Prue Leith or otherwise, replacing Mary Berry on The Great British Bake Off is an impossible task

With the former Great British Menu judge shortlisted for the job, Channel 4 are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, says Frances Taylor

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When it was announced that The Great British Bake Off had been poached from the BBC and would be pitching its tent on the lawn of Channel 4, there was outcry.

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There would be adverts, sponsorships, it was never going to be the same. What fans held on to was the hope that the judges and presenters would stick together.

As the news broke that Mel & Sue weren’t “going with the dough” and that Mary Berry wanted to stay with the BBC out of loyalty, only one man was left standing. From then, the search for Paul Hollywood’s new colleague and comrade was on.

Although she is with “quite a few others” on a shortlist, Prue Leith has emerged as one of the frontrunners for the job. An old friend of Mary Berry’s, 76-year-old Prue is a brilliant candidate on paper.

She judged Great British Menu (no relation to GBBO) for ten years from the show’s inception in 2006 until the 11th series which finished in October 2016 (perhaps we should have put two and two together then. It can’t have been a coincidence that she left her job of a decade just as the rumours of who would be the new Berry began to rise).

She also trained at Cordon Bleu, opened her own Michelin-starred restaurant Leith’s in 1969, has written numerous cookbooks, has her own chef school and to top it all has a whopping ten years of experience judging food on TV. But in reality, it’s just not right.

Not that it’s her fault. I love Prue – she was a measured voice on Great British Menu; harsh when necessary but frequently awarding 10s to dishes when they deserved it. But Hollywood and Leith? I’m not so sure.

The magic of Bake Off and the reason why the show grew from a small seed to the behemoth that was the biggest show on TV was in no small part because of the partnership between Mary and Paul. Her warmth relaxed the bakers, she curtly put Paul in his place when she felt he was stepping out of line. There was a bizarre mother/son relationship between them – which they both admitted to – and it worked. Don’t ask me how, but it worked.

Conversely Prue Leith is rather more fiery than her contemporary. She certainly wouldn’t hold back if she had a soggy bottom in her midst. Honesty is what you want in a TV judge, of course, but with Paul’s style often being so blunt he needs that foil. Someone to compliment him, not join in as he’s knifing a genoise.

You’d have thought that TV executives would’ve been taught a lesson by Top Gear. Post-Clarkson, the hunt was on to find a replacement for this sometimes controversial, middle-aged white bloke who was one of the biggest names at the BBC. And they came up with Chris Evans. Thick-rimmed specs and a penchant for wearing furry boots over loafers aside, his presenting style, ‘banter’ and attempts at humour were near-identical. It felt like the pale ghost of Jeremy Clarkson was still lurking in the aircraft hanger. He was an imitation. Fans hated it.

Having Prue Leith on the shortlist for Bake Off presenter is no different. Channel 4 have reportedly said that they see Leith as a “like for like” replacement for Berry.

Mary rose through seven series of Bake Off to become a bona fide national treasure. And like all national treasures – Dench, Attenborough, Fry, McCartney – she is irreplaceable. But if there’s one thing people don’t like, it’s substitutes. Stick some Jif in a lemon drizzle instead of freshly-squeezed lemon juice and you’re going to taste the difference. If viewers can’t have the real thing, they want something completely different.

Plenty of other names have been put forward to buddy up with Paul. Lorraine Pascale, as a celebrated pastry chef who has fronted her own BBC2 show Baking Made Easy, is a personal favourite of mine. But even if I found myself today reading that Lorraine would be joining Paul in the tent, I think I’d still be going “But she’s not Mary, is she?”. 

And this is where the problem lies. In many ways Channel 4 are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Hiring a celebrated chef with as much experience, knowledge and wisdom as Prue is going to give you those Bez comparisons. Hiring a young whippersnapper who lacks gravitas would look a little like C4’s programmes boss Jay Hunt was going back on her promise that Bake off would stay “just as it is” on the channel.

Yet from the moment Mel & Sue and Mary turned down C4’s big money offer, it was never going to stay “just as it is”. Perhaps when three quarters of the original Bake Off line-up turned them down all those months ago, the channel should have told Paul Hollywood that his piercing blue gaze and opinions on glaze were no longer required. Paul McCartney might be a national treasure, but on his own he’s not The Beatles.

Channel 4 would have done better to have a fresh start. New presenters, new judges… heck, perhaps even new workbenches. Then the inevitable comparisons maybe wouldn’t have been felt so keenly.

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Well, we’re here now. No matter who is stood on Hollywood’s left in that tent come summer 2018, they’re inevitably going to get the comparison treatment. It won’t be their fault, but whether it’s criticising them for not being as sweet or slating them for not being able to pull off a floral print, Twitter – and probably many TV critics – will almost certainly have the breadknives out.