Claudia Winkleman bustles into the needlework studio at Hampton Court Palace nestled in a snug grey coat, thick wool scarf and fingerless mittens. She’s not wearing a hat but there isn’t much point. That oversized fringe provides adequate insulation.
It’s a chilly January morning and Winkleman has been up since 6:45am with her three children and the family’s new kitten, (“I was so tired this morning I almost cooked her”). Filming of the second series of The Great British Sewing Bee is underway and this means long days (sometimes 15 hours) spent at the programme’s Thameside warehouse studio.
It’s a tiring regime but one that Winkleman feels is a crucial part of her role as presenter. “They [the team] always said, ‘you don’t have to be there the whole time,’ but you do because otherwise you miss something. And why should the contestants be there the whole time when I’m swanning in on a sedan chair? That sounds a bit J.LO.”
Sewing Bee replicates the Bake Off format (the two shows are made by the same team) with ten amateur sewers competing in rounds of increasingly difficult challenges, ranging from alterations to more complex couture techniques. The Judges, May Martin from the WI and Savile Row tailor Patrick Grant, offer honest advice with a constructive warmth that gives the programme its cosy, nurturing feel. The contestants are similarly un-starry. There isn’t a sob story or diva strop in sight.
“I fell in love several times filming this series,” says Winkleman matter-of-factly. “The contestants aren’t people who want to be on TV and there isn’t any fake tension…They go from ages 24 to 70 and they’re from different walks of life all over Britain. They just want to sew the best they can.”
Winkleman, on the other hand, claims to be a complete clutz with a needle and thread. Sewing wasn’t taught at her school, (the prestigious City of London School for Girls) but even if it was, she would have been too busy “flirting” with boys or “eating cheese toasties” to notice.
“I’m rubbish at sewing,” she remarks, head in hands. “I tried to sew something from scratch. It’s impossible. I don’t have a machine. That terrifies me.”
Self-deprecation is her signature style. She was “dreadful” on last year’s Bake Off celebrity special for Comic Relief, refuses to watch herself on TV because she is “a bit shrill and annoying” and gives her job description as “dying my skin orange and reading out loud”.
Had you no previous knowledge of Claudia Winkleman, she would convince you in her witty, effusive way that she was a complete disaster. However, you only have to glance at her recent projects – The Radio 2 Arts Show, Film 2014, Strictly Come Dancing – to realise that the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
Which show is closest to her heart? “Whatever I’m doing, I LOVE,” she says with sheer, unadulterated passion. “I feel a bit Radio 2 at the moment because Strictly’s done and we’re finishing Sewing Bee. During Strictly I become obsessed and don’t want to talk about anything but then a week after it’s done I can’t even remember who won. I think it was Abbey.”
Winkleman began as the host of It Takes Two, Strictly’s weeknight spin off show. She has since risen through the ranks, standing in for Bruce Forsyth as he gradually reduces his schedule. The most recent series saw her co-host the main Saturday night slot with Tess Daly. She was a massive hit with viewers who relished both her quick wit and the emergence of an all-female presenting duo – something of a rarity on primetime television.
How does it feel to break broadcasting ground? Winkleman is characteristically dismissive. “I don’t think it should be anything unusual…but I love it because I feel like I’m only standing in. It’s very temporary. I just want to be helpful. It’s no biggie.”
Only, it is. In an industry where female presenters are all too often a pretty footnote to their male counterparts, it is undeniable progress to have two women carrying one of the nation’s best-loved programmes.
And with rumours of a Brucie retirement circulating, it might not be such a temporary gig after all.
The Great British Sewing Bee starts on Tuesday 18 February at 8pm on BBC2