna have some bants and then I’m gonna return absolutely to the question and get it right’,” says Perkins. This more casual attitude – and our omnipresent “tall poppy” nature – felt recognisable to Perkins as a Brit. “It’s ‘Hello, we’re a bit shit’,” she jokes. “That’s something I find very familiar, to have a sort of humility that’s actually crippling. And then you’ve got the thrusting brashness of the Australians!”
There are other reasons Perkins feels comfortable in New Zealand. She loves that we’re also crazy for The Chase, and says “televisually” she feels right at home. As one half of the original Great British Bake Off hosting team, I ask whether she’s had a chance to assess our homegrown duo of Hayley Sproull and Pax Assadi. “They’re good eggs,” says Perkins. “Fabulous. I thoroughly approve of them.”
And while Perkins says she has no idea how any of Patriot Brains will make the cut for a pre-watershed broadcast, she’s a massive fan of New Zealand’s comedy style as well. “It’s ruder, it’s brasher – but it’s funny,” she says. “We had Urzila Carlson on and, man, she’s funny. We’ll see what the edit’s like, it might just be long periods of silence. I just thought it was very funny. I’ve really enjoyed it, I’ve really enjoyed meeting all of the comics.”
If Patriot Brains is back next year, Perkins says she’ll be eagerly waiting for the call. Not only would she love the chance to get back in the hosting chair, but she’s still waiting for a chance to visit the South Island and tick more of New Zealand off the bucket list.
Patriot Brains with Sue Perkins premieres tonight (February 10) at 7.30pm on TVNZ2.