Bring on the towering three-tiered cake complete with salted praline buttercream, caramelised nuts and chocolate shards. The Great British Bake Off, the unassuming show that turned the simple art of baking into a phenomenon, is celebrating its landmark tenth series – and the man who’s been there from its start can’t believe it.
During the inaugural search for Britain’s best amateur baker, Paul Hollywood was having a beer with original co-presenter Sue Perkins and asked if she thought they’d get a second series. ‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘I can’t see people watching a load of bakers in a tent with us lot messing around.’
How wrong she was. In 2010 ratings hit three million – rare for a new show on BBC2. By 2016, the final, won by PE teacher Candice Brown, attracted 16 million viewers on BBC1 – the biggest audience on UK TV that year. ‘Bake Off becoming one of the biggest shows for 20 years is incredible,’ Paul says today, after filming has finished on the new series. ‘So thank you to the public.’
They’re back! Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith return for the tenth series of Bake Off this month
When you watch the first series, which is now on Netflix, it’s Bake Off but not as we know it. For starters, the tent was pitched in a different place every week. ‘Logistically it was a nightmare,’ recalls Paul, 53. ‘I think they ended up with two tents so we could set up in time because we were at Scone Palace in Perthshire, then we were in Mousehole in Cornwall.
‘And Fulham Palace was probably the worst place for a final,’ he laughs. ‘It was beautiful and set the scene for future Bake Offs – stately home, tent, grass – but what we also had, every 30 seconds, was a plane heading into Heathrow Airport. Mel and Sue said, “Welcome to The…” he mimics a plane ‘…Great British Bake Off.”’
No wonder they looked for another home. Valentines Mansion in Ilford was used for series two, then Harptree Court near Bristol – a B&B that had garden open days during filming, an incredible thought now the show’s filmed in utmost secrecy at Welford Park in Newbury, Berkshire.
How times have changed – for the presenters and judges too. It’s made Paul, one of the country’s finest artisan bakers, a household name.
Fan favourite: By 2016, the final, won by PE teacher Candice Brown, attracted 16 million viewers on BBC1 – the biggest audience on UK TV that year. Pictured, Candice on the show
Standout: Research scientist Rahul Mandal – last year’s timid winner – astonished the judges over and over. After tasting his chocolate collar cake, Paul awarded him the first Hollywood Handshake for a Showstopper. Pictured: 2018 winner Rahul and his chocolate collar cake
His private life has come under intense scrutiny, as evidenced in recent weeks after his relationship with Summer Monteys-Fullam, the barmaid he started seeing after splitting up with his wife Alex, seemed to come to an abrupt end. Comedians Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, the original presenters, saw their careers take off and original judge Mary Berry, who’d been cooking on TV since the 60s, had a renaissance. ‘Mary’s book sales were, I think, ten times higher,’ says Paul. ‘It changed her life.’
Prue Leith – who replaced Mary when the show moved to Channel 4 in 2017 – agrees. ‘At that time I was judging on Great British Menu,’ she says of the BBC2 contest for top chefs. ‘When Bake Off started we felt fed up because we had the Great British name. We had professionals. Suddenly there was this…’
‘Upstart?’ Paul chuckles. Prue grins. ‘Upstart baking show with amateurs. But we used to have a guest judge and we asked Mary. I’ve known her since our 20s. I asked how it was going and she said, “It’s the first time I’ve been able to buy really nice clothes and go places.” It changed her life. She was so grateful.
‘When Mary decided to stay with the BBC, it did cross my mind that they’d like another old lady in this show. Then I dismissed that. Channel 4 will have some cool dude and not me… but then it was me!’
Today, it feels like Prue and current co-presenters – writer/broadcaster Sandi Toksvig, 61, and comedian Noel Fielding, 46 – have been there all along, such is their chemistry. ‘There’s a lot of giggling,’ says Paul.
Winning their hearts: Paul Hollywood revealed he was ‘fond’ of Nancy Birtwhistle, the 2014 champion, left. Both he and Prue also loved Flo Atkins, right, from the 2017 series
‘This is where Prue is similar to Mary. She’ll say something innocently and I’ll have to turn away.’ Prue adds, ‘He’s got such a filthy mind. He can make anything into something rude. And then he starts laughing.’
‘And Noel does!’ Paul protests.
‘I don’t know what they’ve done, so I keep going. Then I see I’m being laughed at,’ says Prue. ‘I enjoy it.’
