“It’s proper Bake Off,” says Paul Hollywood, describing the new series he has just put in the can. “It’s all good, it works. It’s fine.”
We’re in a sun-scoured west London backlot and Hollywood, wearing a T-shirt that reveals baker’s biceps and a stomach finally losing the fight against decades of buns and brioche, is looking pretty pleased with himself. The 51-year-old star’s big career gamble, leaving the BBC for Channel 4 when his on-screen colleagues Mary Berry, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc chose not to, might just have paid off.
Beside Hollywood sits one of the three people who have taken the gamble with him, the food author and broadcaster Prue Leith, who joins Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig in the new line up. “When I heard that Mary was staying with the BBC I thought, ‘Gosh, I’d like that job,’ but I didn’t think they’d ask me,” Leith says. “I thought, ‘They won’t want another old lady, they’ll get [2005 MasterChef winner] Thomasina Miers.’”
But they didn’t want a youngster, and in replacing Mary Berry, 77-year-old Leith has perhaps run the biggest risk of all. “Someone said I’d be a disaster, but mostly people were nice,” she says. “Mostly. But they were a bit nasty to Paul.”
Hollywood, who keeps his sunglasses on throughout our conversation, doesn’t look distressed. “Been there, seen it, done it,” he says. “I’ve learnt to accept it. I’m a bit of a punchbag. Punch me hard, and it bounces back at you.”
Some punches did get through, though. When news of the channel move came last year, Hollywood was repeatedly called a traitor on social media. “That smarted,” he says. “What was I a traitor to? I’d just recorded a car show with the BBC, so I hadn’t left the BBC. I hadn’t left Bake Off. Normally as a traitor, you turn your back on something. I didn’t turn my back on anything. But everyone’s got an agenda, you can’t change that.”
I suspect Hollywood quite likes the attention, even when it’s negative. “I’m the pantomime villain. I’m the Captain Hook that comes on stage. I’m the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” he says.
“But Noel is taking a bit of that pressure off you,” says Leith, of the outrage that greeted Fielding’s appointment. “Yes,” agrees Hollywood. “When we picked him I went, ‘Woohoo!’’’
The new show is filmed in the same tent and in the same field in Berkshire as the old show, but is the departure of Perkins and Giedroyc a chance to change, to edge away from innuendo?
“Bake Off ’s not broken,” says Hollywood, sharply. “If we were in a slump, down to something like eight million, then we’d say we need to change something. But we don’t.”
Does Paul miss the old team? “No. We still text each other. I was winding Sue up recently, so there’s still that ribbing going on. To be brutally honest, I didn’t really see a lot of them outside Bake Off. None of us did. But with this team there’s real banter, a good laugh. And we’re all quite strong characters. It’s just great fun.”
The third newcomer, Sandi Toksvig, attracted less ire, and is apparently seen by the others as a mentor.
“Sandi said that for this to work, you have to fire off each other and make each other laugh,” says Leith. “Don’t pinch each other’s jokes, build on them. But none of us is trying to hog the limelight. We think the bakers are the stars. There isn’t an ego trip going on.”
Leith’s 1950s received pronunciation rhymes “ego” with “Lego”. “Egg-o?” Hollywood mocks. “Sorry,” Leith says. “E-go.”
Leith, born in South Africa, brought up in London, is self-conscious about the way she sounds. “I hate my voice,” she says. “When it was announced I was joining Bake Off, somebody tweeted, ‘She’s such a posho. She has the worst voice on television.’ I actually rather agree with that.”
“She’s posher than Mary,” says Hollywood. “Do you know how to say ‘yes’ like Prue? Just say ‘ears’.”
Leith is happy to submit to Hollywood’s teasing. In fact, she seems slightly smitten. “When I watched Paul on telly I thought he was quite scary,” she says. “But he has this absolutely brilliant ability that very few TV people have, of being able to not talk, to just look into the camera, or look at the cake, or look at the person and you can hear him thinking and considering. It’s an amazing gift, not to have to fill the space with words. I can never do that, I’m a blabbermouth, me – I get in there and talk.”
Does she like the way Hollywood treats the bakers? “The bakers are very good, but they all make mistakes. It’s brilliant when Paul says ‘congratulations’, or when he says it’s shite – well, he doesn’t say that, but that’s what he’s thinking. I wouldn’t like to be one of the bakers looking into those eyes and thinking: ‘Christ!’”
Were they shite, Paul? “Some were shite-r than others,” says Hollywood. And is it Paul who decides? “Paul rightly leads,” Leith says. “He knows more about baking than I do. I’ve never been a baker. I’ve made a lot of cakes, though.”
The two only met properly last year, in an encounter that Leith expected to be a conversation, but which turned out to be a full audition, “judging brownies and scones somewhere in south London”.
Hollywood says he knew Leith was right for Bake Off straight away. “I said to my wife Alex, ‘She reminds me of my mother. She’s the one.’ I hadn’t met her yet, but I knew.”
“You made that up,” says Leith. “I didn’t,” says Hollywood. “That’s why I said to you, ‘Just be yourself, talk to me like this on camera.’ I knew. But I couldn’t tell you, they wouldn’t let me.”
Previously presenter of Great British Menu, Leith is an OBE and CBE. She set up the highly regarded cookery school that carries her name and is author of Leith’s Cookery Bible.
But that didn’t swing the decision for Hollywood. “It was the personality stuff,” he says. “Are they going to be able to deal with Bake Off? Will they be able to stand the personal attacks you can get? Prue has been around, she knows her stuff.”
Ask Leith what she brings to Bake Off and she says, “Bossiness. I always want to interfere. That’s why I’ve done so much in my life. I’ve done a huge amount of interfering, starting charities to fix things. If there’s a weed in that garden, I go pull it out. When something’s not right, I say, ‘This isn’t right’. I said that to Paul this morning when he ate five Cadbury Heroes!”
By Michael Hodges
The Great British Bake Off is on Tuesday 8.00pm Channel 4