When you think of prestige television, National Geographic does not spring to mind immediately.

But the channel most associated with factual programming is making its claim with Barkskins, a 17th century drama set in French-colonial Canada.

It ticks a lot of prestige TV boxes - eye-catching performances, ambitious in scope and jaw-dropping environments.

The harsh, unforgiving landscape of the New World is as much a character as the hardy pioneers that attempt to make a life in it.

For David Thewlis, best known to audiences for playing the werewolf Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films, duality of character was one of the aspects that attracted him to the role of flamboyant Frenchman Claude Trepagny in the programme.

He explains: "He's a man who sees himself as noble, whose great wish is to marry a real French noble woman and raise a family in New France, in the New World.

"But this is a situation he has to reconcile with the complicated situation that he's already entered into a domestic relationship with a native woman and fathered a child for her.

"So the kind of thrust of his narrative is he's got to reconcile these two very disparate situations.

"And he's a very contradictory character, which is what attracted me to him.

"He's many things - he's good and bad, he's foolish and wise."

Oscar-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden adds extra star power to the cast as the no-nonsense innkeeper Mathilde Geffard.

She was attracted to the show by the desire of the characters to risk it all in the pursuit of a new life in the New World.

Harden says: "She's someone that's really friggin' brave. And she's a bit of an adventurer in that she wanted to come to a new place.

"Once there she suffers hardship, she becomes this innkeeper, so there's this strength about her.

"And when her husband dies she decides to keep the inn. And Elwood (Reid, executive producer) has crafted her to be this matriarchal voice of the town.

"Most of the voices at this time were male, in the Western culture.

"So for her to come forth as a voice and a survivor and a nourisher and bringing this town together was really special."

Harden adds: "She's tough, she doesn't take anything from anybody and I love that about her."

Filming was gruelling, with the series shot on location in Canada, and the actors, depending on their roles, had to slog through the punishing environment of hot weather and tough terrain.

Thewlis, born in the seaside town of Blackpool, says it was a culture shock.

"For me, the hardest part was one of the things that attracted me to it in the first place, which is the physicality of it, the idea of filming in this environment," he explains.

"But that became the difficult thing because it was more physical than I imagined.

"It was more uncomfortable, it was hot, it was sticky, it was full of mosquitoes, it was tiring.

"It was the most physical part I've done for a long time and exercise I wasn't used to."

Despite the physical challenges, Thewlis says the stunning scenery was enough to get him excited for work each day.

"I adored being called up into those mountains every day and got excited to drive to work," he says.

"And I just had to keep stopping and looking around and remembering where we were.

"I'm an actor from the north-west of England, I'm usually in rainy streets in Manchester. I'm not used to filming in such beautiful locations.

"So it was difficult but invigorating."

Time on set was slightly easier for Harden.

"Mostly, for me, the difficulty was staying away from all the amazing Quebec restaurants," she says.

"That was amazing food out there."

Across eight episodes, Barkskins - named after the term used for the indentured servants who work as woodcutters in the series - explores the fragile alliances and frequent betrayals of the different groups.

It is adapted from Annie Proulx's novel of the same name.

The veteran author is no stranger to seeing her work translated from the page to the screen, having written the short story that Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain is based on.

Reid, a novelist and short story writer away from his TV work, admits to being intimated by Proulx's novel, feelings which may not have been assuaged by her apparent reticence to discuss the book.

Executive producer Reid explains: "I believe the job of the person adapting the book is to honour the spirit of the book but feel free to plunder it.

"And you never know with an author if they're going to be sensitive about that.

"So I emailed her a few questions. We mostly talked about the woods.

"I hunt, she talked a lot about hunting, we talked about knives, we talked about axes. But she wouldn't talk about her book."

This being National Geographic, Reid wanted to make sure certain standards were met - historical accuracy took top priority from day one.

He says: "TV shows, even if you're doing a TV show set in the 80s, there is some attention to detail but there's always an understanding of 'it's a TV show, you just have to make it more exciting'.

"But because it was for National Geographic, early on I felt this burden to be as historically accurate as possible.

"So most of our wardrobe, all of our set building, all of the research was done.

"We had researchers who were researching everything, including the Native American languages, the clothing.

"A lot went into that. Particularly with my wardrobe designer and my production designer."

After all the hard work and pressure of adapting a book from such a revered author, has Proulx, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, towering figure of American literature, let the cast and crew know what she thinks of the show?

Sadly not, but Reid says. "I believe she's seen it but Annie is a very private person.

"She's more likely to send me an email about making sure we had the right period axes."

Barkskins is new and exclusive to National Geographic, and airs from Tuesday at 9pm.