As much as he cultivates an air of menace with emotionless stares to the bakers, Paul is toying with them and us. His co-stars are quick to say he’s a softie. ‘Paul is like a jam doughnut,’ says Prue. ‘Squishy in the middle.’
‘I’m nice,’ he says. ‘Don’t believe the editing. I hugged someone in the final this year because I felt sorry for them.’ How did they respond? ‘They were nervous,’ he laughs. ‘It’s like being hugged by a great white shark.
‘I often have a quiet word with the bakers,’ he adds, ‘I say, “Concentrate on what you’re doing and your timing, everything will fall into place.”’
Starting out: Paul with the original Bake Off team of Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc and Mary Berry in 2011
Looking back, which have been their most memorable bakers? A certain rapper who, earlier this year, appeared on the celebrity spin-off gets Prue’s vote. ‘Big Narstie,’ she says instantly. ‘At first, I didn’t understand a word he said. He kept calling me Prue-Dog. I didn’t know if it was an insult or a compliment, but he said it’s a good thing. He taught me about a fist bump. I’ll never forget Big Narstie. He could not bake though.’
‘Joanna Lumley,’ says Paul, smitten with the actress who was in a 2015 charity special. ‘She turned into Patsy from Ab Fab in front of my eyes. It was so funny. I was a big fan of her, back in the 70s I had a picture of her on a Ducati motorbike on my wall.’
She was your pin-up? ‘Yes,’ he grins. ‘She’s beautiful. I had the same bike, but the modern version, so I said, “Joanna, would you sit on my bike and have a picture taken?” She said, “Of course, darling.”’
And what of the amateurs? ‘That’s picking a winner,’ says Paul. ‘I can’t do that. I don’t have a favourite. But I was fond of Nancy Birtwhistle, the 2014 champion. I loved that she called me “the male judge” because she couldn’t remember my name. On Instagram, I changed my name to The Male Judge. She was a fantastic baker. Flo Atkins from 2017 was the other one.’
Innovative – and delicious: Paul Hollywood swaps places with Steven Carter-Bailey after being so impressed with his bread sculpture (pictured) on The Great British Bake Off
‘Oh, Flo was amazing!’ says Prue of the Liverpudlian who was, at 71, the oldest ever contestant. ‘She was so funny.’
‘It was funny hearing her accent,’ admits Paul, who was born in Wallasey. ‘She sounded like my mum. It threw me. Mum hasn’t got such a strong accent, but it was the look and the way she spoke about her family saying “Our kid”.’
‘One of my favourites was Briony Williams from last year,’ says Prue. ‘She’s very emotional. We’d see her trying not to cry. The thing that impressed me, and she wouldn’t thank me for saying this, was because she had no fingers on one hand, people would ask, “Would you like the board lower? Do you want a special tool? Do you want help?” She’d just smile and say, “I’m fine”. She tried so hard and enjoyed herself so much. Her eyes shone with pleasure.’
And what bakes have been the most memorable? ‘Ryan Chong’s key lime pie,’ says Paul, salivating over the 2012 dessert. ‘I love key lime pie and he smashed it. I gave him a handshake.’ High praise based on how many bakes he’s tasted. ‘In this year’s final, I judged my 500th challenge,’ he says. ‘That’s a lot of calories.’
‘One I really liked – that I now make – is Steven Carter-Bailey’s caramel cake from 2017,’ says Prue. ‘I don’t like caramel cake; it’s too sweet. Somehow, his was just perfect.’
Natural chemistry: Paul Hollywood has been with the show since the start but today, it feels like Prue (pictured together) and current co-presenters – writer/broadcaster Sandi Toksvig, 61, and comedian Noel Fielding, 46 – have been there all along, such is their chemistry
‘I liked Steven’s handbag in bread,’ adds Paul. ‘That tasted amazing.’
‘And what was the Showstopper Rahul did last year?’ asks Prue. ‘A celebration cake. It was so intricate with so many flavours. He was ambitious and would want too much decoration. By the end, he’d cracked it. He didn’t drop the ambition,’ she laughs. ‘He just worked faster.’
Research scientist Rahul Mandal – last year’s timid winner – astonished the judges over and over. After tasting his chocolate collar cake, Paul awarded him the first Hollywood Handshake for a Showstopper. But there was a backlash saying his win was a fix. ‘Whenever someone’s favourite leaves, there’s a backlash,’ says Paul. ‘But viewers see something they can’t smell or taste. That’s where we come in. You’ve got to smell it, feel it, taste it. That’s why he won.’
Just looking at all the bakes makes you feel your waistline expanding, so how do they cope with the calories? Paul lays to rest the myth he goes on a diet before filming. ‘Never,’ he states. ‘I’ve read so much on me losing weight. And going on a paleo diet!’ he exclaims in an incredulous tone. ‘I don’t even know what that is! The only thing I’ve done is up my water intake. If I’m racing cars for Aston Martin, I get a bit fitter. It’s nothing to do with Bake Off. A couple of years back I had a trainer who’d do boxing with me. I do a bit of horse-riding now.’
Tasty treats! Paul and Prue with current co-presenter, writer and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig, 61, during the 2018 series of the programme
No diet for Prue either? ‘No. Like most women I’m on a perpetual diet I never keep to. I wake every morning thinking, “I’ll have no breakfast, very little lunch and not too many glasses of wine tonight.” By the end of the day, I’ve eaten my usual 2,000 calories. But I do have a personal trainer who comes twice a week.’
Not that Prue, who celebrates her 80th next year, is ever pleased to see her. ‘I love it when she can’t come or I have to cancel,’ she laughs. ‘I hate it, and she knows I hate it. But I should keep doing it because I’m getting to be an old lady. I want to be able to get up the stairs.’
Before Bake Off, Prue was already well-known. She ran Michelin-starred restaurant Leith’s for 26 years, founded Leiths School Of Food And Wine and wrote cookbooks, but the fame Bake Off brings is another level. ‘I don’t mind it,’ she says. ‘When I’m with friends, I think it might be boring for them to stop while someone has a selfie. But it’s flattering.’ Does she get fan mail? ‘I had more on Great British Menu,’ she admits. ‘I used to get some strange people. Mostly, they saw me as a sort of dominatrix.’ At this, Paul roars with laughter. ‘I’m glad to say Bake Off fans are not like that.’
Talk turns to this year’s intake. A bit younger than normal, they include a vet, a truck driver and a geography teacher. One has been a fan since childhood. ‘They shook hands with me in the second year of Bake Off at Valentines Mansion,’ says Paul. ‘Now eight years later, they’re in the tent.’
There are three new themes: festivals, 1920s and dairy. And the standard? Some, promises Paul, are on a par with the best bakers ever. ‘This year was the hardest judging for me,’ he says.
Breakout star: Nadiya Hussain won the sixth series of GBBO in 2015 and has become a star
Any disagreements? ‘It’s not a disagreement,’ says Paul. ‘It’s not about the bake – that’s a given. What it comes down to is opinions on flavours. I don’t like cloves, saffron, anything that tastes like the dentists.’
‘I love saffron, cloves, rosewater, all those,’ says Prue, ‘so we’ll have a little argy-bargy. I’ll say, “I don’t think it’s over-spiced.” Paul will say, “Too many cloves.”’
There are no fall-outs over fashion between Prue, Noel and Sandi as to who can wear the most outrageous clothes. ‘I envy Noel’s shirts,’ laughs Prue. ‘I did pinch a pink one with black swallows.’
Perhaps more than any show, Bake Off unites our fractured nation, people of different backgrounds brought together by baking. Can it unify us all – for ten weeks at least? ‘We need it, don’t we?’ says Prue. ‘We need Bake Off to make everything alright.’
‘It taps into everyone,’ says Paul. ‘The public associate themselves with the bakers. Scandinavians call it hygge. It’s like putting on a lovely dressing gown when it’s cold outside and you’ve got a fire and a mug of hot tea. That’s what Bake Off is.’ He grins. ‘I’m the Lego piece in the slipper that makes you go, “Ow!”’
So how long can it continue? ‘It’s like MasterChef,’ says Paul. ‘That’s been running for many years. I’d like to go on as long as that. Bake Off is not something that’s cool or not. Baking has been in society for thousands of years.’
‘I want to equal Mary,’ admits Prue. ‘She was on for seven years. I’ve got four more to go.’ ‘No,’ Paul interrupts. ‘You’ll go on forever. I’ll be getting wheeled on. I’ll be like Davros,’ he says of the ancient Dalek-creator on Doctor Who, who’s in a wheelchair of sorts. ‘They’ll have to blitz the bakes and feed me with a spoon. I want to be a grumpy old git on Bake Off.’
As he laughs, you can almost hear Sandi and Noel joke it’s an ambition already fulfilled…
The Great British Bake Off returns on Tuesday 27 August at 8pm on Channel 4.